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Many Americans Ambivalent about Immigration

Africans face a number of challenges in their efforts to attain legal status as immigrants in the United States. In this 4th of a five part series, VOA English to Africa’s Henok Fente reports on how the United States views immigration both now and in the past.

Historically, the United States has attracted immigrants from every corner of the world. In fact, immigrants form part of the fabric of American society. Douglas Rivlin of the National Immigration Forum, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, says, “Immigration is one of the things that makes the United States, the United States. People came from all over the world, and we have put together what we think is a very good country. Even uneducated people, like my great grandfather, who came from Russia to come to the United States and make a life for themselves, whether they had formal education or not. We need to preserve that unique quality of the United States that it matters more what you can contribute than where you are from.”

He says even though the United States is a nation of immigrants, there has been resistance to newcomers throughout its history: “Political cartoons in the big era of immigration of 120 years ago [depicted people] really hating the Irish and really hating the Italians or really hating the Jews, the Slavs or whatever group was coming in at the current time. America has always had this love and hate relationship and the skepticism about the current wave of immigrants. This love/hate relationship was reflected in the immigration debate in the U.S. Congress. Lawmakers were divided regardless of party lines over the bill, which eventually failed to gain enough support.”

Rivlin cites informal statistics supporting his comments: “Without having exact numbers in front of me, it was about two thirds of the Democrats and about one-third of the Republicans who voted for it moving forward in the legislative process, and in the end that wasn’t enough. There are some people who feel that there is too much immigration going on in the United States [and they would] really like to see the numbers reduced.”

“Numbers USA” is one of the leading lobbying groups urging Congress to reduce the number of immigrants. The group did not respond to our repeated requests for its views, but on its official website it says it stands opposed to economic injustice and favors a “reduction in immigration numbers that are now so high as to harm the most vulnerable American workers and their families.”

Part of an Internet advertisement paid for by Numbers USA targets Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who supports comprehensive immigration reform. “Why is Senator Harry Reid selling out Nevada in favor of illegal aliens? He has joined with George Bush in strong arming senators to support amnesty for millions of illegals, many of whom have already taken jobs from American workers.”

When the immigration bill was voted down in Congress last month, Numbers USA claimed victory for Americans and for the country’s economy. Rivlin says the argument that immigrants are taking jobs meant for Americans is not logical, “It is an argument that you hear all the time and it happens to be wrong. Immigrants are working for the most part in complementary jobs to the native-born workforce. They are working in the service sector in agriculture in parts of our economy that are growing but Americans were not particularly interested in.”

Economists say as long as the US economy does well, immigrants will find a way to cross the borders. This is also the view of Chuks Eleonu, head of an African think-tank called African-Pac: “You can fortify the border as much as you want. That is why I mentioned earlier about China having a wall, Rome having a wall, Germany had a wall, and people scaled it. When a family has a desire, if you are sitting in darkness, and you can see light across the street, you will try to find a way to cross that street no matter how torturous it is.”

The immigration issue is officially off the table in Congress – for now – but many predict it will play an important role in the 2008 presidential elections.