A lively discussion on the current and controversial topic of immigration took place recently at the Port Washington Library. Sponsored by the Port Washington-Manhasset League of Women Voters (LWV), the forum was part of an initiative to educate themselves and the public and to reach consensus in order to create a policy position on the issue at the national, state and local level.
The meeting was moderated by Ann Stokvis, chair of the LWV Study Committee, which has been gathering information about immigration, including historical attitudes, legislative and regulatory rules, the continuing need for unskilled labor, and the rising levels of education of succeeding generations of immigrants. The guest speaker was Michael Romano, social studies chair of the Northport-East Northport School District, adjunct professor of history at St. John's University (LI Campus), and a specialist in immigration.
Romano began by saying, "Welcome, my fellow immigrants." He added, ironically, "Good luck on reaching a consensus." Romano presented the group with a quick outline of the facts about the rising tide of immigration and the changes that have taken place in the nature of immigrants and immigration policy over the last 200 or so years. He described his presentation as "The History of Immigration in 60 minutes."
Romano said that, according to recently published data from the Center for Immigration Studies, there are currently 37.9 million immigrants in the United States, approximately 12 1/2 percent of the population. Romano estimated that about 12 million-14 million of these are undocumented. He added that one out of every five people in the United States speaks a language other than English at home.
One of the changes, Romano pointed out, is the nature of the places where immigrants settle. Although New York, California and Illinois are still the largest states in terms of immigration, increasing numbers are settling in states like Georgia, North Carolina, North and South Dakota, Arkansas, and the like. Specific to Long Island, the growth of immigrants and, in particular, immigrants from Latino countries, has been great and is growing.
Romano noted that a big change in the composition of the immigrant population is that the proportion of European immigrants is lower. The preponderance of immigrants now comes from Asia and the Latino countries. As an example, he noted that Garcia and Rodriguez are among the top 10 surnames in the United States. He said, "This is the changing nature of America." Romano went back to trace the different waves of immigration. In the early the 1800s, there was immigration from China, mushrooming in the mid-1800s when Chinese laborers were imported primarily to help build the railroads. The early wave from Europe (apart from the original settlers) began in about 1820, and was mainly from Northern Europe, consisting primarily of Irish and Germans. During the late 19th and early 20th century, the immigrants were more likely to be from Southern Europe: for example, Italians, Poles, and Greeks. Beginning in the 1960s and '70s, immigration from Europe began to decline, primarily because of the improved economies in these countries, as well as a change in the immigration laws. Immigration from Mexico, Central and South America, and Asia, began to rise. The educational level of immigrants has also risen over the years.
Romano described briefly the major legislation that controls immigration: who, how many, and from where. What has remained constant is what he termed "America's love-hate relationship with immigrants." On the one hand, we want the economic and other benefits, but we also mistrust and fear those who are "different." Back as far as Benjamin Franklin, we have held hostility toward immigrants (in Franklin's case it was the Germans). During the same era, Thomas Paine argued that we have a duty to "provide an asylum" for those who are persecuted. Romano provided a handout with citations from each point of view. Romano pointed out that since the events of 9/11, the fear factor has increased dramatically.
Romano pointed out that two schools of thought about immigration have also permeated our entire history: the "melting pot" theory vs. "cultural pluralism." Since the civil rights movement of the '60s, he said, the latter theory has been predominant. Romano questioned whether the "melting pot" ever really did exist. He cited his own experience as a son of Italian immigrants ("one with papers, the other without"). In his family, as in most others, Old World culture was mixed with New World culture to produce an amalgam. Responding to a question as to whether an empire dies if no new blood comes in, Romano said that a civilization becomes stagnant if there is no influx of new ideas, pointing to the Ottoman Empire as an example.
Despite the documented economic benefit of immigrants-both legal and illegal-to the economy (countywide, statewide and nationwide), Roman believes that the growing number of undocumented immigrants is a major problem. He told the Port News that, in his opinion, the major issue is that "the federal government has abdicated their responsibility, and that has forced the local and state governments to act." He added that the United States must work with other countries to stem the tide of illegal immigration, and to improve their own economies. When asked if there was any country that would provide a "model" for immigration policy, he responded that, overall, the United States has been the best model, in spite of some problems.
Professor Romano gave the participants much to think about. The LWV intends to have more discussion of this issue, and, according to past president Marie Bellon, expects to have a position formulated by February of next year.