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SOUNDING OFF:Immigration is a two-way street

The failure of the Congress to pass an immigration bill this year leaves us with sharp divisions in the country, but with a clearer knowledge of what needs to be done as soon as possible.

What is clear is that most of the 12 million people who are in this country illegally are working, and they are working at jobs which others do not want. (They are also being paid less for the same jobs. When immigration reform occurs, and people can start working toward citizenship, then the rights that go with it "” unions, bargaining, etc. "” will follow.)

But the notion of shipping people “back to where they came from” is ridiculous on its face, as our economy (e.g., agribusiness) would suffer a real loss, if not a catastrophic collapse.

In a resort community like ours, this is especially true. Many of the people who work in the local tourist industry are probably illegal; if they all left right now, every hotel and restaurant in this town would have to drastically cut back services "” if not close.

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What does this tell us? First that we need these people in the jobs they now hold. Our economy depends upon them.

In my 30 years in Laguna Beach, I have noticed a number of changes, not all of them good. But I have seen immigrants rise from menial jobs to become citizens, to start their own businesses, to follow the American Dream and make a place for themselves and their families in this society.

Those who have come after them want the same things, and it amazes me that there are people in this community who want to stop them.

The opponents of immigration all say, “It’s just about obeying the law!” but when you talk to them nose to nose, you uncover the racism just beneath the surface of their arguments. In a speech he made almost 40 years ago (April 5, 1968), Robert Kennedy warned:

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“When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies.

“We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. ...

“But we can always remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”

This country is, as historians constantly remind us, a nation of immigrants. We were settled by immigrants (even native peoples came from somewhere else), and the cycle has repeated itself for centuries: a new wave arrives, starts out at the bottom of the economic ladder, experiences hatred and discrimination, but, by virtue of hard work and perseverance, prevails and rises to achieve the goals that most of us have: family, home, security, etc.

My maternal grandmother came from Cornwall at the end of the 19th century to make a new home for herself. I think of what courage it took for her to make that journey. She married a laborer in a scissors factory who rose to become a foreman, and their children "” my mother’s generation "” led happy and successful lives, and left their children their dreams and their models of hard work, and tolerance.

And this is a story that has been told over and over again in this nation’s history.

But there are other sides to this story. Many of the immigrants who have come to this country in the last few centuries only came for a short time, to build up what would be in their home countries a small fortune, and then to return there to use the money to buy into a piece of their own national dream.

Of the five million Irish who emigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century, for example, fully 500,000 had gone home by century’s end.

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The same was true for the Italians who came a few years later. And the same thing is true today for many of the Mexicans and Central Americans who have come here in the last few decades. They plan to return one day to their homeland, and even now are sending money back to help buy their piece of the dream.

Immigration is a fluid and changing two-way street. While immigrants are with us, let’s greet them as brothers, and sisters, welcome them into the land we love so much, and help them to achieve the dream which we all share.


  • DAVID PECK is chair of the Crosscultural Council, which oversees the operation of the Day Labor Site.

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