By Christopher Daniel
During the 1960s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on America to overcome its prejudices and change unjust laws. Forty-three years later many whites who lived through Kings era, such as this writer, like to forget the ways people rationalized opposing (or failing to support) civil rights back in the day when the cause was controversial. During the early 1960s many of my acquaintances remarked frequently that segregation statutes were the law and civil rights protestors were thus law breakers. Yes, laws were harsh, these sincere, well-meaning people acknowledged; but order had to be maintained. It would be wrong, many said, to reward law breakers, such as King, by passing civil rights laws.
In 1963 not everyone shared Kings optimistic faith that Americans could unite around the principle that all people have human dignity and deserve opportunities. There was in some quarters despairing talk, much like the expressions of doubt, which we hear today about whether or not America is capable of successfully assimilating into its social fabric Mexicans and other non-white immigrants.
Like segregationists of yesteryear, todays immigrant bashers fear that changing unjust laws will reward breaking the law. Playing on irrational fears, old-style bigots stereotyped black men as violent criminals and caricatured them as menacing threats to the sanctity of white women. Similar demagoguery abounds today as fear-mongering broadcasters try to convince the public that Chinese people washing dishes in Dallas, Hondurans cleaning hotel rooms in Orlando, and Mexicans shoveling manure in Bluegrass horse barns are, like Osama Bin Laden, grave threats to homeland security.
Virtually all members of Congress support intensifying border security and increasing efforts to enforce immigration laws within workplaces. Therefore, congressional debate centers instead on immigrations future. Will efforts be made to expel 8-11 million undocumented immigrants from the nation? Should legal flows of blue-collar immigrants be permitted to take place in future years? If so, should those newcomers be granted opportunities, over the course of time, to become Americans? To come to terms with those questions people need to understand how our existing immigration laws operate, succeeding in some respects and failing in others.
Current laws do a reasonably good job of keeping Americas door open, or at least ajar, to admit people fleeing execution or imprisonment by tyrannical governments. Our nations immigration laws also enable it to welcome to its bosom many highly educated immigrants. The current law fails, however, to admit legally more than a trickle of foreign blue-collar workers into the nations workforce. This failure occurs despite the fact that our economy increasingly needs help from foreigners willing to do dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs, which others shun. For years restrictive quotas and cumbersome bureaucratic rules have prevented those immigrants from coming into America through its legal front door. Inattentive (and perhaps motivated at times by xenophobic prejudice) Congress has neglected for years to fix severely flawed laws.
American agriculture depends on the labor of 1.5 million foreign workers, the majority of whom are in the U.S. illegally. The temporary agricultural visa program, which is in effect today works so poorly that it only gives 30,000 workers legal access to our fields, dairy barns and food processing plants. If the American diet depended wholly on the labor of U.S. natives, supplemented with help from legal foreign workers, most of us would have starved to death years ago. For years illegals have kept the rest of America fed and comfortable.
We owe the immigrants who pick our vegetables, clean our porta-potties and do physically demanding construction jobs hope for the future, both for themselves and for their children. America cannot realize Kings dream while simultaneously denying basic human dignity to its hardest working immigrants. Senator McCain wants to tackle this problem. Will those who represent us in Congress -- Mitch McConnell, Jim Bunning, and Ben Chandler -- also be willing to take pro-immigrant positions consistent with Kings great dream?
(Christopher Daniel is a political scientist who teaches at Kentucky State University. For the past five years his research and service activities have focused on challenges which immigration poses to Kentucky communities. These view are his own, not necessarily those of the University. This is the second of three columns on immigration issues. The third will appear Sunday.)