The debate over immigration reform is about to heat up. But in order for that debate to be worthwhile, we must be ready to learn from other countries mistakes where possible, with the understanding that America's immigration situation is unique. For all its problems, immigration policy in America could be much worse.
For starters, somewhere between 8 and 10 million undocumented immigrants pay $9 billion in taxes, according to experts. This is a boon to the IRS, considering that most of these workers are too afraid of deportation to claim the Social Security or Medicare benefits for which they've paid.
More importantly, the United States has not experienced the widespread violent backlashes to immigration that have occurred in other countries. To be fair, a growing number of undocumented workers have been victims of violence, but not to the extent we've seen in South Africa in recent weeks. Thousands of Zimbabweans trying to escape the brutal Mugabe regime by settling in South Africa are on the move again, now fleeing the new wave of xenophobia in the country. Some have been beaten to death. Others have been set on fire. The Flames of Hate, a short video/slideshow circulated by South African bloggers, depicts the atrocities in full color. In fact, Global Voices blogger Muhammid Karim, recently wrote about the efforts of the South African bloggers "to do more than just write" and actually join their local policing forums to protect Zimbabweans.
I don't think Americans need to worry about devolving into such a sorry state. But I do worry about our becoming ensnared in the race/class/ethnic tension common in Germany and France, as a result of bad immigration policies. Germany, for example, adopted a temporary guest-worker program to address labor shortages after World War II, and now has a growing population of second and third generation Turkish immigrants with limited rights. They have yet to be integrated into German society.
The two-week riot in Paris in 2005, demonstrates the same long-simmering problem. Since 1965, the poorly-integrated, unskilled immigrant labor population has been detached from French society. Much of the recent strife between police and North African immigrants is a result of this disconnect.
The lesson to be learned here is clear. It's easy to bring workers in from abroad when there is a need for labor. But as France and Germany have come to realize, you can't expect the workers to just go away after the job is done. These workers have children. And those children deserve to be integrated into the schools, communities and economies which their parents helped create.
John McCain and Barack Obama share some common ground on this area. In the 2007, YouTube Debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., McCain responded to a question about children of illegal immigrants by noting that "We need to sit down as Americans and recognize these are God's children as well. And they need some protection under the law; they need some of our love and compassion." Barack Obama denounced the proposals to deport twelve million undocumented workers as "ridiculous" at the U.T. Austin debate in February of 2008. And both candidates also realize that the U.S. needs stronger border security, but the similarities end there.
McCain's 2006 immigration proposal originally included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers already in the country. But by January of 2008, he announced in that we would no longer vote for his own bill. Instead, McCain has chosen to advocate building a border fence that would keep out the very people whom he claims "have enriched our culture and our nation as every generation of immigrants before them."
Americans should take the opportunity to learn from other countries' mistakes. We definitely need immigration reform. John McCain and Barack Obama have subtle, but important differences on this subject. But if voters put the challenges we face today in perspective, we will be better suited to choose a candidate who will make us proud to be Americans.