Monday, September 17, 2007

Whole Wide World

As we all learned in the fourth grade, the French gave the United States the Statue of Liberty back in 1886, as a gesture of friendship. Marking the 100th anniversary of our country's formation, the Statue symbolically welcomes visitors, returning Americans and immigrants. It's this last group that Emma Lazarus (another fiesty Jewish chick) honors in her poem, "The New Colossus" which is engraved on a plaque mounted inside the Statue. The poem describes Lady Liberty as the Mother of Exiles and includes the oft-quoted line, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," thus solidifying the United States' reputation as a haven for immigrants.

Fast forward 121 years and while the numbers support Ms. Lazarus's vision, that reputation is on shakier ground than Liberty Island itself.

In March 2003, the most recent year that statistics are available, the U.S. Census recorded the civilian, noninstitutionalized foreign-born population at 33.5 million, representing 11.7 percent of the total American population. Of these, more than 50 percent were born in Latin America (including South & Central America and the Caribbean), 25 percent were born in Asia, 13 percent in Europe and eight percent in Other Regions. While I could get sidetracked by the incredibly uniformative "Other Regions" designation that includes Africa, Oceania and Northern America, that's for another blog post.

The Census also recognized that among the foreign born in 2003, 13.6 percent entered the United States since 2000, 36.6 percent came in the 1990s, 24.0 percent came in the 1980s, 13.7 percent came in the 1970s, and the remaining 12.2 percent arrived before 1970. For this earliest wave before 1970, 80.9 percent had obtained citizenship by 2003. The report goes on to compare income earned, education level and poverty between the native and foreign born populations. To spare you the nitty-gritty, let me tell you that overall , those of us who followed Bruce Springsteen's example and were born in the USA, fare better on all the measures.

With all these people constantly coming into our country and with the native born generally faring better, you'd think that most Americans would recognize their own immigrant pasts and embrace these newcomers. But, as anyone who follows the news knows, that sadly is not the case. Americans bemoan the latest waves of immigrants and berate them for failing to learn English quickly enough, not sufficiently assimilating into our culture and taking away resources from deserving naturalized citizens. From a Jewish perspective, where so many of our ancestors came to this country seeking liberty and freedom under duress of war and/or pogrom, these attitudes are especially disturbing. While I'm not arguing for flinging our doors open like a Toys R' Us on the day after Thanksgiving, I am unequivocally demanding a comprehensive, cogent and compassionate set of new immigration policies. And, since according to the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, I know a few things about public policy, here are a few suggestions... presidential candidates take note.

According to the 2000 Census, 18 percent of the American population (or 47 million people) speaks a language other than English at home. The most widely-spoken language is Spanish, and Chinese, French, German, Italian, Polish and Korean rank in the top 10. Speakers of these languages, whether foreign or native born, speak English with varying degrees of ability that 99.9 percent of the time vastly outrank our abilities to speak their languages with any level of fluency.
So my first suggested policy is sorta like a foreign exchange student program done with a much more local focus. For every 10 kids who need to learn English, take another 10 and teach them a foreign language and make them fluent. Don't let them stop when they know how to ask where the bathroom is and don't wait until junior high to get started. Begin in kindergarten and dual-language track where possible. Are there lots of Spanish, Chinese or Russian speakers in your school district? Great, you have free tutors! Are there three kids floating around who speak something a little less universal, like Gujurathi? Great, teach everyone a little Chinese? Bottom line - we Americans have GOT to stop being monolingual. It's embarrassing and it's beginning to affect our ability to compete in the increasingly global marketplace.

Now that more of us can communicate with each other, let's talk about hanging out. Very often, immigrants cluster in specific neighborhoods because of the availability of services and friends with similar experiences. The entire immigrant generation might not leave that designated area until the next, native born population ages into the public school system or goes to college. This isolates immigrants and provides few opportunities for interaction. Unique cultures and values absolutely merit a place in American society - but we seldom understand them because of geographical separation (even of a few blocks). So I encourage people to venture into these areas, eat some food, shop in the local stores (they are usually a great source of cheap goods) and make some friends. This isn't so much a policy as a recommendation... but maybe if more people try this out, we won't need so many cumbersome policies.

Finally, rationing services such as health care, education and police and fire protection between legal immigrants/citizens and undocumented immigrants becomes incredibly daunting when there are already substantial gaps in access between various groups of Americans. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation determined that immigrants are twice as likely to not have health coverage because of fear, language barriers and other factors. So what to do? How about remembering our obligation that Emma Lazarus pointed out and stop using citizenship as a determinant for helping people! We need to help our own, and as immigrants, these people are now our own and therefore merit the services that Americans receive.

All right, enough ranting for one night.

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