From the Editor

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Immigration isn't really the problem

It's been interesting to listen to the raging debate this season over immigration control.

Although it comes about 15 years too late to either open or close this particular barn door, both sides of the issue seem as self-convinced as they are off the mark.

On one side are those capitalizing on cultural fears to make political or media hay. One prominent leader says we are "held hostage," and I recall a Time magazine cover spouting, "Amexica."

On the other side are proponents of open borders, amnesty for illegal immigrants or new labor visas. They don't seem as interested in either people or communities as they are providing a steady flow of cheap, low-benefit workers to fill the unsavory field-and-factory jobs that anglos don't want - people who can be used up and easily replaced.

Each side on this debate has just enough truth in their arsenals to make a point, and strangely enough, they both agree totally on that point: the economic, cultural and political future of America is being decided today on the uneasy southern border, and the system we have for this process isn't working.

Yet spending any time in a diverse community like Storm Lake shows very clearly that immigration is not really the issue, not at all.

Transience is the issue. And we have yet to hear anyone in power address it in the least.

True, Latino immigrants have changed Storm Lake considerably. They have forced us to reexamine our comfortable ideas of community, they have caused us to address sudden needs in poverty services, translation, health care, law enforcement and English as a Second Language efforts.

On the other hand, in a place like Storm Lake, they have kept our population from shrinking away like the rest of rural Iowa. They have brought money into our schools, spurred some housing development, added to our culture and festivals, filled industrial jobs, started a good portion of our new businesses. They have been both our greatest challenge and out greatest growth.

But it in not Latino immigration that has been a problem in Storm Lake. It is transience. Skin color or language is immaterial - Latino or anglo, transience is what is hurting us.

Those who have no intention of making a long-term life in a community are the ones who are likely to ignore its laws. They have no reason to take care of the property where they live. pay their bills or their taxes. They don't bother caring for their neighbors. If they don't speak the language, they aren't likely to put the effort into learning. They probably care little about their children's school, because they will be long gone before the next school year ends. Most of them won't vote, participate or volunteer. They won't work very hard at jobs.

That's the problem in a nutshell - people who are disenfranchised, rootless, who don't give a damn about anything and don't have much to lose. They may be any skin color or speak any language. Our jail is often full of them. Transience is the problem.

Thankfully, immigration and transience are not synonymous. Many of our immigrant families are trying very hard to find new, long-term lives in Storm Lake. They work their butts off, sometimes at two or more poor-paying jobs, because they want to advance their station in life or gather resources to start their own businesses. They want to own and improve property as soon as possible. They care about schools, because they are desperate for their children to have better education and a better start than they had. These are the people in our ESL programs after a long shift at a plant, because they know they need English to succeed. They are not criminals, in fact, as one pastor notes, they are committed to flying under the radar - the last thing they want is to be inside a police station and to be questioned about their status.

Now, for politicians in the U.S. and Mexico, there needs to be a realization that a chain link fence or even the Air Force is not going to prevent illegal immigration.

The only thing that will stem that tide is to help Mexico to create opportunity within its own country. Maybe if and when that happens, our turncoat American "corporate citizens" will quit moving into industrial parks just across the border to pay workers have the usual salary. And what about the 600,000+ American expats seeking their opportunity in Mexico's Baja Peninsula?

For that matter, the only real answer for terrorism or gangs is the same - opportunity. People who have opportunity to achieve have little reason to hate or to be manipulated by those who do.

It is opportunity that brings Latinos to Storm Lake, as it has been that brought most other peoples through the years.

Citizen, or transient - that is the important question. One will have a chance to add something to this community, the other will only ultimately take away.

This could be the trumpet cry of a lot of the politicians today:

"In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny..."

Bush? King? Nope, George C. Wallace, January, 1963, in a famous inaugural address as governor of Alabama, building fear that blacks were taking over our nation. He finished, "...and I say... segregation today... segregation tomorrow... segregation forever."

He would have loved a national border barbed-wire fence as a cultural solution.

It is correct and vital to have this dialog on immigration today - it is a huge issue that will impact all of our futures and the face of the nation. There is room for all to be heard.

But a fence doesn't address what to do with 11 million people.

Expel them all at gunpoint, or help them earn citizenship and learn English? The answer to that question will go a long way toward defining who we are to be.

Now, when someone figures out how to build a fence between ambition and transience, we will have found the real key.