America is a land of immigrants, but also a country that has struggled with immigration issues in nearly every generation. Back in the nineteenth century, Americans of English descent resisted the onslaught of Irish settlers. Massachusetts was alarmed at the "alien horde" of French Canadians in the textile factories "taking good jobs from real Americans." Around the turn of the twentieth century, xenophobic critics wrote diatribes about how the criminal mind of Italian immigrants would surely ruin America. And in the latter part of the twentieth century, America was figuring out how to incorporate the teeming masses from South and Central America. Thus, current controversies about Latino immigration to the United States are hardly new.
However, the events of 2006 illustrate that the Latino experience is now profoundly different in many ways. For a country so interested in border security and requiring work permits, it says much about the United States that Latinos were able to gather recently to demand rights for those without legal papers. The Latino community is such a powerful bloc that large groups of them can assemble, essentially admit their illegal status, and return to their homes without fear of deportation. Whether legal residents or illegal newcomers, Latinos are a force in American society.
Yet, this powerful immigrant community is putting a strain on national policies for border control and labor. As shown by the recent national debate about illegal immigration, many find it untenable to have millions of Central and South Americans simultaneously driving the economy while bypassing laws that are designed for the whole world. Some say the United States should build a wall. Others suggest simply granting amnesty to those who are hardworking and attempting to immigrate. For both business and government, neither solution is simple.
Several trends indicate how the current wave of immigration is different from any in the nation's past and will bring new challenges and opportunities.
Not all Latinos are coming to live in the United States permanently. Immigrants are coming to America more to find high-paying work for a while than to become part of U.S. society. Historically, people emigrated to the United States to escape political repression or crushing poverty. America has represented for many people the chance at a good life and unequaled freedom.
Latino immigration today is happening for a more mixed set of reasons. As society in South and Central America has progressed away from military juntas and instability, basic political freedoms have been more assured, but the poverty remains. The drive to come north is more likely to be economic than anything else.
Many Latinos are now coming to work for short periods of time, make enough money to send home to Peru or El Salvador, perhaps work until a new house is built, and then return to their families. If you take a trip to any store in a Latino neighborhood you will likely see a man with a fistful of dollar bills filling out the forms for Western Union, sending money to family members. The Salvadoran government calculates that the largest contributor to its economy is money sent in from its people in the United States--more than $50 billion per year.
On one hand, this new kind of immigration is beneficial to all involved. Clearly, Latinos are finding work, and the money is providing economic opportunities in other countries where economic development has not always succeeded. But this phenomenon is precisely what many fear about illegal immigration. …