Can immigration reform renew America’s multicultural identity?

by Ninoska Marcano M.
Vienna, Virginia - As controversial state laws on immigration continue to be at the forefront of national debate in the United States, so is the sentiment that Americans are drifting away from their multicultural national identity.

Americans are asking: Is the United States a multicultural nation? What does an “illegal alien” look like? What policy should the government embrace when it comes to immigration?

The United States claims to be a nation of multiple identities, yet it is unable or unwilling to embrace the kind of national immigration reform that would provide undocumented immigrants of all nationalities with a chance to prove their regard for the law by allowing them to obtain temporary work visas, pay taxes, legally participate in their communities and help them integrate into American culture in hopes of attaining citizenship. Instead, the nation’s immigration practices instil fear in immigrants through widespread and costly deportations, which disproportionately affect Latinos, creating what can be best called an immigration status crisis.

Homeland Security reported that in 2010 about 387,000 of the “unauthorised migrant population” were removed from the country but 219,000 of them were for non-criminal causes. The majority of those deported were Mexicans, followed by Guatemalans and Hondurans. For some, a minor offence like a traffic violation meant deportation.

An October 2011 report from University of California Berkeley School of Law concludes that the Secure Communities programme, which is intended to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, has resulted in Latinos being 93 per cent of the people identified for deportation, even though Latinos are estimated to be only 77 per cent of the undocumented immigrant population.

According to Alabama state education officials, the recently passed Alabama law that requires schools to verify the immigration status of students has resulted in more than 2,000 children – mostly Latino – abandoning public schools within one month. The severity of such laws and programmes has led to racial profiling of Latinos. They were not developed on the premise that the United States is a multicultural nation that needs to help immigrants integrate legally, but that it is a nation that wants to rid itself of unwanted immigrants.

The underlying issue is that the crisis surrounding immigration is not merely about immigration status, but about accepting that the country is undergoing a deep identity crisis and soaring xenophobia, which has been exacerbated by widespread unemployment and a global recession. With major news networks hosting segments that ask: “Are illegal immigrants taking American jobs?” it is clear that some Americans blame undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Mexican, for the lack of jobs and economic opportunity. The government shifting its policy to focus on removing immigrants, instead of integrating them, has contributed to this problem.

The United States can learn from how Argentina handled a similar crisis. In 2006, then-President Néstor Kirchner started a progressive programme called Patria Grande (Great Country) as a humanitarian act that encouraged undocumented immigrants in Argentina to register with local authorities. In the September, 2006 Newsweek article “Making Room”, author Brian Byrnes reported that President Kirchner was touched by the death of six Bolivian immigrants, who had died in a sweatshop blaze in March of that year and legalized the Patria Grande initiative, enabling those with no criminal records to apply for a two-year residency work visa if they could prove that they were citizens of countries affiliated with the Mercosur trading block, a free trade agreement between certain Latin American countries. The astonishing response from eager immigrants resulted in an estimated 400,000 people voluntarily registering and being granted residency visas.

As Byrnes and subsequently others pointed out, despite flaws in the programme, Argentina was able to reduce black market labour, as well as generate additional tax funds. The fear that immigrants could take away jobs from citizens was reduced when it was discovered that most Argentines did not want the jobs that immigrants were willing to take.

Argentina’s lessons are what United States policy makers need to focus on for the good of the whole country. Helping undocumented immigrants legally integrate into society means more human capital, increased tax revenue and easier enforcement of labour laws. Perhaps as Americans, we need to renew our multicultural national sentiment and identity, one that is inclusive and engages all people to become law-abiding citizens.


* Ninoska Marcano M. is a Venezuelan American freelance bilingual reporter. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 8 November 2011,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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