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A real Day Without Immigrants

In today's hi-tech society, I don't expect to see any recognition of May Day – International Worker's Day – in workplaces across the country, state or city. Besides the assumed association with communist/socialist political philosophies, few of us today think of ourselves as workers. We are professionals and consultants, even domestic engineers. We have evolved from workers to upwardly mobile participants of a new global society and self-appointed spreaders of democracy worldwide.
But this year for some reason I thought it might be different, as May 1, 2006–International Workers Day–had been declared "A Day Without Immigrants." However nothing was different. Every cubicle was filled. Every desk was occupied. Every telephone was answered. Work life for the most part went on as usual with every immigrant in their place.
That's right, despite the attempt to put a "brown" face on today's immigration struggle, America is basically a nation of immigrants. Think about it. Other than Native Americans who welcomed Europeans coming to America to escape oppression for a better life, and African-Americans brought to America by Europeans as slaves to be oppressed and exploited, we are all immigrants and without immigrants there would be no America.
By 1890 over 15 million immigrants had settled permanently in the United States, mainly English, Irish, Germanic, Scandinavian and others from northwestern Europe. They were followed by millions who were Austro-Hungarian, Turkish, Lithuanian, Russian, Jewish, Greek and Italian. All answered Lady Liberty's call to "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
From 1776 until 1875, the United States had an open-door policy on immigration and there were no problems. No problems, no quotas – just a welcome mat for some as the Naturalization Act of 1790 stipulated that "any alien being a free white person may be admitted to become a citizen." Believe it or not, in 1864, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to encourage immigration into the United States!
And immigrant groups from around the world came to America full of hopes and dreams of the "Promised Land." It wasn't until 1882 that laws were enacted to specifically exclude individuals based on their race, class or national origin.
A predecessor to today's guest worker program, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892 prohibited certain laborers from immigrating to the United States. And from that point on, immigration laws began the slide down that slippery slope of quotas, exclusions and registration often based on politics, race and class. The Alien Contract Labor laws, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1907, the Alien Registration Act and other immigration laws over the years expanded the categories of excludable aliens.
There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States with more arriving each day. Despite the many advances in the last 50 years, the sad fact is over 50 percent of the world has a daily income of $2 or less. Infant mortality soars to rates as high as 191.2 per 1,000 births in some third world countries in comparison with 6.5 per 1,000 in the United States. While most Americans can look forward to a life expectancy of 77.7 years, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa life expectancy is only 36.6 years. There are over 19 significant armed conflicts taking place around the world.
In a world flattened by advanced technology where images of western culture, prosperity and socio/political freedoms are bounced off satellites into communities in areas of extreme poverty, famine and strife, is it any wonder that so many still seek, legally and illegally, the refuge on our shores promised by Lady Liberty? Compared to much of the world, which is embroiled in war, famine, pandemics like HIV/AIDS and now the avian flu, America is the Promised Land.
Immigration reform must go beyond solving America's problems to a search for the issues attacking the global society. Quotas, deportation, border enforcement enhancements and a guest worker policy are like putting a gas mask on the miner's canary while the air in the mine remains toxic. Wrapping the current immigration struggle in a "brown" face only covers this toxicity with a dark ugly cloud of racism diverting attention from the real issues of social and economic disparities worldwide.
Illegal immigrant workers make up less than five percent of the total work force but almost 24 percent of the jobs we have been told Americans do not want – landscaping, maid service, construction, janitorial, migrant workers, etc. On the average they are paid less than citizens, which consequently allows us to buy more for less.
To say it's just about curbing the negative economic impact of illegal immigrants on America simply delays the harder discussion.
We are one people, one global community, one world. Global immigration in general and specifically in the United States has been a search for the Promised Land, for a better life, for equality and an escape from poverty, hunger, oppression, war, racism, homophobia and genocide – many of the same reasons that brought those first immigrants to the United States.
So whether you participated in the "Day Without Immigrants" or not, let's mark May 1 as the day that we immigrants came together to celebrate the strengths and knowledge of our diverse communities and then put this combined knowledge together to build a better world–a world where there are no immigrants because every nation will be that Promised Land.



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