In the early 1980s, after about 20 years of growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and routinely hearing people speak English, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Korean and other languages, I'm riding the D train to a summer job in Manhattan, and I hear a couple of new voices. Is that Russian? Sure enough, and within a few weeks, I was reading about Little Odessa emerging in Brighton Beach and Coney Island.
This was just another ethnically defined neighborhood bubbling up in the city's ever-changing face, but it's often been a painful process due to the suspicion that goes with it. What I learned over the years is that established citizens and ethnic groups complain about, mistreat and brand as illegal each group that arrives after them. To varying degrees, Irish dumped on Italians, Italians dumped on Puerto Ricans, Puerto Ricans dumped on Koreans, Koreans dumped on Haitians. I lost track after that, but I'd bet the Haitans got mad at whoever showed up next. I believe I observed this process more readily because the turnover was quicker in the cities where I've lived.
Likewise, I've seen similar intra-tribal struggles unfold between professional groups and organizations, too. Process control engineers and other U.S. manufacturing disciplines have long debated how many H-1B visas should be issued to high-tech workers until many potential applicants also began finding more engineering jobs and increasing salaries in their native or other countries. Most recently, the Obama Administration and the U.S. Dept. of Homeland proposed in early May to allow 100,000 spouses of foreign, high-tech employees to also work in the U.S., and make it easier for some foreign workers to extend their stays.
Of course, there are many critics of any aid to immigrants, but I say everyone who's already here and working should be allowed to do it. Though overall unemployment remains unacceptably high and more assistance is needed for all job seekers, many positions, mostly at the high and low ends of the skills spectrum, remain unfilled. This is a real drain holding back our economy, and it's a lot more substantive than worrying about scary foreigners who might take jobs many U.S. citizens apparently don't want do or aren't qualified for anyway. In fairness, anyone who has the skills for a job or is willing to get them should be hired.
The historical measure of new Americans has always been their willingness to give up everything, immigrate here, work like crazy and follow that old, well-known dream. These restless, obsessive individuals are more truly American than anyone trying to limit them, while arbitrary restrictions are tools of the ancient, one-or-a-few-idiots-in-charge monarchies and dictatorships from which we and all other immigrants originally escaped.
Instead of blocking immigrants that deserve the same chance as our parents, grandparents and ancestors, how about a collective, get-off-our-rear-ends compromise? Existing employees and job seekers will make an effort to get more education in skills they need to become or stay employed in high-tech jobs, and employers will stop sitting on piles of idle capital and really invest in paying better wages for all those jobs it's been easier to say they can't fill.
Many knee-jerk prejudices will persist, but it's time to get past them and the politicians that exploit them. Personally, while dwelling in Chicago's Rogers Park in the early 1990s, I was briefly concerned about a sudden influx of Hispanic residents in our little section of the neighborhood, and I was worried about the potential noise. However, I quickly learned they were working even longer hours than I was, and they prized a little peace and quiet even more than I did. Many were also new parents like me, so exhaustion was our common ground.
So, as Aunt Eller sings in the musical "Oklahoma,” "I don't say I'm no better than anybody else, but I'll be danged if I ain't just as good!” Once again, it's time to prove it.