Immigration policy a sensitive subject

Tuesday, March 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:32 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

Need a fast conversation starter? Try the word “immigration.” Before you know it, you’ll be buried under an avalanche of words. This is a subject on which everyone seems to have an opinion. For a long time, most people seemed to be for it. These days, some are still for it, but...

I was visiting with a group last week that was discussing the mass immigration that had taken place in the last few years.

These folks were talking about how the steady influx of new residents was causing their community to re-examine its resources and determine how many citizens it could realistically accommodate. Institutions such as schools and hospitals were already facing overcrowded conditions.

At the rate their population was growing, these folks were expecting to have to drastically expand their facilities within the next year.

They were also talking about a shortage of interpreters to assist those for whom English was a second language. That particular issue brought forth a lively exchange about the manner in which new residents are assimilated into our country.

One woman thought that there should be an agency within the government devoted exclusively to orienting new people to the American way of life.

She thought that if immigrants understood that the ability to speak English would make the transition from their society to ours much easier, more would be eager to become skilled in that area.

She insisted that in addition to having a thorough understanding of our legal system, they should also have an overview of American lifestyles among the various social classes. For example, they should see how families from different walks of life live and work.

From her point of view, understanding a new country’s language and cultural traditions is as important as learning its system of government.

Others in the group were concerned about the estimated 9 million illegal immigrants that have moved into the country. One thing everyone agreed on is that our borders offer little or no protection against those who want to enter the country illegally.

Although illegal immigrant workers usually find work at the low end of the economic ladder, unskilled American workers are also in the market for jobs at that level.

And while many might assert that these workers only take jobs that Americans refuse, the truth is that in a tight job market, people usually take whatever jobs they can find. No one in this particular group seemed to favor legalizing illegal immigrants. One man said that he thought this idea was just a ploy by politicians trying to get more votes.

Because America has a history of opening its arms to welcome newcomers, the issue of immigration has become a testy one. The Immigration Service was established in 1891 because of the large number of foreigners who settled in the country in the 1880s.

Before 1917, laws restricting immigration applied only to criminals, people with diseases and those who may become a public burden. That year a law was passed that imposed a literary test and was designed to deny Asians the right to enter the country.

Then in 1921, a national-origin quota system was put in place that limited immigrants from most countries. In 1924, northern and western Europeans were excluded from the quota. This system was replaced in 1965 by one that was designed to bring immigrant families together and to entice skilled immigrants to come into the country. This act brought in people emigrating from Asia and South America. Congress enacted special legislation to admit refugees in the Refugee Act of 1980.

Although the population is swollen with new residents — apparently — attempts to Americanize these immigrants are extremely difficult. Even after they have settled into an American lifestyle, authorities contend many still retain their emotional attachment to the countries they have left behind.

This is because in part, of course, of the advances in technology that are available to them and enable them to keep in close contact with families and friends in the country of their origin.

It’s doubtful that our laid-back society will make any effort to deal with this situation or even be aware that it exists.

The problem of our open borders, however, poses a serious threat. In spite of all the talk about homeland security, an estimated 1 million illegal aliens enter this country each year. This means that the risks of terrorists getting through without detection are unbelievably high.

Some folks contend that immigration policy has nothing to do with terrorism. Nevertheless, a lot of people would sleep a lot easier if they thought that our borders protected us from even armed bands of common criminals sneaking into the country at night. But, of course, this is just another area that awaits Americans who have yet to find their will and take action.

The question posed by the Psalmist centuries ago is still begging an answer: “How long, oh Lord, how long?”

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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