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Culture | Immigrants to America may strengthen their new country's ideal

Issue: "Don't have a cow," Aug. 11, 2001

Notice the maids cleaning the rooms in the hotel. The busboys in the restaurant. The construction workers on the building site. The road crew repairing the highway. The farm workers. Notice how many of them are immigrants.

They are also in jobs that escape the notice of most middle-class Americans-the slaughter houses, the poultry farms, those factories where the work is hot and dangerous. Increasingly, jobs that demand old-fashioned, sweaty, back-breaking labor are filled by folks coming into the United States from another country.

These jobs are all honorable callings, absolutely essential to the well-being of every American. They are far more useful to society than more prestigious jobs, such as that of a Hollywood actor. That they are hard, unpleasant vocations only increases the nobility of those who perform them.

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Of the 17 million immigrant workers in this country, half of them-8.5 million-are here illegally. It is a cultural and economic contradiction for a nation when such an important part of its economy is subject to immediate deportation.

Economists are recognizing that the nation's economy has become dependent on immigrant labor. According to figures from the Center for Immigration Studies, immigrants, legal and illegal, constitute 13 percent of the nation's workforce and hold 35 percent of the unskilled jobs.

"There are places in this country where we wouldn't survive without immigrants," John Gay, a lobbyist for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, told USA Today. "The trend is to push our own children into college to be rocket scientists or computer programmers. But who is going to do these hard jobs that we have? Who is going to change bedpans in a nursing home? Or change beds in hotels?"

As born-in-America kids, even those from blue-collar families, crowd into college, where they major in Business Administration or Women's Studies, less glamorous jobs go begging. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by the end of the decade the country will have 5 million more jobs than it has workers. The law of supply and demand will continue to pull in those needed workers from abroad.

A laborer in Mexico can earn $5 a day; if he crosses the border, he can earn that much and more every hour. Such pay is still absurdly small to established Americans, but it is an almost irresistible lure to ambitious Mexicans who are willing to risk everything, including their lives, for a tiny slice of the American dream.

While most Americans generally accept immigrants who have obtained the proper paperwork, crossing the border illegally is indeed a crime. President Bush is attempting to regularize and decriminalize the inflow of foreign workers, while still keeping immigration under control. With the election of Vicente Fox as president of Mexico-whose pro-freedom party overthrew the corrupt party that had ruled Mexico since its socialist revolution early in the 20th century-the administration is floating proposals such as "guest worker" programs and more lenient immigration policies.

Many cultural conservatives oppose such measures, fearing that too many immigrants are a threat to America's culture. Hispanic nations are notoriously dictator-prone, they reason, and "cultural diversity," with its smorgasbord of languages and customs, undermines America's political and cultural unity. (Many liberals, for all of their claims to be supportive of poor people, also oppose immigration, since their union masters disapprove of cheap labor that would put union members at a competitive disadvantage.)

Those who wish to conserve American culture, though, need to recognize that the enemies of that culture are not immigrants clamoring to become a part of it. The new immigrants typically have strong families and family values. Although they have large evangelical and Pentecostal contingents, the Hispanic immigrants are mostly Catholics-that is to say, conservative Catholics, as opposed to the American liberal variety, which means they will be anti-divorce, pro-sexual morality, and strongly pro-life. They also tend to become strongly patriotic citizens.

As historians have been showing, the pattern of immigration to America has remained constant. The new groups-Jewish, Irish, Italian, Chinese-at first took over the hard jobs no one else wanted, facing discrimination and hostility. But gradually, they came to blend in with their new countrymen, becoming more prosperous and climbing up the socioeconomic ladder. Schools played an important part in the assimilation of new immigrants. Instead of fostering "multiculturalism," schools then not only taught the English language, they taught "Americanism," the history and lore and ideals of their new land.

It is native-born Americans, grown soft from prosperity and privilege, who are oblivious or hostile to American ideals. The immigrants may well be the key to bringing them back.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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