The Original “Dreamers”
I heard a guest on Bloomberg Radio today predict a coming “crisis” for the American economy: soon we will not have enough skilled workers, or workers of any kind, to meet the needs of the labor market.
I’ve suspected for many years the reason we’ve been so willing to accept large numbers of immigrants into the country is because immigrants, especially well-educated ones, are a cheap way to meet our labor needs. I mean “cheap” in both the economic and moral senses – we don’t have to pay for the educations or training they already have, and we don’t have to face the moral and fiscal obligation of educating tens of millions of our own citizens who are unemployed or underemployed for lack of a comparable education and training.
We have been a nation of immigrants for the same reason we were once a slave nation. We needed the muscle of millions to take possession of a continent we decided to claim as our own. Later we needed brains to develop our technology and staff our professions. We could have developed our marginalized poor and disenfranchised, but instead we chose to write them off.
Those disadvantaged Americans are descendants of the original “dreamers” – the ones who freed themselves from slavery or whose ancestors came here in search of a better life wherever they originated. We should not be throwing anyone out of this country who was born here or is an established resident (my grandfather was an “undocumented” immigrant). But we might want to consider putting some of the empathy and effort we put into regularizing the status of millions of undocumented immigrants into rehabilitating the tens of millions we continue to exclude from the benefits most immigrants to this country were afforded in the early decades of the last century. That was the same period when African Americans were deliberately denied access to home ownership under the New Deal and were excluded from good public and private employment.
Home ownership accounts for the greatest part of the wealth of ordinary Americans. It not only makes possible a nest egg to pass on to offspring, it also provides equity to be used for a student loan or to start a small business. Thanks to those New Deal policies African Americans today possess only 5% of white wealth. Their not having access to good jobs since the days of slavery has had consequences that don’t need to be spelled out.
It’s easy to support a law that gives legal status to deserving immigrants. It’s quite another matter to make a commitment to atone for three or more generations of deliberate public policy of segregation and economic disenfranchisement. We embrace one because it makes us feel good to do so. We shy away from the other because we have not been taught the roots of the present crisis for people of color in this country but also because the effort required to make those citizens whole is so daunting. But it’s time we started to learn our history, put it into the textbooks we use to teach our children, and make meaningful reparations for it.