Walk down Moody Street in Waltham one of the warmer days or any day – and yes, warm days are not too far off - and you will see a plethora of stores from around the world and people that visit them also belong to places around the world. Mexican, Italian, Indian, Guatemalan, El Salvadoran, Irish and more populate the restaurant row. Most of these businesses and people seemed like they have settled into the mosaic that they have contributed to making. It is a futile effort to determine who is “home” in the U.S. and who is not.
While each of the stores represents aspects of their identity, they also live with others and absorb elements from them. I have seen fresh poblano peppers, tortillas, and queso fresco in the Indian grocery aisles. Let me tell you, they are not part of the traditional Indian cuisine and yet their being available implies that diets are influenced and that each community visits the other. I am sure there are examples of other streets in the US but this is presented as an example for me to segue into a broader discussion on what comprises the population.
Not all of our predecessors came on the Mayflower – some did and some did not. This “nation of immigrants” values both tradition and the exploration of new frontiers, people who deserve the freedom to build better lives for themselves in their adopted homeland. As per the Census records (2010), there are 309,350,000 people living here -- almost 40 million people were born abroad, 17 million were naturalized citizens, and over 22 million were non-citizens.
While the immigration debate engulfs the US news the importance of immigrants to the country’s prominence is most imminent. However there are times when the word immigrant implies aliens. It sounds not too welcoming and a tad bit negative. The US Citizen and Immigration literature differentiates between a permanent resident alien and an illegal alien. Permanent residents are commonly referred to as immigrants. But the confusing thing is that the Immigration and Nationality Act defines immigrant as any alien in the US except one legally admitted under specific nonimmigrant categories.
Even as I am armed with that knowledge as a permanent resident alien or a nonimmigrant alien what I am receiving from this debate is persistent language about the “other” aliens - illegal and undocumented workers. In fact the government sources speak about the “problem” of illegal immigration where immigrants enter the country illegally by crossing the border between the United States and Mexico, or they enter legally but overstay their visas.
The United States Immigration Reform is specifically targeting the problem of 12 to 20 million undocumented workers, mostly from Hispanic speaking countries. And with that in mind, the proposed Immigration Reform includes issues of border security, worksite enforcements, guest worker programs, streamlining the current immigration and naturalization process.
Whether this is spawned by Obama or by a bipartisan approach, “they will have a pathway to citizenship over the course of 10 years."
Undoubtedly there is no available narrative on “legal” aliens. What has gone without much attention if at all is that Asians are the largest group of new arrivals every year, not Latinos. In 2010, 36 % of new immigrants were Asians compared to 31% for Hispanics. The US Census Bureau category of Asian-American includes six major countries – China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Vietnam and India. Among these, Indian Americans lead others in terms of income and education.
Comprehensive immigration reform is of relevance to all communities and specifically for South Asians. As a foreign-born community, regardless of status, South Asians are supportive of Obama’s immigration overhaul. There are several kinds of immigration roadblocks that this community faces. Because of visa backlogs in the family-based green card system, many South Asians can wait up to twelve years to be reunited with loved ones.
Skilled members who obtained degrees (in US universities) in science technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have difficulty obtaining H-1B (employment permits) visas due to annual caps. And according to the National Foundation for American Policy, an Indian who files for an employment-based green card today can wait up to 70 years before obtaining permanent residency.
There are many working class South Asians who are in exploitative employment situations and need guaranteed worker protections. They contribute to the growth of the American economy and legally pay their dues. Most members speak English (because of their colonial pasts) in varying degrees and for those who don’t there needs to be an increase in resources to help immigrants prepare for citizenship.
To present immigration with negative connotations is to ignore the fundamental ideas that went into building this nation. Freedom and tolerance of differences are key characteristics of America’s charm. As a humanitarian issue immigration presents opportunities for inclusion, social and economic progress. Too much time is lost in developing nomenclature and too little time spent on learning about another culture, person or community. As a first step maybe we can visit a neighborhood ethnic store which might boost the local economy and connect with a different lifestyle.
Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.