The US is No Longer the Land of Dreams
Bush was right about the economy; there is no doubt that the current illegal immigration of underpaid and exploited workers from Mexico benefits the US. In the future, though, this phenomenon is likely to raise problems. This clandestine worker group doesn’t pay taxes, and their low incomes render them unable to support public spending. Bush’s second concern, his reference to the “American dream,” actually appeals to an old myth that used to portray America as the “land of opportunity.” And it is true that Immigration to the US used to be invoked as an argument to reaffirm the influence of the American way of life on the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, Bush’s view on immigration as a mirror of the American dream needs an update. He did not tell the whole truth in his speech.
The important wave of immigrants coming from Europe to the US in the 19th century through WWII contributed to make America appear as “the land of freedom and promises." Today, however, immigration holds a different meaning. A mere look at statistics and a quick study of the international situation makes the difference obvious. Whereas the US was the first refuge for immigrants all over the world for decades, since the early 1990s Europe has become the first choice of immigrants. European nations welcomed 1.7 million foreigners in 2002, a higher number than that of the US and Canada combined. (Accurate numbers for illegal immigrants cannot be ascertained.)
The “Old Continent” has become the New Destination for legal immigrants.
Le Monde recently reported on trends in student immigration. Since 2001, the number of foreign students coming to the US has decreased. For the years 2003-2004, the foreign student enrollment in US universities has decreased 2.4% compared to the previous year. Further, while the US, being a large country, attracts the higher total number of foreign students, France (as one example of European countries) has a higher percentage of foreigners among its undergraduate university student population, with 13% of the students in French universities coming from other countries, compared to only 6% of those in the US.
The current immigration trends also explode another myth: the so-called “brain-drain” from other countries to the US. In 2002, only 9% of the immigrant population in the US consisted of high-skilled workers, while 60% of immigrants to the UK fit in this category. In Australia, one out of four high-skilled workers comes from a foreign country, a proportion that is significantly lower in the US.
Again, in absolute numbers, the US has a high number of well-educated foreigners, but the “brain-drain” is proportionately much more robust in other countries.
This statement leads to other conclusions if one relates it with sociologist Everett Lee’s theory of “pull and push." According to him, the more qualified the workers are, the more the destination is a determinant factor in the decision to immigrate. To the contrary: the less qualified they are, the more the decision to immigrate relies on the rejection of their native countries first. The most important stream of immigrants comes from Third World or in developing countries. If one considers the percentage of Living Permanent Resident (LPR) immigrants, 27.1% of them are Mexican, 4.5% come from Philippines, 3.9% from India, 3.6% from China.... The first European country to make this list of providing immigrants ranks 10th: the UK, which can easily be understood. By contrast, European countries with a more favorable economic and social situation have the lowest percentage of the LPR. Irish people represent 0.6% of the total LPR in 2002, while only 0.5% of French people are in this situation.
The major proportion of immigrants coming to the US these days are much more likely to be escaping bad everyday living conditions back home; their quest for a new life in the US is therefore much more likely than not to embrace the “American dream” or "US values," as suggested by the politicians. Other studies also highlight the fact that the primary reasons to immigrate are economic ones.
Another observation reinforces this assertion. Whereas legal immigration decreased last year, illegal immigration to the US has been exploding. Most of the illegal contingent comes from Mexico or the Philippines. Mexico has been suffering a serious economic crisis for years, and 60% of its population lives below the poverty line. The situation of the Philippines isn’t any better; its citizens endure not only high unemployment but also political instability and repression.
Globalization benefits the northern hemisphere countries more than those of the southern hemisphere, and this fact is further boosting this economics-based immigration phenomenon. The situation is also a concern of European nations.
Statistics show that in 2002 immigrants around the world sent more than $90 billion back home to their native countries, much more than the amount of international aid other nations send those countries. This fact is what encourages current President of the UN Kofi Anan to refer to immigration as “a solution” instead of a problem, as the immigrants are improving the circumstances of their families back home. They are solving their economic problems, not embracing a "way of life."
The mainstream media of the US might want to study immigration trends more closely, and abandon their practice of repeating propaganda that sells myths about why the US is attractive to immigrants--be they legal or illegal.
Mathilde Soyer, a political science student at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Rennes, France, is an intern with this newspaper.
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This story was published on March 15, 2005.