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Are You Sure That Your Ancestors Came Here Legally and That Today's Immigrants Just Want a Handout

Historical inaccuracies and rote rationalizations prevent solutions.

Photo by Fabian Fauth

Immigration, a subject that gets everyone’s ire up. I am among them. For me, it’s the generalizations that infuriate me, and unfortunately, my fellow Italians do their fare share. So let’s begin.

On Facebook groups and in my family, the immigration conversation usually begins in similar fashion. “Immigrants should come here legally like our family.” Well, that is 99 percent true if they came before 1917 and weren’t Chinese. (The Chinese Exclusion act of 1882 took care of that group.) "Only one percent of people who showed up at Ellis Island were turned away," Brian Donohue of the Star Ledger cited Mae Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.

That means the immigration process mostly entailed just making the voyage. In the Monetti case, my paternal grandparents came in the early 20th century and were among “the Great Wave” that arrived between 1900 and 1920.

The Beginning of the Quota System and Illegal Immigration

Things started to change when the US government raised security concerns with its entrance into WWI. Congress was able to pass laws that limited immigration based on literacy, and also levied a tax on incoming immigrants. That legislation paved the way for the Immigration Act of 1924, where quotas were established.

As a result, Southern European countries were allotted a quota that amounted three percent of each country’s total population. This tallied to a grand total of 350,000 immigrants per year.

So are you entirely certain your family entered legally? Is it possible that you are reluctant to admit it or at least deny that there are more of us than we care to acknowledge?

I have no problem disclosing my past. My grandfather didn’t like Mussolini and saw the urgency of leaving. He got a job on a supply ship, and when it reached America, disembarked with nothing but the clothes on his back.

How do you know today’s immigrants want a handout?

Of course, at this point, too many Italians have a rote rationalization (and we obviously aren’t the only ones). “Well, they didn’t expect a handout.”  The inference to today’s immigrants is clear. I find this egregious.

Why doesn’t it occur to you that the native-born citizens of America didn’t have such a high regard for our grandparents? In fact, the quota laws lay at the foot of the the United States Immigration Commission of 1911. “Certain kinds of criminality are inherent in the Italian race. In the popular mind, crimes of personal violence, robbery, blackmail, and extortion are peculiar to the people of Italy,” states the Dillingham Report.

The rest of southern Europe was similarity painted, but how do you know what’s in the minds of immigrants? Do you get out of your car where day laborers await work every morning and find out? Do you question the night cleaning staff at your job or the landscapers who do your lawn? How about the entrepreneurs who have created their own businesses?

And if you get into a prolonged discussion, the conversation often takes a contradictory turn: “They take away our jobs and drive down wages.”

Well, what way do you want it? Immigrants are lazy or they are hurting our livelihoods.

The latter is an issue you certainly have the right to feel aggrieved, but get in line, because it’s not new. So I think it would be better for all of us if we’d make more realistic assertions. Among the "they," some take advantage of our generous country, and some do what you do. They work and try to better themselves.

What do the numbers say?

But before laying out the actual numbers from the Center for Immigration Studies, I’m going to cite NY Republican State Senator James Seward’s take on illegals and benefits: “Whether illegal aliens can obtain state benefits is not clear-cut. The short answer appears to be that they are not legally entitled to most benefits, but do in fact receive them.”

I’m sure the laws vary throughout the country. But what we do know is benefits often come on the heels of their American born children. Either way, “The average household headed by an immigrant (legal or illegal) costs taxpayers $6,234 in federal welfare benefits, which is 41 percent higher than the $4,431 received by the average native household.”

“The average immigrant household consumes 33 percent more cash welfare, 57 percent more food assistance, and 44 percent more Medicaid dollars than the average native household. Housing costs are about the same for both groups.”

Of course, it is the immigrants from Latin America that really tallies the ire, so here are the stats. “At $8,251, households headed by immigrants from Central America and Mexico have the highest welfare costs of any sending region—86 percent higher than the costs of native households.”

So “they” does include some damning numbers. But your broad generalizations about laziness and entitlement are still wrong—49 percent wrong to be precise. “51 percent of immigrant-headed households used at least one federal welfare program—cash, food, housing, or medical care.”

Are you then prepared to say that the 30 percent of native-born households on assistance don’t want to work? I’ve been there, and I didn’t spend a lot of time enjoying my unemployment. The resumes were flying the next day.

The report conclusion also further betrays your broad brush:

“The American welfare system has become increasingly focused on buttressing low-wage workers rather than supporting non-workers. Put more simply, welfare and low-wage work go together.”

What do your Inferences say about you?

Even so, you can certainly feel uncomfortable with the numbers and strain on American society. But why do you seem more mad at the immigrants than the policy, the advocates, and the politicians? I can make inferences myself, but I won’t here.

The real point, however, has to do with fixing the system. When I hear the broad brush levied, I shut down (and I'm sure I'm not alone). I don’t want to fix the system, I want to fix the thinking of people who should know better. And we can’t come together if historical inaccuracies and unfair characterizations stand in the way of solutions.

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