In 1831, Alexix de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, came to the United States. He was only twenty-five years old. He visited Sing Sing and other prisons to study the prison system in America. As a result of his trip, he wrote
Democracy in America
, a two-volume study of the American people and their political institutions.
Tocqueville was impressed by what he called America's "equality of condition." He described the United States of America in the 1830’s as highly egalitarian. America was a basically homogeneous society. There were no clearly defined social classes. America was so different from Europe.
Yet in less than three generations after Tocqueville’s visit, waves of immigrants inundated our shores. Tocqueville’s vision of America began to vanish. By the early 1900’s, the United States was welcoming the largest influx of immigrants in its history. First came the Irish and Germans. Then came the Italians and East Europeans. Between 1890 and 1920, some 18 million new citizens. Gone the homogeneous society. No more the classless society. America was transformed. It was now more and more pluralistic and diverse.
Today, another great wave of immigration is flooding the country. These immigrants come not from Europe but from the still developing countries of Asia and Latin America. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, both the Hispanic and Asian populations will triple. So great are the changes in demographics that, within the lifetime of today's teenagers, no one ethnic group will comprise a majority of the nation's population.
Furthermore, the United States depends heavily on legal and illegal seasonal farm workers -- more than 44,000 in 2000 (
, June, 2005). Without them, significant sections of agriculture would collapse. Migrants come from Central and South America. Some stay for seven or eight months a year; others remain beyond the legal limit for migrant laborers. And still other never register in the first place.
The annual earnings of migrants usually range from $4,000 to $8,000. To add to the complexity of our changing population and social scene, about 50,000 people are trafficked each year into the United States and forced into slave-like conditions as workers in the sex industry, sweatshops and domestic work positions.
In addition, with our eyes intensely focused on the Middle East, we are paying more attention to Arab immigrants to our nation. Many people think Arabs are new to the United States. Not so. Arabs have been coming to the United States for hundreds of years. By 1924, there were about 200,000 Arabs living in the United States. Today there are about 4 million Arab Americans. The last U.S. Census reported that there were over 17,000 Arabs living in the three counties of the Paterson diocese. With many Middle Easterners building mosques where synagogues and churches once stood, we are more conscious of the close to 6 million Muslims in our nation.
Worldwide, there are about 150 million people on the move. Some are immigrants; others, refugees. That means that one in every forty-five individuals is traveling outside their country of origin for work, for security and for a new way of life. The situation we face in the United States is not unique to us. Nor is the solution to the arrival of some many different groups to our soil.
The human person, not the State, should be the beginning of any discussion on how to deal with the arrival of others to a new country. Every individual has the right to move from one country to another to find a way to live. Every individual has a right to the goods of this world for his livelihood (Pope John XXIII,
Mater et Magistra
43). The economic interests or national security of a particular country cannot be ignored. And those who move from their country of origin have the obligation to respect the law and order of the country in which he chooses to live. Nonetheless, making the dignity and right of the individual the point of reference gives the necessary impetus to create an environment that is welcoming and wholesome and truly benefits the common good.
Any factor that works against the dignity of the individual person or against the common good harms all of society. As followers of Jesus, therefore, we are called to stretch our view beyond ourselves and to look for the good of the other. We cannot be indifferent to the needs of those who show up on our doorstep (cf Lk 16:19-31).
The First Letter of John
reminds us “If anyone has this world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart to him, how does God's love abide in him. Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1
This is the first of a two-part series on immigration.