This I believe: that America is a nation of immigrants, and those immigrants provide the dynamism that has propelled it into its position of leadership on the world stage. I believe that the militarization of our southern border, while ineffective in its stated objective of improving security, will damage our country, and harm our security. It will do so by further alienating us from the developing world. I base these opinions on the experience of my family over the last seven decades.
Had our southern border been militarized seventy years ago, I would not be here. In fact, I would not be at all. I am the grandson of an illegal alien. Like many others he came to the United States across the Mexican border. He did this in the 1930s, after fleeing a town on the Poland-Ukraine border ahead of the Nazi atrocities. Unable to enter the United States legally, he found refuge in Mexico. He later slipped into the United States and made his way to the east coast, where he had relatives. He began his life in America as a window-washer and then switched to food service.
Coverage of the economic impact of illegal immigrants now focuses on the jobs they do. It focuses on the effect of the illegal workers’ presence on the wages of ‘legitimate’ Americans, and on what contribution the work of illegals makes to the economy. As a country composed of the descendants of immigrants, it should be obvious that this is a hopelessly myopic view. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, and their descendants account for much of the dynamic nature of American society and the American economy.
My grandfather married an American citizen and had three children. My father went to college on the GI bill after World War II. He became a physician, educated at the University of Pennsylvania, then a medical school professor. He published over one hundred articles in scholarly journals, contributing to medical knowledge, and authored two textbooks on his specialty. His brother served in the US Army in Europe during the Cold War, then became a high school teacher and helped to educate another generation. His sister spent her career as an executive assistant, first to corporate CEOs, then to a judge.
My father had three sons. My older brother became a physician, also educated at the University of Pennsylvania. He became a medical school professor and researcher, published well over one hundred articles in the medical literature, and participated in several textbooks. He now heads the research program in his specialty at a major pharmaceutical company. My younger brother also went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, and now heads a division at one of the largest investment banks in New York. I graduated from Harvard College, studied business and economics there as a graduate student, then graduated from medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. I am now on the faculty of a medical school. I have published in the medical literature, though not nearly as prolifically as my father and brother, and do my part to train the next generation of physicians.
Had my grandfather been turned back at a militarized border, the country would have lost not just one window washer turned food service worker. It would have lost three medical school professors and researchers, two soldiers, one high school teacher, one executive assistant, and one high-ranking investment banker. Next fall my oldest son will begin his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. (Where else?) Who knows what he will accomplish?
This I believe: That we are a nation of immigrants. This is why our country is great. The Statue of Liberty was the first American symbol seen by most of my ancestors, who came into the country legally, over the deep water of the Atlantic, rather than illegally, through the shallow water of the Rio Grande. Its inscription advertises our nation as a refuge for those who have no opportunities elsewhere. The militarization of our southern border will say to the world that we no longer believe that message. This can only worsen the alienation between the developing world and the United States that has already been severely exacerbated by the Bush administration’s ill-advised policies in the Middle East. Alienation decreases our security by providing a fertile ground for terrorist recruitment, a factor far more important than any security provided by armed men at the border.
There is no question that we need to streamline our immigration bureaucracy and eliminate the separation of husbands from wives and parents from children, which now can last five years or more after one family member gets a ‘green card’ and the others do not. There is no question that we need to do our background checks more quickly and speed the immigration process. We can reduce the problem of illegal immigration by facilitating legal immigration, without depriving the country of the dynamism provided by the injection of latent talent among new immigrants. Securing our southern border by force of arms is not the solution.
These things I believe.
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