Why they come: Latinos seek the American Dream

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Nov. 9, 2006, 5:00 p.m.)

"Immigrants come here with something very valuable, and that is the desire for a better life," said Margarita Garfias de Christianson, a bilingual specialist with Rock-Walworth Comprehensive Family Services and an immigrant herself.

Millions of immigrants have ventured away from their native lands seeking a new life.

They come to United States for countless reasons, forever filling the melting pot of America's society. Usually though, immigrants yearn to live the American Dream-one of freedom and prosperity.

"This country was founded by the people on the Mayflower," Garfias de Christianson said. "They were wanting a better life. They were wanting to build their homes and raise their families and be themselves.

"There is a tremendous energy when you have that drive, that desire. The immigrants in this country bring that."

But with current immigration laws and the limited avenues that lead toward becoming citizens, hundreds of thousands of immigrants illegally cross United States borders each year, according to various sources.

Overall, the number of immigrants in the United States-documented and undocumented-is estimated at more than 30 million. An estimated 12 million are here without papers.

Some groups, such as Numbers USA, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, are working toward reducing the numbers of immigrants allowed into the country.

"The numbers that we have now are unprecedented," said Numbers USA spokesperson Caroline Espinosa. More than 1 million immigrate to the United States annually and stay for extended periods, according to the group's Web site.

"We do have a far greater number of immigrants coming to the U.S. now than in the past," Espinosa continued. "The melting pot nature is one of the reasons we should (limit immigrant numbers), so they have a chance to melt into society. They can assimilate more easily."

The arguments for and against immigration run long and deep.

One of the few things the polarized sides agree on is that massive changes are needed in U.S. government policy surrounding immigration laws.

"It's a broken system. They need to almost start from scratch and completely rebuild," Espinosa said of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Department.

"It's just a bleak picture until Congress changes and we get true, comprehensive changes in immigration reform," said David Duran, vice president of Latinos United for Advancement and Change.

Worth the fear

Because it's difficult to gain citizenship-there are five legal ways to do it-immigrants here without documentation often live in fear.

They wonder, "Is my husband going to come home tonight?" said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, an employment advocacy group for Latinos.

Living with that kind of anxiety is worth the risk, she said. Residing in America affords immigrants opportunities otherwise unavailable in their native countries. Many who come across the borders are seeking refuge from poverty, repression and persecution.

"The vast majority of these people are upholding the best values we have as a society. They are literally risking their life to feed a family," Neumann-Ortiz said of immigrants who come to America.

Working to put bread on the table should not be a crime, she said.

Influx impacting

everyone

The sheer numbers of immigrants have put strains on society, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Immigrants come to the United States and use health care, police, school, welfare and other taxpayer-funded services without always paying their fair share of the bill, Mehlman said.

"It's going to get worse unless we as a nation do something to deal with the influx," Mehlman said. "Illegal immigrants don't provide cheap labor. They provide subsidized labor.

"If you're earning minimum wage, chances are you're being subsidized in a myriad of ways. Each time we add one of these low-wage workers, we increase the costs to society."

Immigrants also tend to congregate in tight-knit groups, associating most with people who speak the same language and share the same culture, Espinosa said. The sheer numbers of immigrants is segregating the ingredients in America's stew instead of blending them together, she said.

"I think it is bad for the U.S. as a whole when people segregate themselves," she said. "I'm not saying you shouldn't speak native languages. It's wonderful when you can retain that. But at the same time, it's very important to be able to speak English and conduct business and know how the U.S. works."

Refusing to learn about American culture "fosters resentment among those U.S. citizens or people who speak only English toward people who are not of their community," Espinosa said. "It comes across as not respecting why they have chosen to live here in the U.S."

Few chances

Immigrants want to show the community what motivated them to come here, but their options are limited.

"They're always trying to learn. It's just difficult because nobody is taking it upon themselves (to teach)," Garfias de Christianson said. "They get a job, but their employer is not trying to teach them what it is like. There's not a place to learn."

She added, "If they don't have a voice and they don't have a forum, what can they do?"

At the same time, citizens are reaping the benefits of immigrants being a part of society, Garfias de Christian said. Their willingness to exploit themselves for lower wages keeps costs down for consumers, she said.

They're consumers, too, Neumann-Ortiz said.

"If someone uses public transportation or goes into a Wendy's, they're supporting the economy. They do, despite the rhetoric, pay taxes," Neumann-Ortiz said.

The United States will soon, more than ever, need immigrant workers to fill voids left by retiring baby boomers, Grafias de Christianson said.

"Pretty soon we will have a shortage of labor that is not funny. It will be a huge shortage," she said. "These people are not taking anybody's jobs. It's the jobs that nobody is doing."

There are arguments to the contrary.

"A lot of people claim that illegals are doing jobs that Americans don't do. That simply isn't true," Mehlman said. "For the most part, they are doing jobs that Americans used to do, but aren't doing the lower wages. It's not that Americans wont accept the work. It's that they won't accept the degraded wages and working conditions."

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