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Montana Voices: The immigration challenge is far more complex than we know

Robert Seidenschwarz

Few events are more compelling in their effect on our emotions or partisan leanings than what we are witnessing along our shared border with Mexico. The pictures, stories and political implications are significant.

Against this backdrop are the pending midterms in November and the 2020 presidential elections. We often hear the phrase that we are a nation of immigrants. We are also a land, that prior to the arrival of a significant number of European immigrants, had established populations of Native American peoples from coast to coast. What we are witnessing today is not unique to our history or, for that matter, mankind’s.

Consider the demographic makeup of America today, and what that portends as we investigate the future. These demographic trends will be the ideological, economic and political battlegrounds across a spectrum of issues for decades to come.

According to the pew Research Center, if current trends continue, the demographic profile of the United States will change dramatically by the middle of this century. The U.S. population will climb to 438 million in 2050, and fully 82 percent of that growth will be due to immigrants arriving and their descendants.

Of the 117 million people added to the population during this period, because of new immigration, 67 million will be immigrants themselves, 47 million will be their children and 3 million will be their grandchildren. The center’s projections also indicate that nearly one in five Americans will be foreign born in 2050, surpassing the historic peaks for immigrants as a share of the U.S. population.

By 2050, the nation’s racial and ethnic mix will look quite different than it does now. Non- Hispanic whites who made up 67 percent of the population in 2005 will be 47 percent in 2050 (think how that may be played by the “this is not my America” constituency).

Hispanics will rise from 14 percent of the population in 2005 to 29 percent in 2050. Blacks were 13 percent of the population in 2005 and will be roughly the same in 2050. Asians, who were 5 percent of the population in 2005, will be 9 percent in 2050. It’s important to note that possible future changes in immigration policy or other events could substantially alter the projected totals.

The U.S. has, and will continue to be a country of vast and untapped human resources along with abundant natural assets. Throughout our history, this refreshing of its population has come with great economic opportunity, but with internal conflict as well.

One such example was the Chinese exclusion Act of 1882 which was passed to exclude laborers coming from Asia. This was a result of declining wages and economic ills affecting the West Coast (primarily California). There was a strong element of ethnic racism to complement the rationalism of economic necessity.

The Great Wave from Europe 1880-1920 occurred at a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization that brought over 20 million immigrants to the country. The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas on the number of immigrants from certain countries as well as nonwhites, the exception being Black African immigrants, which had long been exempt from the ban. The law was primarily aimed at further decreasing immigration of Southern European countries of Roman Catholic majorities, Eastern Europeans (Jews) and Arabs. There are several immigration acts historically that one can find parallels to today’s issues.

There are currently estimated to be over 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. One of the arguments is the economic benefits to the U.S. economy outweigh the overall cost. I would argue that it doesn’t begin to cover the real cost (broken rule of law, drug and human trafficking, social discord, political partisanship, xenophobia, etc.) as well as to those who are here illegally.

No country can function without adherence to the rule of law. If the law is not reflective of changing times and circumstances then legal means exist, as provided by the courts, to address those concerns.

No country that is sovereign functions with open borders. From health issues to national security concerns, the need to know who and where people come from is a basic protection and right of your country. If agreements are to be reached on D.A.C.A or amnesty, we must truly listen to the concerns of states and boarder communities that are dealing with rising health care costs, crime, environmental concerns, infrastructure demands on schools, social services, etc.

Too often, political opportunists will exploit legitimate concerns as xenophobic while ignoring the real impact on these communities

Balancing the reasons why individuals and families are willing to make perilous journeys to escape gang violence, murderous corrupt regimes, or seek economic freedom is a reminder of our country’s origins and moral values. These tensions are in constant conflict, as we mix these ingredients into the American stew.

There is not a country on the planet that has better track record at successfully integrating the multitude of cultures into the fabric of becoming an American. How is it working for Europe?

The issue as it stands today is solvable. We have both the resources and the need for the refreshing dynamic that immigration brings to this country. From an aging population, to an ever increasing national debt, to the unsustainable promise as it stands today of providing Social Security and Medicare entitlements – it will require the growth of our population.

The issue of illegal immigration will not be solved without the cooperation of Mexico as well. For too long the corrupt and ineffective government of the P.R.I. has not delivered on the promises to care and provide opportunity for its people.

Mexican citizens in the U.S. are responsible for sending 30 billion dollars in remittances home to Mexico. That sum has surpassed oil and tourism as the largest source of foreign exchange. Do you think Mexico doesn’t have an interest in our immigration laws? Leftist Lopez Obrador was elected President of Mexico yesterday. This is worthy of our full attention on every issue that concerns these critical neighbors and economic partners.

How will this issue get solved? You and I have a responsibility to know our own history. We are a country of immigrants. Ask yourself the question, what does it mean to be an American. What are our common shared values that we identify with. Difficult economic challenges await us in the years ahead and hard unpopular decisions will have to be made. You can’t keep putting the payment on the credit card and kicking the can down the road.

More times than we care to acknowledge, it is our own foreign policy blunders and support of corrupt regimes that lay the foundation for the flows of refugees and immigrants that we see today. Often, Mexico will point the finger at us and admonish that if not for the demands for drugs in this country, the cartels would not exist. Our moral challenge! We must stop (this is going to be hard) the partisan battles that demand that for me to win, you must lose.

Restoring balance to a system both morally and economically broken, is a monumental challenge that will take statesmanship, not pandering to the lowest common denominator of our character. With the fourth of July upon us, what better moment to consider its origins and uniqueness in the history of the world.

Robert Seidenschwarz is chairman of the Board of Directors for the Montana World Affairs Council and lives in Missoula.