The Wikipedia describes immigration
as “movement of people from one nation-state to another where they are not citizens.
[Immigration] implies long-term permanent residence (and often eventual citizenship) by the immigrants” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration, accessed 1/28/07). The United
States has long been seen as a nation of immigrants, both voluntary and involuntary. In fact, our country continues to have the highest number of immigrants of any country
in the world, 39,000,000. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration, accessed 1/28/07). However, these immigrants represent only 13% of the overall US
population of 296,410,404 (www.census.gov, accessed 1/28/07). By contrast, several countries in the Persian Gulf have populations that are 80%
to 90% immigrants. Viewed in this light, the United
States has far less than its fair share of immigrants.
What are the reasons that people
give for immigrating? The most frequent reasons are to find employment, to escape
poverty, and to gain higher wages. People also immigrate to escape natural disasters,
to retire in a better climate with a lower cost of living, and to escape oppression.
What are the reasons that people oppose immigration? The reasons are very
similar: to maintain their current standard of living as well as to assure jobs
at a decent wage for current residents.
Any discussion of immigration is
likely to generate a heated debate between those who favor open borders on the basis of social justice and those who oppose
immigration as a means of protecting jobs and wages for current residents. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration, accessed 1/28/07). As social workers who embrace the value of social and economic justice, we are likely
to favor immigration. However, making a simple statement that our borders should
be more open is insufficient.
Immigration as an issue is one of
the key issues on which our profession was built. We have only to return to the
work of Jane Addams, as described in Twenty Years at Hull House, to recall the
central role that services to immigrants have played in the evolution of our profession.
New immigrants require an extensive array of services if they are to truly integrate into our society and find a life
that is better than the life they left in their country of origin.
Jane Addams and her peers
faced a scenario that was, in many ways, easier to address than the issues we face today.
In that era, there were many unskilled jobs, and it was possible to obtain employment readily, even with limited English
Today, those unskilled jobs
have largely disappeared, with the exception of day labor opportunities at minimum wage or day labor. Such jobs, even if new immigrants can find them legally, do not pay well enough to provide the worker with
a decent standard of living. They are dead-end jobs that offer limited or no
benefits to those employed.
Today, a college education is required
to obtain most jobs, and the demand for higher and higher levels of education and training is continuing. In many cases, as in our profession, a graduate degree is becoming a requirement as well. Thus when we think about services to immigrants today, the education that they require is not simply skills
to read and write. It is access to secondary and higher education. Social work as a profession must advocate for the services and resources that will not only allow immigrants
to cross over our boarders. There is also an obligation to provide supports,
as Jane Addams did, and to assure that there are, once again, entry level rungs on the career ladder and ways for new immigrants
to reach to those first rungs and beyond.