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Column: The Immigration Divide (1 of 5)

  • Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa— Earl Dotter photograph

  • Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa left Mexico as a child and became a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.



For the Valley News
Sunday, January 15, 2017

I first heard Donald Trump refer to immigrants roughly a decade ago, when there was a chance of immigration reform. To a talk radio host he said, “Somebody has to take care of our golf courses.”

Today, President-elect Trump vows to rid the country of 2 or 3 million unauthorized residents with criminal records. He also promises to nullify executive orders issued by President Obama that temporarily defer deportation of persons who arrived illegally into the country as young children, the DREAM Act kids, and of unauthorized parents of children born here and therefore birthright citizens. These hard-nosed actions would come at a time of ever-sharper divisions in the country about the estimated 11 million unauthorized persons living here, half of whom are in states such as California and New York, where politicians tend to protect unauthorized residents.

That two successive presidents could affect the lives of millions without Congressional oversight underscores the instability of the country’s way of managing the foreign-born — some 43 million persons young and old, up from 9.6 million in 1970 and 19.8 million in 1990, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

As a business writer from Woodstock, I became interested in immigration in the mid 2000s, and created a blog, workingimmigrants.com, to follow the issue. Recently I traveled with photojournalist Earl Dotter, of Silver Spring, Md., through the Northeast to meet with immigrants. I listened to researchers, activists and citizens, who often expressed diametrically conflicting opinions on immigration. I labored through a tall pile of reports from task forces and researchers.

Federal immigration law is second only to tax law in length. The issue of immigration pervades border control, federal-state coordination, employer practices, job gains and loss, diversity and social cohesion in America, plus a sense of fairness. One can’t point to clear leadership by either political party on immigration, or even an extended, informed debate about why these workers and families should be here.

I challenged myself to find immigration’s imprint not just on the nation, but also on my town of Woodstock, and near where New Hampshire and Vermont converge in the Upper Valley, Dartmouth College.

Origins

Immigration isn’t new here. Our logging, stone and textile industries in the 19th century would not have risen without foreign workers. Today our two states are about 6 percent foreign-born; the national average is 13 percent, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Yet even with low numbers, the immigrant experience pervades our lives in the Upper Valley. Four Corners Farm in ​Newbury, Vt., has been employing Mexican migrant workers for some 30 years. A Lyme-based nonprofit, Welcoming All Nationalities Network of the Upper Valley, is about to publish a resource guide, “Working Towards Immigrant Integration in the Upper Valley.”

I was attracted first to the stories of low-skilled immigrant workers. But I could not really grasp the realities of immigration unless I looked at all immigrants, those who perfect our lawns and those who win Nobel Prizes. (All Americans awarded a Nobel Prize in 2016 are immigrants.)

I have been chastened by three realizations. One is that Americans are extremely conflicted, and individually so — at war with themselves. A second is that one should be wary of one’s friendly or hostile impulses about immigration, as they very often mislead. A third realization, which came from extensive reading of polls, is that many Americans like immigrants. They just want fewer of them.

Real People

Fewer of whom? I met with Angela de Sena. A family crisis in Minas Gerais state in Brazil led her to come to Boston. She cleans houses, as do many Brazilian women in the Boston area. “I told a niece thinking of moving to America,” she said, “that she must first learn English, not get a job. Living in America without good English is hard.”

In Baltimore I visited Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa. A Mexican, he jumped the border in 1987 when 19 years old, and worked on farms for several years. After a work accident, when a structure he was standing on collapsed, he decided he had to do better. He now is a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and a graduate of Harvard Medical School.

America has had a relatively open-border style, with new permanent residence visas (the “Green Card”) topping 1 million persons a year. For many years, illegal immigration ran over 300,000 a year, but now it appears to be flat or negative. Whom we want in the country? The talented? And if so, to fill reported labor shortages, the existence of which may be questioned? The unskilled, to fill jobs needing less formal education but more judgment and social skills, such as personal aides?

And what do we mean by immigration— permanent residence or what is called circular? Many people migrate for work, only to return home or move on.

Change in the Air

November’s presidential election appears to be a refutation of globalism. An early step of the Trump administration may be to attempt to close down illegal entry. That was tried in the late 1980s by the Bush administration, when resources at the Mexican border grew, with eight times the former number of guards — and yet border crossings shot up. Immigration policy, such as it is, is rife with unexpected consequences.

In four articles that follow this week in the Valley News, I will state questions in hot-button terms. “Why so many illegals?” will be next. The article looks at how a 1986 immigration law backfired. I’ll show what has, and may be, done to work down the unauthorized population to a level proportional to Canada’s.

“Are they taking our jobs?” will report on what happens to native-born Americans when foreigners appear in the job market. An argument among academics has been bubbling for decades on this question. Their formula-filled arguments are worth noting, but it’s also useful to get closer and look at how chicken processing plants hire in North Carolina, and how many computer jobs are filled by foreign workers.

“Do immigrants tear us apart?” will report how the native-born American experience with immigrants changes dramatically depending on circumstance. It can take several generations for immigrants to integrate. Some do not. Should that matter?

“Will Washington finally lead?” will close the series. Can Congress and the executive branch somehow reach a consensus about how many and what types of immigrants the country needs? How could a political consensus, which has so far been elusive, emerge?

The United States is one of the few advanced countries today that, when originally formed, made in effect a bet that over time it would prosper when more people arrived from elsewhere. But immigration, a long-term process, places near-impossible demands upon a political culture that is addicted to short-term fixes. That is why major changes to immigration policy happen only about every 50 years.

Peter Rousmaniere is a writer in Woodstock. His email address is pfr@rousmaniere.com. He blogs about immigration issues at www.workingimmigrants.com.