Postkard from Amerika: POLITICS AND RACE STYMIE IMMIGRATION REFORM

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Immigration is a hot-button issue in the United States, and moves to initiate reforms to streamline and regularise the process are proving to be extremely contentious. Depending on who you ask, there are around 11 to 13 million illegal (or undocumented) people in the US, and they are here because there are jobs to be found and more money than what can be made back home. These workers toil in the jobs that Americans do not want – in agriculture, construction and sanitation. Most of them would love to have some legal status in the country that would enable them to live and work without the fear of being caught and deported. A legal status would also give them access to public services and enable them to travel, since some of these illegals pay taxes, directly or indirectly.

But after meeting activists and politicians around the country, one reaches the conclusion that although most of these undocumented workers are here to stay and are going nowhere, there is a marked lack of political will to do something about it. Politicians from both sides of the immigration reform debate are too busy sparring over semantics rather than substance – whether a general ‘amnesty’ should be announced, whether the illegals should get citizenship or work permits or whether the status quo be allowed to fester. Some want immigration to be viewed through the prism of homeland security, healthcare reform, cultural assimilation and political leanings. Others want an increase in skilled worker visas, clearing the backlog of family visa applicants and forcing immigrants, refugees and exiles who are here legally to fit in.

As an immigration specialist in Miami puts it, immigration touches on four most controversial aspects of American life and culture – politics, money, race and sex. Most of the illegals (70%) are Hispanic, and most of these Hispanics are from Mexico (59%), which terrifies old-school (or plain racist) ideologues, who fear the US becoming a white minority nation, which it will in the next couple of decades. White Anglos formed 80% of the US population for 200 years from 1790-1990. In 2010, this figure fell to 72%, while whites are projected to form only 55% of the population in 2030. Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanic voters will reach 12% in 2016, from just 1% in 1960. Seventy-one percent of these voters support the Democrats, which has Republicans quaking in their boots.

Moreover, oranges would cost $9 a box if there are no illegals to pick them. Prices will rise, there would be no exports and the dollar would tumble. Conversely, the same scenarios would happen if these workers are legalised and are paid what citizens get, albeit minimum wages. So many prefer to just sweep the issue under the carpet. Then there is the issue of maintaining population growth. For a nation to maintain its demographic profile, it needs a minimum fertility rate of 2.1 children per couple. The US fertility rate is 1.9. Interestingly, the fertility rate of Hispanics is 2.4, Blacks 2.0, Whites 1.8 and Asians 1.7. If the Hispanics leave the US, the country’s fertility rate would fall to 1.75, which would be a demographic disaster.

There is no doubt that the work these migrants do is important to keep the wheels of American capitalism and consumerism well-oiled. They pick the fruit that ends up on dinner tables across the nation, keep streets, restaurants and hotels clean, care for the elderly and build houses and skyscrapers. Their children who are born here have US citizenship and American mannerisms. Most of them are law-abiding people with deep cultural and familial values. A compromise that would allow them to stay and build their lives will be good for them as well as America.