The Other Green Zone-Immigration Thoughts
When I was about ten years old, we went to visit a relative in San Francisco Chinatown and I had to press the button to buzz the apartment. I turned to my uncle and asked, “ Why is the wrong last name on the mailbox, _____ has lived here for thirty five yars?”
My uncle pressed a finger to his lips, pushed the button himself, and then promised to tell me when we got upstairs but not out on the street. A large number of my family came to the United States from China with false papers. Even though the “crime” had happened at least forty years earlier, we were then just a decade removed from the McCarthy Era which had started with the question of “Who lost China to the Communists” and a little more than twenty years removed from the Japanese internment. I had an aunt who worked for immigration as an interpreter, but even then our family still had to be careful.
In Chinese culture, giving up a surname was no small matter. Traditional Chinatown was organized around six kinship organizations built around “Family Associations” based on common surnames. My family resorted to various little gestures to remind themselves of their “real” name in America. For example, my uncle‘s business cards for his internal medicine practice used the first letter of our real surname as his middle initial.
I come from a family of illegal immigrants. It doesn’t embarrass me. My grandparents were victims of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law passed by Congress before the last century which, simply put, was enacted to keep California for the white man. In an era when up to a hundred thousand people a day came through Ellis Island from Ireland, Italy, and other parts of Europe, Congress limited immigration from China to a few hundred a year by limiting legal immigration to scholars, merchants, and the sons of those who had been in the country prior to 1882.
It didn’t matter that Chinese labor had literally made the western United States possible with the transcontinental railroad. In fact, that fed the fear. California labor leaders pointed out that the Chinese would work too cheaply and under abysmal conditions, thus taking away the bargaining power of white Christian working people who had taken the railroad to California in search of a new life. At a time when the U.S. called its own China policy the “Open Door”, its approach to Chinese immigration was strictly closed door.
Had it not been for the 1906 earthquake, there would been even fewer Chinese in the United States. The earthquake destroyed a large number of immigration records and that made it possible for many Chinese to fake an identity, escape famine and revolution, and come to the United States through the Pacific Steamship warehouse facility and later through Angel Island where U.S. immigration countered with harder and harder lists of questions to trip up the impostors. In the meantime, thousands of single Chinese men, many of whom weren’t really single, were left stranded as bachelors for the rest of their lives.
As the descendant of illegal immigrants, I don’t necessarily believe that U.S. borders must be open to anyone at any time. I also happen to believe strongly in minimum wage and working conditions standards for all countries. In the 1870’s, it’s important to remember that state and federal regulation weren’t the norm or even necessarily Constitutional, race-baiting may have been a much more convenient and politically practical weapon at the time for early organized labor. I am, however, sensitive to some of the currents that run through anti-immigrant movements in our history.
Over the last couple days, I’ve been reading, or trying to read, the Sensenbrenner House Bill link to the bill and to get a copy of the “milder” senate bill. After getting over the shock of seeing that my family would have been sentenced to a minimum of ten years in prison for using fraudulent documents (Abramoff got six years and the longest sentence thus far for Abu Ghraib was 10 years for actually torturing people) and that it includes a “fugitive slave act” like provision that makes it a felony to “house” illegal aliens, I found myself thinking about all the strange forces in play around the current immigration debate. First, the Sensenbrenner Bill loudly proclaims itself as an extension of our “Anti-Terrorism” efforts. Up to then, I had been unaware of the fact that large numbers of Mexicans had played any role in the World Trade Center hijackings. Sensenbrenner, who’s from Wisconsin, and thus an expert on the southern border of the U.S. likely would know though because he’s also the author of the Patriot Act. Race does apparently play some role in the debate, the house bill’s strongest sponsors tend to come from Districts that are 80% or higher Caucasian voters.
If you want to know what’s really telling about the Sensenbrenner bill though it’s this. Amidst all these draconian solutions from seven hundred mile fences to possibly making it a crime to feed an illegal at a soup kitchen, it isn’t clear that there are any penalties for actually employing an illegal. There is a database that everyone will have to use, but the act doesn't include penalties for the people who give the immigrants a reason to cross the border without getting a visa.
Second, there’s a fascinating irony about the current immigration debate that I suspect no one dares to discuss. I recently helped someone look into getting an H1B visa. For many years, a US company has been able to request a work visa or green card for a foreign national with technical skills for “necessary” positions with American companies in the absence of American workers to do the job. The high-tech industry is desperate to up the quota of foreign-skilled workers from the current cap of 65,000 to 130,000 per year. In other words, there are at least 130,000 high paying, high level jobs, each year in this country that Americans can’t or won’t fill.
Think about what that says about the state of our educational system and our long term competitiveness in high tech industries. Think about what the run on H1bs suggests about Americans being afraid of losing work to low-skilled illegal immigrants. In a country where we talk about self-reliance and personal responsibility, there are large numbers of Americans who could have “better jobs” if they’d simply get the education and training necessary to do them. It’s not clear to me that either of those are readily available in this country though.
The counter-argument about the H1b limit is that the demand for high tech workers doesn’t stem from an actual shortage, but a concerted attempt on the part of industry to simply pay low and offer conditions that thousands of out of work qualified American high-tech workers simply won’t accept. I’m really not in a position to know which it is, but either way the implications are not good for the prospect of American high-tech competitiveness in the long run. It’s worth noting that in this century, the bulk of H1b visa requests are coming for Asian (primarily Indian) programmers and engineers.
As I write this, word has it that the Republicans on the senate side are near a deal that essentially pulls the punitive parts of the house bill in favor of a 3 tiered system that allows for longtime illegals to apply for residency/citizenship based on their seniority in the United States. In a way that’s sort of backwards from the criminalized approach in that if you do it longer isn’t the crime more not less serious? For the most part, the current plan sounds vaguely reasonable. The fact that the House bill made it out of committee and was actually passed remains deeply shocking to me.
In general, immigration is something like people sneaking into a dance or party (though obviously the stakes are far more serious). It means that there’s something desirable on the other end. There is some point with the party crashers where the party becomes more riot or free for all than party. At the same time, the presence of the party crashers adds to the buzz and the party’s cachet. Even if things aren’t all that fun on the inside, they seem a lot more fun if you’re told that other people want “in” to the place you happen to be.
We’ll be in serious trouble when the flow starts going in the other direction. My family came because their native country was both politically and economically unstable. While some of them were technically criminals, they came to California simply because they sought a stable place to lead their lives and raise their families. In the three generations since my own grandparents came here though, China’s role in the world and as a potential industrial power has changed dramatically. I’m actually running into Chinese-Americans who have contemplated working and living in China. Not a lot, but it used to be unthinkable.
As I look at my own country, I ask myself what the chances are that my grandchildren (if we have them) will get what they need to lead successful lives in California. It’s already clear that only the very lucky will be able to buy homes in our town. I see schools, medical care, roads, parks, public services, all deteriorating. Perhaps some of that is due to the presence of illegals who take public services either directly or indirectly without paying taxes into the sytem, but I seriously doubt that that’s the real problem. It strikes me that the real problem is that fewer and fewer Californians seem willing to invest in a shared future.
My fear is that some day perhaps fifty years after I’m dead, my own descendants or descendants of people like me, will be ringing a doorbell with a “paper surname” on it in some place other than the state in which I was born and love. Like me, they will know virtually nothing of their ancestors, have no common language with them, and share no customs. They will be strangers in all ways but some National Geographic DNA project.
The question of whether or not the US remains a country worth staying in generation after generation most likely comes down to whether we have enough trained individuals to fill cutting edge jobs that keep our country competitive ( a demand for H1b’s along with large numbers of unemployed Americans at the low end of the job scale is a very bad sign). It has very little to do with the origins and legal status of the people cleaning up in the backs of restaurants and other businesses. It also has to do with how well we maintain our own democracy. When the majority of the House actually supports a bill that contemplates 700 mile long fences and 10 year prison terms for people like my own grandparents, we are returning to being a nation of people where too many were proud to call themselves “Know Nothings” link.