Some “Secrets” About Immigration In An Economic Downturn


By Richard Gambino

A major reason for today’s “immigration problem” is never discussed — never even mentioned. It lies in a few  simple economic facts. One, the American economy (as measured by the Gross Domestic Product) is  at  over 14 trillion dollars. This is three times what it was just twenty-five years ago. The rate of unemployment  as of December 2007, before the current economic downturn, was just five percent. Based on these facts, it isn’t hard to see that the phenomenal growth of our economy in the last twenty-five years required immigrants’ labor — including the labor of illegal immigrants — and could not have risen to the present level without them. Another way of putting it is that if we had deported all 12 million illegal immigrants, the first thing we would  have had to do is scramble to replace them with 12 million legal immigrants used to manual labor, impossible given our immigration laws, or face a massive economic problem.

Another set of important “secrets” about immigration follows directly from the above. The reason that our border with Mexico was not sealed during the last two decades is that powerful cores of each political party in Washington, Democrats and Republicans, did not want to seal it. Technology existed to do so, e.g., satellites and aircraft with daylight TV cameras good enough to read a newspaper on the ground, nighttime technology almost as good, and we could have mustered manpower on the ground to work in concert with this technology. We didn’t do so because enough politicians knew well about the essential economic need for, and value of, the cheap labor provided by illegal immigrants in our economy. Without them, our crops, from Eastern Long Island to California, would rot in the fields, our motels, hotels, office buildings and other buildings would go uncleaned and unmaintained, our lawns untended, our restaurants unstaffed, and innumerable other types of manual labor not done. And, now, of course, each political party fears, and hopes to gain, “the Hispanic vote.”

Still another “secret” is a bit better known: the government of Mexico facilitated and still facilitates the exodus of its citizens to the U.S. as a safety valve for its failure to remedy the unemployment and poverty there. Just as in the era from 1820 to 1924, the governments of Italy, the Czarist Empire, Germany, Scandinavia, the British government of Ireland, and many other nations pushed their poor, 33.5 million of them, to go to the U.S., or turned a blind eye as they left.

In summary, a good deal of the responsibility for 12 million  immigrants being here illegally lies with the U.S. and Mexican Governments.

Let’s separate the border question from the question of the presence of the illegal immigrants already here. In 2008, we are in an economic downturn not likely to end for a couple of years, according to experts. Thus, the political calculus is changing. With the unemployment rate up to 5.7% in the second quarter, and the GDP up only 1% in the first quarter and 1.9% in the second, both political parties walk on egg shells about the illegals in our midst, fearing increased hostility toward immigrants. All of which gives fuel to immigrant-bashers, who, as is well known, are — one and all — direct descendants of the earliest pre-Columbian peoples who inhabited the Western Hemisphere. 

If the next Congress and the next President truly will it, the border can be and will be sealed, using the technology already cited. The second question, quite independent from the border, is: how are we going to treat the 12 million illegals already here? The days are over when the U.S. government could deport people, including some who were U.S. citizens, without due process of law, as it did with 400,000 Mexicans from 1929 to 1934, and 2.2 million Mexicans, in “Operation Wetback” from 1953 to 1955. Today’s  U.S. legal standards and today’s courts would not allow it. Moreover, legal due process for 12 million people would mean most of them, and us, would  never see the end of the police and court logjams that would be produced.

Of course, we can make the lives of today’s immigrants as hard as possible, just as was experienced in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth. Ghastly slum-housing, poor or non-existent medical care, grueling or dangerous work for poor wages, inferior schools and high early drop-out rates, short shrift and being cheated by governments and employers. For a glimpse of these in the twentieth century read Pietro di Donato’s powerful 1939 novel, Christ In Concrete. And for a taste of the bitter farm life of earlier immigrants on the American plains, read Willa Cather’s great 1918 novel, My Antonia. Now, pressure is building to penalize employers who hire illegals, with the goal of forcing the immigrants back to their countries of origin. But it won’t work, just as the immigrants of a century and more ago were not driven to leave. They knew that hard times in the U.S. were preferable to hard times in “the old country.”

Immigrant-bashers like to point  out that our ancestors came here legally. Because, except for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (instigated by California bigots), there were no restrictions on immigration until the 1924 National Origins Act, which drastically limited the number of immigrants, especially those from southern and eastern Europe, whom nativists blamed for the nation’s problems.

Today, in expressing their anti-immigrant sentiment, many echo the same complaints of previous times. Now, immigrants, especially illegals, are said to be loyal to a foreign nation, and so will never make good U.S. citizens, just as, starting in the 1850s, the nativist Know Nothing Movement won elections by claiming that Catholic Irish immigrants were loyal to a “foreign potentate,” i.e., the Pope, who was aiming to use them to subvert and take over the U.S. Want ads in newspapers and in store windows carried the phrase, “No Irish Need Apply,” a bow to the charge that the Irish immigrants were suppressing the wage scales of native-born Americans.

In 2008, we are given also other warnings about immigrants that … well, that are exactly the same as what Benjamin Franklin in 1751 warned about German immigrants who were coming in large numbers to Pennsylvania: “This Pennsylvania will in a few years become a German colony; instead of learning our language, we must learn theirs, or live in a foreign country.” But the American-born children of the Germans did learn English, just as the second-generation children of all past immigrants learned English — and the American-born children of immigrants are doing so today. (Time magazine claims that 88% of them are already fluent in English.)

Immigrants do press institutions like hospitals and schools in some localities, but many politicians prefer demagogic immigrant-bashing rather than come up with  constructive policies to address this. History does not repeat itself. But we can learn from it. Or choose to ignore it, and mindlessly construct a new Know Nothingism for the twenty-first century.


RICHARD GAMBINO is professor emeritus at Queens College (CUNY), where for decades he taught courses in immigration history and the history of immigrants to the U.S.