The Paradox of Immigration

Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Paradox of Immigration

statue of liberty“Immigration is a controversial issue and perhaps the most controversial and emotional issue confronting both the advocates and the opponents of globalization.” This statement written back in 2008 (Paradoxes of Culture and Globalization) by professor emeritus, Martin J. Gannon (California State University San Marcos) seems almost prophetic.

With the events of the last week regarding terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, and Mali, the debate over whether European countries should keep borders open or the U.S. should accept Syrian refuges, public officials are arguing about the paradox of immigration.

A paradox is a statement that appears to be contradictory – or even inconsistent – but is actually true. In this case, is mass immigration good, bad, or a mixture of both? Does it help the nation that opens its borders, or does it hinder its progress? For sure, it is complicated and there are no easy answers. Articles in both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times today raise these questions based upon key world events from the past (see URL links below).

Have times changed under the shadow of worldwide terrorism amidst rapid globalization, or are issues of diaspora still the same? Throughout history people have been exploring, relocating, and searching for a better way of life. It has never been easy – new people with different customs and beliefs come in and affect the lives of those who are already there (in both positive and negative ways – a paradox) – not to mention the fact that those who emigrate are forever affected by their new surroundings (the paradox – in both positive and negative ways as well).  Some accept this; others do not. It remains a complicated challenge for every nation that must decide what the limit is – and at what point do you say no? And to whom do you say it?  My own family on my father’s side were Greeks living in Turkey who were dispelled in the early 1920s during the ongoing Greek/Turkish conflicts, landing in New York City, and then settling in Brooklyn. Some family members changed their name from Sirinides to Sery to fit in.  They started a roofing company and later owned a candy shop.

We are a country of immigrants. And we’re coming up on the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. – a time to revisit our roots, spend time with family, and give thanks for life. But what is myth and what is fact? Picturesque Norman Rockwell paintings of turkey feasts with bountiful harvests and mutual respect and trust of all invited to the table back in the 1600s? Or English explorers in the New World –claiming land, settling colonies, and leaving behind disease?

What about in the 1700s after the founding of this new nation and then in the 1800s – were all people groups accepted whole heartedly? Or was there concern over the large influx of Irish families fleeing the potato famine, or Chinese people brought over to work on the railway system but later having to face the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882?

Flash forward to the early 1900s with massive migration of people from Europe to both North and South America, with 1.2 million immigrants surging into the U.S. in 1914 alone. Were they met with cheers and a welcoming committee as the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty implies? “Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”Emma Lazarus-     They too were met with a challenge by those already in country; in fact, a massive change came about in 1924 to restrict the inflow of immigrants into the U.S. It goes on and on and we forget all too easily the challenge of the human condition – those of us who have ‘landed’ are safe and want to keep it that way; those who have yet to land, want to be let in through the golden door.

Immigration is a challenging issue for policy makers no doubt. On the one hand, in Europe there is a concern that people immigrating are not integrating into the society and therefore are changing the social and cultural fabric of the EU nations. In the U.S. illegal immigration is putting a strain on social systems and there is growing resentment of those who pay taxes to fund their social benefits and those who do not. Now there is a concern about whether people fleeing war torn countries for their very lives might be terrorists themselves. However, on the other hand, the diversity of thoughts, ideas, and experiences of immigrants also add to the intellectual capital of any nation. And the ability to live, work, and socialize with people who are different brings rich opportunities to learn and benefit from difference, which builds the social and psychological capital of any nation as well. It is a paradox.

Professor Gannon writes that, “Whatever the reasons [for or against  immigration], the fierce opposition to [it] paradoxically suggests that immigration has the potential to impede or even derail globalization and simultaneously to facilitate and hasten its advancement.”

Times have changed…or have they?

Martin J. Gannon, Paradoxes of Culture and Globalization, Sage, 2008

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