8.21.2007

Anna Quindlen: America Needs Its Newcomers

By Anna Quindlen (Newsweek - 8.20-27, 2007 Issue)

Some people talk about immigration in terms of politics, some in terms of history. But the crux of the matter is numbers. The Labor Department says that immigrants make up about 15 percent of the work force. It's estimated that a third of those are undocumented workers, or what those who want to send them back to where they came from call "illegals."

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that one in four farmhands in the United States is an undocumented immigrant, and that they make up a significant portion of the people who build our houses, clean our office buildings and prepare our food.

All the thundering about policing the border and rounding up those who have slipped over it ignores an inconvenient fact: America has become a nation dependent on the presence of newcomers, both those with green cards and those without. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York testified before a Senate committee that they are a linchpin of his city's economy. The current and former chairmen of the Federal Reserve have favored legal accommodations for undocumented workers because of their salutary effect on economic growth—and the downturn that could follow their departure. Business leaders say agriculture, construction, meatpacking and other industries would collapse without them.

Last year the town of Hazleton, Pa., became known for the most draconian immigration laws in the country, laws making English the official city language, levying harsh fines against landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants and revoking the business permit of anyone who employs them. There was a lot of public talk about crime and gangs and very little about hard work in local factories and new businesses along the formerly moribund Wyoming Street. In that atmosphere, those with apartments to let and jobs to fill could be excused if they avoided any supplicant with an accent. Oh, the mayor and his supporters insisted that the laws were meant only to deal with those here illegally, but the net effect was to make all Latinos feel unwelcome.

When the law was struck down by a federal judge, there was rejoicing among Hazleton's immigrants, but some said an exodus had already begun. Longtime residents seemed to think that was just fine. This is part of a great historical continuum—the Germans once derided the Irish, and the Irish trashed the Italians—but it is a shortsighted approach. Economists say immigrants buying starter homes will keep the bottom from falling out of the housing market in the years ahead. Latinos are opening new businesses at a rate three times faster than the national average. If undocumented immigrants were driven out of the work force, there would be a domino effect: prices of things ranging from peaches to plastering would rise. Nursing homes would be understaffed. Hotel rooms wouldn't get cleaned.

Sure, it would be great if everyone were here legally, if the immigration service weren't such a disaster that getting a green card is a life's work. It would be great if other nations had economies robust enough to support their citizens so leaving home wasn't the only answer. But at a certain point public policy means dealing not only with how things ought to be but with how they are. Here's how they are: these people work the jobs we don't want, sometimes two and three jobs at a time. They do it on the cheap, which is tough, so that their children won't have to, which is good. They use services like hospitals and schools, which is a drain on public coffers, and they pay taxes, which contribute to them.

Immigration is never about today, always about tomorrow, an exercise in that thing some native-born Americans seem to have lost the knack for: deferred gratification. It's the young woman in New York City who splits family translation duties with her two siblings. Her parents showed extraordinary courage in leaving all that was familiar and coming to a place where they couldn't even read the street signs. Does it matter if they don't speak English when they have children who aced the SAT verbal section and were educated in the Ivy League? It's the educated man who arrived in the Washington, D.C., area and took a job doing landscaping, then found work as a painter, then was hired to fix up an entire apartment complex by someone who liked his work ethic. He started his own business and wound up employing others. Does it matter that he arrived in this country with no work visa if he is now bolstering the nation's economy?

The city of Hazleton says yes. And if towns like Hazleton, whose aging populations were on the wane before the immigrants arrived, succeed in driving newcomers away, those who remain will find themselves surrounded by empty storefronts, deserted restaurants and houses that will not sell. It's the civic equivalent of starving to death because you don't care for the food. But at least everyone involved can tell themselves their town wasted away while they were speaking English.