Pete Souza
Politics /04 Aug 2011
08.04.11

America’s Great Immigration Debate

The immigration debate in America is an argument that will never be resolved to the satisfaction of all. The very necessity of immigration and the key role that it plays in the overall balance of global equality transcends most human perceptions of it. It has a symbolic importance and it plays a crucial role in our world. The global system is constantly moving and evolving in order to stave off severe economic stagnation from wiping out entire global communities. However, resolving this debate continues to fall on deaf ears especially to those who should know better – our leaders in Washington.

Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, founder of the Harvard Immigration Project, and co-director of Immigration studies at NYU, writes in the New York Daily News, “Immigration stability is remarkable. While the potential for Immigration continues to grow in our increasingly mobile and global world, the reality of international immigration remains quite stable – with more than 96% of all human beings living in the countries where they were born.” Many Americans like to claim that they are not opposed to immigration, illegal or otherwise, as long as undocumented workers follow proper protocol. But what many Americans and naturalized citizens fail to understand is that immigration is not simply about freedom of choice for the millions of immigrants currently residing in the United States.

Each year many immigrants are forced into choosing such a future for themselves. To most of us who have immigrated to the United States, the choice is obvious and most times there is no alternative. For most illegal and undocumented workers, the life of being the unwanted can be very lonely and incredibly stressful. Many endure unspeakable hardships for years on end. It’s no easy task surviving the perils and constraints of an unwelcome system that is constantly closing in around them.

The mind-set of most Americans is that America is no longer a welcoming nation with boundless opportunities for employment. There is north of fourteen million unemployed Americans, many of who have no real prospects of finding a job. It is difficult for the unemployed to see how legalizing more undocumented workers is going to hurt their own prospects of finding employment. The day that the United States is no longer the dream destination for immigrants is the day that Americans need to start dusting the cobwebs from their own passports. The United States is a prosperous nation, that offers quality of life and protection for its citizens and will continue to be a magnet for people who are less fortunate. For too long, Washington has been flip-flopping on the issue of how to best deal with today’s undocumented immigrants, some of whom have been living and working and raising families in American communities for years.

President Obama has done little to fulfill his promise of comprehensive immigration reform that he made while running for the presidency. George W. Bush was a much better friend to America’s “citizens-without-status.” Progress was made when John McCain and Ted Kennedy crossed party lines and came together on the issue of illegal immigration. This has been allowed to melt away like winter snow. The all-decisive Hispanic vote might not be so kind to Obama’s 2012 bid for the White House. No undocumented worker wants to work for low wages and in the process is forced to eke out a paltry life. However, many are driven by an aggressive determination to better themselves.

Of the twelve million illegal immigrants in America today, most have developed a deep passion and love for this country and most are unyieldingly grateful for the opportunities that America has afforded them. I know first-hand what it’s like to be illegal in America. Thankfully, I was only in the United States a year when I won my billion dollars – the Morrison visa.

I remember that day back in Dublin, Ireland when I walked out of the American Embassy in Ballsbride, as a newly gifted legal alien, along with my wife and our then three-year-old son. It’s a feeling that even as a writer, I will never be able to fully explain. But if it was ever possible to walk on air, I believe on that day, I did just that. America has been very kind to me. I might have been born and raised in Ireland and a great part of me will always be Irish but today I’m an American through and “true” and I love this country with all of my heart.

Last week I met a fellow immigrant here in New York City. Originally from Odessa in the Ukraine, he told me that he defected to the United States in 1979, during the time when President Carter and Leonid Brezhnev met in Austria and signed Salt II. After that meeting, Russia, as a token of good faith, opened it’s borders for two months and it was during this time that my Odessan friend fled to Western Europe and later to America with his young wife.

He has been here now for twenty-eight years and he has never been back to the Ukraine since leaving it. He is very proud of his Russian heritage but also he is incredibly happy to be here in America and he has no doubt whatsoever that America is his home and it will continue to be his home for the rest of his life. Fortunately for my Odessan friend, he was able through the years to bring his mother and father and most of his family here to New York City. Even while we stood there, looking down from our 17th floor view of the wondrous spectacle that is Eastside Manhattan, there was a brief moment where our conversation paused and it was like both of us were at that moment surveying the gift that was bestowed upon us. A gift that will never grow old – for either of us.

I don’t believe that anyone should ever be asked to pay for a green card, as has been suggested by some in Washington. But I do believe that everyone who is fortunate enough to get a green card should earn it with every ounce of blood and sweat in his or her body. President Obama is facing pressure from many fronts right now and his popularity, as Commander in Chief, is at an all time low. Addressing America’s illegal immigration debate and offering real solutions might not be at top of his to-do list but come November of next year, it might be the very reason that he and Michelle are making plans for an early January re-entry into life after the Presidency.

Twelve million people are lost in the system and our leaders in Washington are unsure what to do with them. This inaction is mind-blowing to someone like me who came from an island with a population of four and a half million. To think of a number almost three times that and to know that so many people are waiting out in the cold – it sometimes makes me feel guilty that I was once one of them. In simple terms, our leaders are simply not doing enough to make the American dream possible for others as they did for me many years ago.

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