By Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
Our attitude towards immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as the talent and energy allow. Neither race nor place of birth should affect their chances. — Robert F. Kennedy
You, who are so-called illegal aliens, must know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal? — Elie Wiesel
We share (Dr. King’s) dream that all people — regardless of their race, gender, or immigration or economic status — be treated equally, fairly, and humanely… that all people have equal access to justice, education, government resources and economic opportunities, and are able to achieve their full potential as human beings. — Marielena Hincapié
Last month, set against the nationwide remembrances of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the central news story for several days was around what was said and by whom in a White House meeting to address the proposed Graham-Durbin DREAM Act of 2017. Designed to help establish permanent residency for approximately 800,000 qualified “alien” minors previously protected under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the deliberation over this bill has not only yielded profane and abhorrent language from the White House but has resulted in two (albeit short) shutdowns of the federal government.
Of course, the debate over immigration in America, “illegal” or otherwise, is as old as the republic itself. The likes of Thomas Paine, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson addressed the virtue of immigration in the late 18th century as would many who followed in their footsteps. And, as President Barack Obama noted during a July 2012 naturalization ceremony, “The lesson of these last 236 years is clear – immigration makes America stronger. Immigration makes us more prosperous. And immigration positions America to lead in the 21st century.”
Research reflects this sentiment and reveals the extraordinary contributions that immigrants have made and continue to make in this country today. For example, the Small Business Administration finds that immigrants are significantly more likely to start their own business and create jobs for themselves and others. In fact, the Fiscal Policy Institute reports that immigrant-owned small businesses employ approximately 5 million people and contribute upwards of $800 billion to America’s economy. Additional data illustrates that immigrants are more likely to be homeowners, their children are more likely to attend college, and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.
Since we know all of this already, let’s also take a closer look at some of the immigrant nations that were undeservedly disrespected by the wretched discourse that has recently come out of Washington as well as from certain other pundits and sycophants across America, starting with Haiti.
All the way back in 1988, a New York Times editorial by historian Alfred Hunt highlighted “Haiti’s unrequited gifts to U.S. history and culture.” Haiti, its people, and its resources were essential to America’s Revolutionary War effort. And Haiti’s own successful revolution against the Napoleonic Army, which abolished slavery within its borders and established
it as only the second sovereign nation in the Americas, also paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase which contained land that today makes up seven whole states and part of eight others including Minnesota. Today, Haitian immigrants in places such as Brooklyn and Miami include doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and other hard working citizens.
Now let’s consider immigrants from the many nations of Africa, which were also disparaged. Census data shows that African immigrants have the most education of any immigrant group as nearly 44% have a college diploma. This is even higher than the achievement rate of native-born Americas, 39% of which have earned at least a two-year degree. And, they are also doctors, educators, business leaders, scholars, and the like.
Let’s also not neglect that fact that during the 19th Century, when millions of European immigrants from lands such as Ireland, Italy, and Poland arrived to this country with nothing but the clothes on their back, they were pestered, persecuted, and generally considered less than human. Moreover, let us never forget that America was built largely on the violent appropriation of land from its native populations (including land that once belonged to Mexico) and 246 years of free labor by the hands of African slaves.
And whether we are the descendants of slaves, indigenous tribes, immigrants or refugees, people from every corner of this earth have contributed to this nation. So it shouldn’t matter if one is from Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe or elsewhere, nor should it matter what one has when they arrive. For it is those who came to this land with nothing that made it into what it is today and who have the imagination to make America live out its original promise in the Declaration of Independence.
In her epic sonnet The New Colossus – which is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, poet Emma Lazarus wrote:
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.