Our great nation of immigrants

This month I, along with 34.5 million Americans of Irish descent, celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

It was Irish immigrant Annie Moore who was the first to pass through Ellis Island when it officially opened on New Year’s Day 1892.  Today, Irish is the second-most common ancestry among Americans, falling just behind German.  Looking at these numbers it’s hard to believe that Irish-Americans once suffered harsh discrimination.  In the 1830s, the willingness of Irish immigrants to work for low wages coupled with anti-Catholic sentiment led to mob violence in New York and Philadelphia.  Anti-Irish sentiment led to the formation of the American Party, a group which fought foreign influence and promoted “traditional American ideals.”

As J.J. Lee writes in Making the Irish American, “[a]part from African Americans, who endured a unique horror, [the Irish] were the most frequent Americans to be regularly mocked as sub hominid, as apes and monkeys, in the pages of ‘respectable’ intellectual periodicals.”  Despite these hardships, Irish Americans thrived in business and politics, and, every year on March 17, everyone is Irish for a day – or at least everyone joins Irish Americans in celebrating Irish heritage.

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Of course the Irish are one of many groups to face discrimination.   A number of immigrant groups have taken their turn as societal punching bags.  In the 1830s it was the Irish, in the 1890s it was the Italians, French-Canadians, and Chinese, and in the early 20th century it was the Poles, Slovaks and other Eastern European groups. 

Today it’s too often Latinos.  In 2010, there were 39.9 million foreign-born people in the United States.  Of those, 44 percent were naturalized citizens, 24 percent were legal permanent residents, 29 percent were unauthorized migrants, and 3 percent were temporary legal residents.  According to the Pew Research Center, the immigrants’ share of the total population is below the U.S. peak of just under 15 percent during a previous immigration wave from 1890 to 1920 that was dominated by arrivals from Europe. The modern wave, which began with the passage of border-opening legislation in 1965, has been dominated by arrivals from Latin America (about 50 percent) and Asia (27 percent).

Democrats, Republicans and Independents all agree that something must be done about America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.  I, along with many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, support a tough but fair path to citizenship.  Opponents of a path to citizenship argue that immigrants will drag down the wages of lesser-skilled Americans or, worse, “steal” American jobs.   In fact, a number of economists have found that immigrants boost the economy and have no net effect on the wages of low-wage workers.  This is because immigrants are consumers; they spend money on goods and services, pumping millions of dollars throughout the economy.  Immigrants also start businesses and hire workers at higher rates than native-born Americans.  In some sectors of the U.S. economy, lesser skilled immigrants have kept entire industries alive, working at jobs that no one else wants, such as manual farm labor.  To the extent that undocumented immigrants do compete with American workers by working for lower wages, providing legal status for these workers would increase their bargaining power and lessen the likelihood of exploitation, which would reduce the downward pressure they and their bottom-of-the-barrel wages might otherwise exert on overall wages. 

Contrary to popular talking points, immigrants are not “takers.”  A study from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy found that undocumented immigrants paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2010 alone.  Moreover, undocumented immigrants are barred from receiving most social services and entitlements.  And the National Foundation for American Policy found that immigrants will add a net of $611 billion to the Social Security Trust Fund.  Given this information, I find it extremely disheartening to hear some of my colleagues and some political pundits make disparaging comments about America’s immigrant population.  These types of comments were wrong when they were made in the 19th century, and they’re wrong today. 

We are a nation of immigrants and our myriad backgrounds make us a greater and stronger whole.  Some of us can trace our ancestry back to the Mayflower, some to the great immigration wave at the turn of the 20th century, and some arrived less than a decade ago.  Our ancestors came to America’s shores to escape war, famine, and religious persecution.  Immigrants of all stripes worked side-by-side to pull the country through the Great Depression, fought two World Wars, and marched hand-in-hand for the right to vote and unionize.  The American Dream is not a zero sum game and to turn our backs on immigrants is to turn our backs on our own heritage.  After all, where would we be without the contributions of Bob Hope, Madeline Albright, and Albert Einstein?

This St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be sure to look back and celebrate where I came from, but I also urge everyone to look forward and feel great about where we’re going.  Together.

 

Congressman Matt Cartwright represents Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District, which includes Schuylkill County and portions of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Northampton and Carbon Counties.  Cartwright serves on the Natural Resources and Government Reform and Oversight House Committees.