Friday, July 23, 2010

Immigration, the Need for Rational Discussion

Why have we witnessed the recent upsurge of commotion and concern about immigration?

A few facts deserve mention.

First, just about everyone on this earth is an immigrant or a descendent of immigrants. Virtually all land masses have received their human populations from elsewhere. It’s just a question of how long ago that occurred. I recently visited the Museum of Natural History in New York. If you’ve visited, you have probably seen the very impressive map which shows the flows of people, from continent to continent, beginning in Africa thousands of years ago. Even our American Indian people, the most native of any of us on this continent, descended from tribes who originated far away.

Second, a century ago in Minnesota, the proportion of our population comprised of immigrants far exceeded the current proportion. For example, the “non-native” residents of Minnesota made up 26% of the population in 1870; they made up 20% in 1920. Immigrants built Minnesota as we now know it – not just the urban Twin Cities, but the many cities, towns, and communities throughout our state, which contain streets, roads, and places often named in commemoration of distant homelands. During the 1980s and 1990s, the proportion of residents born in other countries reached its lowest point (about 2-3%). Today, immigrants make up about 8% of the state, and are a growing proportion of many areas of greater Minnesota.

Third, hostility toward immigrants is nothing new. Jews arriving in New York City from Europe in the late 1800s experienced frequent disdain from existing city residents. “Chinatowns”, which now attract tourists, served in many cities as protective enclaves from intense persecution of Chinese people. The Know Nothing movement of the mid-1800s spawned a national political party unsympathetic to immigrants. In Saint Paul, Swedes, Irish, and others initially faced much discrimination when they first arrived. Swede Hollow of the 19th century exemplifies a situation of immigrants living in squalor due in large part to discrimination.

The Arizona law has prompted much of the most recent, visible controversy. In truth, I sympathize with anyone in Arizona who has suffered as a result of criminal activity perpetrated by illegal immigrants, or for that matter by citizens and legal immigrants who profit from the drug trade, for example. However, illegal activity should not define the debate. I don’t generate my opinions and recommendation for the health care system, based on the behavior of bad doctors; or for the legal system, based on the behavior of bad lawyers. We can’t let illegal behavior cloud our sight and damage our ability to understand trends and develop creative visions for the future.

In any case, the Arizona hullabaloo will pass. Underlying discomfort, often not outwardly expressed, plays a larger role. Why this discomfort? Why – especially if we all can point to our immigrant heritage – do we encounter a lot of tension in our communities related to immigration?

I’ll offer my interpretation; you may have your own. I would suggest that different members of our communities become uncomfortable for different reasons. Some people hold dear an “ideal” conception of life as it once existed. (In fact, such idyllic life probably never did exist, but that does not matter.) They witness different cultures, see institutions change, and wish for “the good old days.” Some have the concern that new arrivals will take their jobs and/or increase the demands on government service systems. Other people simply fear change and resist change; any change makes them uncomfortable. For other people, racism or xenophobia impedes their capacity to think and act. For others, a combination of these and other factors explains their reactions.

Rational discussion – based on current context, short-term perspective, and long-term perspective – must prevail. Trying to change or resist the patterns of migration, established over thousands of years, is equivalent to trying to change ocean currents or the tides. It can’t be accomplished in the long term. Indeed, it should not be accomplished. These patterns are neither good nor bad; they are simply reality. In the shorter term, we need to recognize that businesses need employees for production and consumers for consumption. Our communities need active, caring members; they need families with good parents. Individuals and families who arrive in Minnesota, whether from New York or New Delhi, offer today, in the 21st century, opportunities for the state to thrive – just as offered by those many Minnesota immigrants of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

To promote rational discussion, we presented a webinar, which you can view – to hear about how immigration is changing the current Minnesota landscape. It contains information, along with commentary from three community leaders from throughout the state. More important, you can see the larger body of information about immigration, on which the webinar is based. Go to Click on the immigration tab.

As always, we welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions.