Dec 9, 2013
Real American Boy: How Our Byzantine Immigration System and Failed Economy May Have Made a Terrorist
Posted on May 20, 2013
By Susan Zakin
Welcome to the 21st century. While Americans fought about whether mojado Mexicans should be allowed to trim their hedges, Canada and Western European countries designed civic integration policies to deal with immigrant unemployment, school dropout rates and residential segregation. England did all that and more, requiring immigrants to learn “British mores and day-to-day life,” a list that included paying bills, standing in line and how to behave in pubs.
The immigration reform bill now before Congress doesn’t require answering test questions on Budweiser and the NFL, but it does include provisions that would substantially modernize the U.S. system. Many of the reforms are small scale, and even if the bill passed in its current form, the immigration process would remain difficult to parse without a law degree. But the bipartisan legislation, which incorporates virtually every aspect of contemporary thinking on immigration, lays the groundwork for moving U.S. immigration policy into the 21st century.
It is hardly a surprise that Republican support for the bill is based on changes that would benefit business. These include a new, merit-based program that would allow foreigners, including highly skilled white-collar as well as blue-collar workers, to become legal residents based on their talents. Other stipulations ease the way for graduate students and entrepreneurs, and establish a new visa category for agricultural workers. The bill would also lift restrictions on “Einstein visas,” which have prevented researchers and professors from attending conferences and working in the U.S.
But Jones-Correa and others fear proposals that aren’t tied to corporate and business profits could end up as trading stock for congressional deal makers. These include $10 million to create an Office of Citizenship and New Americans, and the establishment of a task force and foundation dedicated to immigrant integration. (The bill authorizes $100 million over five years for integration efforts, but since it’s unlikely that Congress will actually allocate that amount, the foundation could take up some of the slack.)
As Kymlicka suggests, the real trouble is economic, but not in the way one might expect. The stereotypes are wrong: Studies have shown that immigrants don’t take jobs away from native-born Americans, and crime rates do not rise in immigrant neighborhoods. The problem, according to Jones-Correa, is that the most recent immigration boom, which added 47 million to the U.S. population between 1960 and 2000, coincided with the decline in American manufacturing. Without high-wage blue-collar jobs that historically led to upward mobility for both African-Americans and immigrants, the U.S. now lags behind other industrialized nations in social mobility.
Yet immigrants keep coming. American anti-immigrant sentiment is, in part, a reaction to rapid, sweeping changes in society, especially among older people, Jones-Correa says. On a day-to-day basis, one of the more visible signs is the presence of large numbers of immigrants. Unlike previous waves, the majority of recent immigrants are not Western European, but Latino and Asian. To compound the cultural disconnect, they are flooding into places that have little or no history of immigration. For example, in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Nevada, Tennessee and Nebraska, immigrant populations increased by at least 200 percent between 1990 and 2000.
Raw numbers are only part of the story. Harvard historian Samuel Huntington’s 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, “The Clash of Civilizations?” was controversial because it warned that the white Protestant culture no longer was the dominant influence in American society. Huntington’s apparent assumption of cultural superiority infuriated his critics, and his work was taken up by nativists. But his underlying idea that culture and religion were becoming the drivers in a post-Cold War world, was not quite so controversial. At least one thing is clear: As both capital and people stream across borders at an unprecedented rate, America’s immigration system, with its codification of Calvinist bootstrap self-sufficiency, simply isn’t working for a new generation of immigrants. It’s debatable whether this mindset is working for native-born Americans either.
In the admittedly extreme case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, consider Chechnya. Chechen culture encourages male bravado, something that has helped Chechens keep their identity through generations of oppression in Russia, but that can make some Chechen men particularly prone to feelings of alienation. Oliver Bullough, an author who spent years researching the Chechen diaspora, told Reuters that Chechens who reached the West after the wars of the 1990s have had problems integrating, and these problems appear to be particularly acute for men who arrived as young adults.
As I combed through the articles and TV segments on the Boston bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s words kept coming back to me. “I don’t have a single American friend,” he confided to a reporter who was profiling the aspiring boxer for a student magazine. “I don’t understand them.”
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