The crisis at the border won’t end until we admit we need immigrants at least as much as they need us




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When it comes to the subject of immigration, humanity and common sense matter. 

That’s where every conversation on the topic should start.

The first question out of mouths should not be: “How do we keep all of ‘those people’ out?” It should be: “How do we manage the inevitable migration of people across our borders as fairly and humanely as possible?”

We often forget, or choose to forget, that the great majority of migrants wanting to enter the U.S. are escaping dire and at times even life-threatening conditions at home. 

Most human beings are not born with a burning desire to abandon their families, friends and careers on the off chance they might be able to replace everything in life they’ve ever known, loved and valued in some faraway land. 

And the more desperate the conditions are at home, logically, the more risks people are willing to take when they migrate. That’s why hundreds of people die trying to make the trek north across our border every year.

The truth is immigrants, by and large, are just like you and me. Contrary to what some might want us to believe, immigrants are not a bunch of criminals intent on destroying the American way of life. With few exceptions, most are just average people with families and dreams and a basic desire to live happy and stable lives, all while keeping those they know and love safe.

Isn’t that what most of us want? Why would anyone think that immigrants are any different?

To suggest that human migration is somehow intrinsically wrong or even immoral is not only fundamentally dishonest, but it ignores one of the core constants of history: Human beings have always migrated, and we always will.

As if to deny that reality, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, joined by several of his Republican colleagues, showed up in El Paso this week to declare that President Biden’s immigration policy was totally to blame for the latest surge of migrants arriving at our southern border.

Let’s get one thing straight, Congressman McCarthy: The humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, to a greater or lesser degree, has been with us for decades. There isn’t room in this column to go into a complete history of our nation’s dysfunctional immigration policy, but suffice it to say that the U.S. approach to controlling who gets to cross our borders has been driven for far too long by blatant xenophobia instead of humanity, common sense or even rational economic strategy.

Again, most people leave the homelands because it’s become intolerable to stay, and if they come here it’s almost always because they know they can find work here. It’s not brain surgery: If we didn’t hire immigrants, most of them simply wouldn’t come. Or to put in more glowing “Americana” terms, we’re “the land of opportunity” and they know it. 

That doesn’t make them bad people. It makes them smart.

And the truth of the matter is that every day that goes by, the economy that sustains us needs more, not fewer, immigrants. Why? Because we’re an aging population and most Americans don’t bear enough children anymore to refuel the labor supply. 

And, no, before you get your MAGA caps all in a twist I am not advocating for “open borders.” And neither is President Biden.

What I am advocating is that we stop acting as if, just because most of the people arriving on our shores are people of color, that they’re somehow not good enough or smart enough to help us grow the U.S. economy.

If that’s what you believe, here are two facts from opposite ends of the economic spectrum to think about when it comes to immigration. More than half of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants.

“Great!” some of you may be saying. “Then let’s just let the smart and educated ones in and America will keep being a great place to live!”

Oh, yeah? How about this? According to a September 2020 study by the Immigration Research Library: “Sixty-nine percent of all immigrants in the U.S. labor force and 74 percent of undocumented workers are essential workers, compared to 65 percent of the native-born labor force.”

They’re called essential workers because, guess what, they really are essential to the functioning and growth of our economy.

I’m talking about the people who do all the heavy lifting. They’re the people who pick our crops, can our vegetables, build our cities, clean our homes, treat us in our hospitals, work in our restaurants, stock the supermarket shelves, care for our children, and so on and so forth.

And, by the way, for the past 12 months, millions of America’s essential workers have been on the job and literally risking their lives to help keep us alive. And if they happened to be undocumented immigrants? They did not get an unemployment or  economic stimulus check to help cope with the economic disaster caused by the spread of the coronavirus.

The point here is that building walls and sending tens of thousands more federal immigration agents or spending billions more on high-tech surveillance equipment to stand vigil at our southern border and keep people out will never fix our broken immigration policy.

What we need instead is an honest acknowledgement that we need immigrants at least as much as they need us. 

And until we come up with a compassionate and sensible plan for managing how people get to migrate to the U.S. instead of spending most of our energy trying to keep them out, the humanitarian crisis at our border will never end.

James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide, and the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.