Saturday, October 10, 2009

Who’s counting?

Unbelievably, I started blogging exactly one year ago. Just in time for the Hispanic Heritage Mass then and now. This year’s Mass will take place at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 11 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. Cardinal Justin Rigali will be the celebrant, and as in past years, he’ll be joined by many priests from across the Archdiocese that minister to the Latino community.

And a growing community it is.

Pennsylvania is one of 16 states with at least a half-million Hispanic residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (The others are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.)

The estimated Hispanic population of the United States as of July 1, 2008 is 46.9 million, making people of Hispanic origin the largest ethnic or race minority in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hispanics are 15 percent of the nation’s total population.

And to these totals you can add the 4 million residents of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (which is included in the U.S. Census report’s “national summary” data, but not in its “national totals”).

The Hispanic population in the U.S. is younger than the population as a whole. Hispanics comprise 22 percent of children younger than 18 in the nation, 25 percent of children younger than 5. The U. S. Census Bureau projects that by July 1, 2050, the Hispanic population of the United States will reach 132.8 million, and be 30 percent of the nation’s total population.

There were 1.6 million Hispanic-owned businesses in 2002, and the rate of growth of these businesses between the census of 1997 and 2002 was 31 percent. The national average rate of growth for all businesses during the same time period was 10 percent. Hispanic owned businesses generated revenues of $222 billion in 2002, according to census sources, up 19 percent from 1997.

Still, if you read my blog, or other Latino blogs, you already know that the violence, hate and animosity toward Latinos has increased markedly in recent years. The FBI reported a 35 percent increase in hate crimes against Latinos from 2003 to 2006 and a 3.3 percent increase in 2007 alone. Certain communities (Suffolk, N.Y., for example) have become something like hunting grounds where gangs of ruffians target their Latino neighbors for death, and juries and elected officials look the other way. Mainstream Latino advocacy organizations such as the NCLR have been vilified, and the first Latina Supreme Court justice was lampooned with openly racist caricatures during the period preceding her confirmation.

The vitriol in the immigration reform debate has contributed greatly to anti-Latino sentiment.

It is faulty logic to presume that all immigrants are Latino and all Latinos are immigrants, but nativists and commentators with nativist sympathies have reinforced this spurious syllogism. Ongoing air time devoted to the “invasion of America” (commentator Pat Buchanan) by hordes of “primitives” and “women with mustaches” (radio host Jay Severin) who are “changing the complexion of America” (Bill O’Reilly) and are “invaders” and carriers of “leprosy and tuberculosis” (Lou Dobbs) has had its effect on people’s ideas about Latinos and immigrants.

Even those who don’t wholeheartedly buy into anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric express irritation at Spanish-language phone options, or celebrations and parades wherein flags of Latin American countries are flown alongside the U.S. flag. Would the same level of irritation be manifest if the language option were German, say, or Polish? Do the St. Patrick’s and Columbus Day parades with their Irish and Italian flags proudly flown generate the same animus? Clearly not.

Much of current anti-immigrant rhetoric centers around the differences between new waves of immigration and historic ones – but the differences are largely myth.

Earlier immigrant groups also initially settled in mono-ethnic neighborhoods, spoke their own languages, went to church at personal parishes where Mass was celebrated in their native languages and set up businesses that not only served their fellow immigrants but contributed to the growth of the U.S. economy. They eventually learned English, became naturalized citizens, gave birth to U. S. citizens and grew to be integral to the weave of contemporary America.

It has been said that new immigrants don’t want to learn English, yet demand for English as a Second Language classes for adult learners far exceeds supply. With classes or without, more than 75 percent of current immigrants learn to speak English proficiently within 10 years of emigrating.

We’ve also heard that the new immigrants, unlike their predecessors, don’t want to become citizens. But according to U.S. Census Bureau and Bureaus of Citizenship and Immigration Services data, more than 33 percent of immigrants become naturalized citizens. This, of course, can’t begin to reflect the number of immigrants who might want to become citizens if a path to legal residency and citizenship were open to them.

The percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born stands at 11.5 percent currently. In the early 20th century, it stood at 15 percent. Immigrants in those days also dealt with anti-immigrant fears about the number of them coming to America, and the same derogatory attitudes about people “without papers” -- the genesis of at least one ethnic slur.

Myth has it that most immigrants today are undocumented. But the Immigration and Naturalization Services statistical yearbook records that 75 percent of current immigrants have legal permanent visas. And they pay U.S. taxes – between $90 and $140 billion a year. (Even undocumented immigrants pay taxes – as evidenced by the Social Security Administration’s “suspense file” -- taxes that cannot be matched to workers’ names and social security numbers -- which drew $20 billion between 1990 and 1998.)

Current immigrants, like their predecessors, contribute to the U.S. economy through their consumer spending and through the income generated by the businesses they set up. According to the Cato Institute and the Inter-American Development Bank, consumer spending of immigrant households and business contribute $162 billion in tax revenue to U.S. federal, state and local governments.

And Alan Greenspan, while he headed the Federal Reserve, pointed out that 70 percent of immigrants arrive to the U.S, in prime working years. As part of our workforce they will contribute $500 billion toward our social security system over the next 20 years.

An enduring myth about current immigrants is that they emigrate to receive public benefits. There is data from the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Urban Institute that shows that immigrant tax payments total $20 to $30 billion more than the amount of government services they receive.

Recent surveys have shown that new immigrants are actually much healthier than longtime immigrants (who in turn are healthier than native citizens). Which is lucky because legal immigrants are restricted from accessing any public health benefits for the first five years of their residence in the United States. Undocumented immigrants are precluded from accessing any public benefits at all.

It is hard to believe that any of us want to see our fellow human beings ill and suffering and barred from receiving any medical treatment; just as it is hard to believe any of us want to see people dying while trying to be reunited with their families, or while trying to escape violence or poverty. And yet, existing health care legislation and immigration policies compound these problems while offering no solutions.

Fortunately, we are heirs to a system of governance that permits us to challenge standing legislation. We can pass better laws. Laws that create a path to citizenship for people who desperately want to be here. Laws that ensure that U.S. citizen children aren’t separated from their undocumented parents. Laws that reflect compassion for our brothers and sisters in need, and that open to hope rather than a wall.

In the year I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve shown you signs that read “Hispanics keep out” and “Speak English.” I’ve posted videos that portray immigrants the same way blacks were depicted in early minstrel shows, and have referenced news about a teen who endured ethnic taunts while being dragged with a noose around his neck. I’ve written about a young man who was snatched right off a train platform on the basis of his Spanish accent, and linked you to horrifying stories about hate-crimes against Ecuadorian and Mexican immigrants in this and adjoining states.

But I’ve also written about people who stand for more and better.

Peter Pedemonti and his cohorts at the Catholic Worker house and in the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia who believe they are “entertaining angels” when they welcome the stranger.

Msgr. Hugh Shields. Anna Vega, Tim O’Connell, Sister Lorena and countless other unnamed religious folk and laypeople who believe we are all one family under God and so extend to immigrants the love we usually reserve for blood family.

Robert Nix, who journeyed to Shenendoah, Pa. after Luis Ramirez was killed to publicly urge community reconciliation.

I’ve pointed you to El Diario/La Prensa, which reports stories about immigrants and Latinos the mainstream media doesn’t even venture to cover.

And I’ve quoted the words of the U.S. Bishops, including our own Cardinal Justin Rigali, who have consistently sought to remind us that, in the words of Christ, “whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

Going into my second year of writing this, I’m not sure what effect, if any, blogs can have in our thinking about issues as complex as immigration or the upswing in anti-Latino sentiment in the nation. Particularly blogs like this one, with a small readership that, in all likelihood, already recognizes popular immigration myths for what they are and finds the words of the nativists and anti-immigrant commentators as repugnant as I do.

But I have to think it’s worth it.

There are local voices here that are too quiet to be heard in the nasty national debate. There are voices of local immigrants, and the voices of local people of faith who walk with them. There are voices of those who have overcome unbearable hardship and the voices of those who have taken up their advocacy. Not all of those voices are in the blog posts – some are in the comments, both public and private, made in response to the posts.

And despite the bad news and bad feelings I sometimes point to in my posts, it is the wonder and awe of knowing there are good people out there -- willing to protect and love and do for their fellow human beings -- that really keeps me writing.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Sabrina for being a voice for the voiceless. Your blog continues to bring to peoples consciousness the plight of our brothers and sisters who suffer in silence for daring to dream of a better future for their families for daring to dream the "American dream". Keep up the good work!


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