It is easy for me, as an immigrant, to say that every American should welcome the Hernandezes of the world with open arms.
What is difficult is placing myself on the other side, alongside people watching the United States, in which they were born, in the midst of dizzying change occasioned by people from other countries who sometimes speak a different language, eat funny food and stay in their own neighborhoods.
I can’t truly bring myself to that other side. Yet it is essential to try to understand the fears of people who, without being outright xenophobes, are concerned that immigrants are changing this country for the worse. Then a rational, national conversation about immigration can take shape.
It can begin with understanding that we have been through it before. As of the latest Census estimates, for 2005, there were some 36 million foreign-born people in the United States, 12.2 percent of the overall population. That’s a big number if compared with the relatively recent past.
But in a historical context, that 12.2 percent is less of a shock. In 1860, after the first massive wave of Irish and German immigrants, the foreign-born population consisted of 4.1 million, 13.2 percent of the total. And in 1930, after huge numbers of Italians, Jews and Slavs passed through Ellis Island, 14.2 million people were foreign-born, or 11.5 percent.
Back then there were fears foreigners would take the jobs of Americans and never assimilate. “A considerable proportion” of the foreign-born, the federal Dillingham Commission said in its final report in 1911, “apparently have no intention of permanently changing their residence, their only purpose in coming to America being to temporarily take advantage of the greater wages paid for industrial labor in this country.”
The distinguished gentlemen of the Dillingham Commission were talking about the grandparents of people whose Americanness is now so completely beyond doubt that the century-old hand-wringing about their immigrant ancestors seems as quaint as sepia-toned photos of mustachioed peasant men and their babushka-wearing women at Ellis Island.
Will the new hand-wringing about immigrants seem as outdated a century from now?
One study just released by the Pew Hispanic Center found the overall number of naturalized citizens hit a historic high of 12.8 million in 2005. That represents 52 percent of legal foreign-born residents, highest in a quarter of a century, according to Pew.
But take into account the total of all foreign-born residents, including those who are illegal immigrants, and what you get is this: 35 percent are naturalized citizens, 33 percent are legally resident, green-card-carrying noncitizens — and 31 percent are here without authorization.
It is the latter group that presents the challenge. Deport them? Open a path to legality? Those in Washington overhauling immigration law would be wise to understand the history of immigration before deciding what to do. Otherwise, they will end up a century from now looking as silly as the Dillingham Commission does today.
Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.