The debate about illegal immigration finally appears to be coming to a boil, judging by the headlines in the Tribune. As the son of two immigrants who came to the USA from Germany some 75 years ago, I naturally have certain views on this subject. Having lived and worked in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe at various times for more than three decades has also affected those views, which may be of some interest to Tribune readers.
Illegal immigration is hardly unique to the USA; it has been a growing problem worldwide for some time now. To cite just a few examples, over the past 30 years refugees from instability and famine in the drought-prone and poverty-stricken Horn of Africa have been migrating south to the relative prosperity of Kenya, where I was posted from 1977-1981. In the process, Kenya has become decidedly less prosperous and more strife-ridden. During my three-year sojourn in Spain (1997-2000), accounts of North African and Sahelian immigrants drowning in the treacherous currents of the Straits of Gibraltar in their desperate attempts to reach Europe were almost daily news items. More recently, African job-seekers have sought to enter Europe by scaling the razor-wire fences surrounding the historic Spanish enclaves of Céuta and Melia on Morocco's northern coast while local authorities (ever eager to highlight the unwelcome existence of Spanish "colonies" on their territory) turn a blind eye to their dramatic attempts to escape misery. Does this sound familiar?
A few years later I was one of a group of Habitat for Humanity volunteers engaged in building houses for poor Mexicans in a small coastal village in the state of Veracruz. Because I spoke Spanish, I was able to communicate with our hosts and the project's beneficiaries more easily than others in our group. While those who were about to acquire a rudimentary shelter through our efforts did indeed demonstrate genuine thanks and hospitality, they were even more eager to learn how they might obtain a visa in order to find work in the USA!
Then, just a couple of months ago I made a trip back to the Dominican Republic where I had served as a Peace Corps volunteer more than 40 years ago. Then a country of some 3 million inhabitants, its population has since tripled while the size of the town where I once lived has grown by a factor of 10! Dominicans have been known to seek illegal entry into the USA by attempting to cross the treacherous Mona Channel that separates their country from the Associated Free State of Puerto Rico. The Dominican Republic occupies an area about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined on the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, while Haiti occupies the remainder. It is estimated that about 2 million Haitians have fled their perennially troubled homeland by illegally crossing the border, thereby compounding an already serious problem of unemployment in the Dominican Republic. (Almost 70 years ago the infamous Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo addressed a similar problem by rounding up and massacring some 30,000 Haitians who had crossed the border illegally.)
The overwhelming majority of those now here illegally have come from or through our neighbor south of the border. They come in search of jobs that American citizens are no longer willing to do, especially in the agricultural sector and in service industries. Although a large number of those (some say as many as 30 percent) now in prison for crimes committed in the USA were found to be here illegally, in general most undocumented immigrants are law-abiding and hard-working. For its part, the Mexican government is anxious to ensure that they continue to be able to come here and work. The money they send home (hundreds of billions of dollars annually) helps support their families there and represents a huge influx of foreign exchange, second only to the country's oil export revenues. But there is also a feeling among the country's intelligentsia that their less fortunate countrymen have a right to come north, a feeling that stems from the loss of a great part of Mexico's historical territory - from California to Texas - as a result of the War of 1848, and the many injustices they feel their country has suffered since then at the hands of American "imperialists." Be all that as it may, the need for cheap labor in our economy should not be allowed to trump the need to secure our borders and to regulate the flow of those who would come in search of employment here. Nor is it acceptable for Mexican consulates in the USA to disseminate brochures to those here illegally informing them as to how they can circumvent our laws, as was widely reported not long ago.
While estimates of the number of illegal aliens in the USA range as high as 20 million, the one heard most these days is 11 million, or about one in every 25 persons. But just imagine if the proportion of undocumented immigrants were 1 in 5, as is currently the case in the Dominican Republic. Is this where we're now headed: 60 million illegal aliens? Unless "something is done" to control our borders, it is undoubtedly where we are headed so long as the USA continues to offer the prospect of jobs for those seeking to improve their lives, which includes most of those living in the world's teeming less developed countries. We like to think of our country as a "land of opportunity," but can the USA continue to offer opportunity to all comers indefinitely without eventually sinking to the level of a Third World country itself?
- Fred Kalhammer is a retired Foreign Service Officer and Stateline resident.