I have been involved in change activities for many years and find most people are moved to change for one of two reasons. Sometimes people move towards gain. There is a promise of something better that compels them to overcome the inertia of the status quo. Other times, they are moving away from pain. The thought of staying in one place is overwhelmed by the thought that something, anything, must be better than what is before them.
Recently I had the chance to tour the Chinatown Heritage Center and explore what that experience was like for tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants, and other nationalities including Hindi and Malay, in the 19th and 20th centuries. These were Coolies, a term derived from dialectic Chinese meaning hard labor. And hard labor was what they found once arriving in their promised land of Nanyang. And like most immigrants, they hoped to work hard, save some money to send to relatives and someday return to their homeland. They were fleeing oppression, lack of hope and despair. They were fleeing to move away from pain. But pain is what they found in their new land as well as all the trappings that burgeoning cities offer: organized crime, prostitution and disease, addiction to drugs and to gambling.
Nanyang is modern day Singapore. Coolies went in many directions to move away from pain. The Heritage Center tour reminded me of another similar experience I had at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, the stories of German Jews and Italian Catholics resonated in similar tones to those of Singapore. The Pain/Gain pendulum swung yet again as tens of millions of immigrants came through Ellis Island alone. They were coming, against all odds, to seek a better life. They, like their Chinese counterparts on the other side of the world, were moving away from the pain of their past lives, ready to take on the hardships that this transition would demand. And they, like those in Nanyang, would toil in unfavorable and unthinkable hardship, be exposed to the corruptions of an unremitting society and do their best to make it in a new world.
Receptivity to hard labor-driven mass immigration has changed over generations. The Industrial Revolution demanded large numbers of people to fill the mills and factories; to build the cities; to build the railroads and dams; and to work the fields. Strong backs were valued more than strong minds. Those first generation immigrants figuratively laid their bodies in a human bridge to pave the way for their next generations to have a better life, however slightly better it might be.
The immigrant of the 19th century generally did not move towards gain; they were moving away from pain. Circumstances have changed considerably in the 21st century in the Western world. The demand for mass quantities of unskilled labor in America and the West has all but vanished.
Immigrants, especially in America, stopped moving away from pain and began moving towards gain. Since 1965, 85% of legal immigration in America has been of the unskilled variety as chain immigration offset skills-based considerations. Life immediately looked to be better in America than in their homeland and the exodus has not abated. Legal chain immigration of the unskilled is matched by the illegal masses that cross our border.
What gets squeezed in this is the legitimate need for legal immigrants, those who can contribute immediately to our economy. Many of those immigrants are already here, enrolled and graduating from the many world class educational institutions that abound in this country. This stifles the economic growth that might otherwise be created by the talented individuals who we send back to create and innovate on behalf of our international competitors instead of on our behalf.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Here is a good news story on immigration. No, make that a great news story. I just attended a Hindu wedding of the first son of a colleague of mine who emigrated in the early 1980’s from Mumbai with $14 in his pocket intent upon moving towards gain. He arrived with an education and was enveloped in a warm crowd of fellow immigrants who understood that the road to the American Dream was paved with hard work, discipline, perseverance and a solid grasp of the English language. He and his wife became US citizens. They raised two fine children who have earned science degrees at fine institutions of higher education. Those boys straddle two cultures but are proud and thankful participants in The Dream. The wedding could not have been more enjoyable as 350 people celebrated not only the happiness of the couple but the arrival of the parents who raised them to succeed in America. For The Dream to be successful, it has to have proper amounts of push from society and pull from family and friends.
So how do we respect the unstoppable march of immigrants moving away from pain while opening our doors to those who are moving towards gain? And further, how does America attract the correct people to seek that gain? The answer lies with immigration reform. Not every immigrant needs to become a citizen but everyone needs to be here legally, even if it on a temporary or seasonal basis. Those who can contribute should go to the head of the line.
Revitalizing the American economy is the best way to provide opportunity for all. America’s best days must lie ahead of her, not behind her.