Our new neighbors | OPINION

We were short on fruit and veggies so I went shopping at one of my favorite windows on the world, WINCO. It’s a place where no race or ethnic group is a majority so we shoppers were a happy mix of minorities.

With strong accents, foreign tongues, some traditional attire and every skin tone from pinkish-white to dark chocolate, it’s like a mini-UN. Somalis, Iraqis and Ghanaians share space with immigrants from most Latin American nations. Each spoke two or more languages when they got here and are now trying to add English.

Being third-generation American I assume I’m a native. And being steeped in this society from birth I haven’t the slightest notion of the challenges my grandparents faced when debarking at Ellis Island. Or what it took to gain a foothold in their economy. So while pushing a cart down aisles crowded with freshly arrived immigrants I can’t help but wonder how it must feel to be newly arrived on our scene.

We call them immigrants, which says little more than that they came here to live from some other place. There’s much more to their stories. Each is an adventurer when compared with neighbors they left back home. They’re the ones with enough guts to abandon everything held dear in pursuit of opportunity.

Imagine their first days here. They know little of the language, don’t understand the law, folk-ways or economy. The best they can do is call on earlier immigrants for tips on how to get along. Maintaining these links is why Koreans congregated in West Seattle, Norwegians in Ballard and Asians in south Rainier Valley.

The word, immigrant, isn’t weighty enough to express a newcomer’s situation.  Exile, however, sounds snappier and is far richer in meaning. Its definitions cover more space in dictionaries than do entries for immigrant and I have a strong feeling for that difference because I was once an exile.

My dictionary says, Exile: absence from one’s own country, whether forced or self-imposed; a citizen from one country who chooses or is forced to live in another; to separate from home and country.

One can even be exiled at home, as when so many Native Americans were uprooted from home-areas to be transplanted onto reservations. Some religious groups exile members through shunning.

As to my exile, my family lived on the grounds of a college in Nigeria. The school’s students were Nigerians, evenly split between Christians and Muslims. We were one white American family adjusting to stay afloat in a sea of blacks.

We were voluntary exiles like most of my fellow shoppers at WINCO. Like them, I was challenged to learn something of the local language. Even more so than blacks in America, I knew the impossibility of blending my pale face in to a black society that would never be my own. Since I wasn’t born into it, I had to struggle to understand what makes West African minds tick.

Some immigrants see the U.S. as a land of opportunity. Others flee from hunger or oppression. Shiites fleeing from Sunnis, Sunnis fleeing from Shiites. Reasons for coming here are as many as the immigrants. Once here, Americanization takes place rapidly. I talked with three Somalis at Trinity College’s recent conference on Islam about challenges of adjusting to life here. One said his big problem was getting his coach to give him enough minutes on the soccer field. The second’s challenge was how to finance a new car. The third told of difficulty getting his son admitted to a university.

Some of us believe that immigrants displace American workers while depressing wage rates. They cite reports of immigrant mothers collecting support for babies left south of the border and there is some truth to that. Such issues caused the Economic Policy Institute to conduct a 2010 study to analyze whatever effect immigrant labor might have on home-grown workers and the economy. The results were surprising.

Immigrant labor was found to have a small positive effect. In fact, the presence of immigrant labor bumped up wages of native born workers by 0.4 percent. Oddly, while college-degreed workers benefited by 0.4 percent, workers with some college got boosted 0.7 percent and wages of those with high school or less rose only 0.3 percent. While the numbers vary, other studies confirm that immigrant labor serves to boost both employment and wages for native born Americans. Some other findings:

A greater proportion of immigrants start businesses than native born citizens. (Council of Economic Advisors)

Taxes drawn from immigrant workers yield a positive effect on public budgets. (CEA)

Social Security withholdings from immigrant workers account for a small offset against the imminent problem of baby-boomers breaking the system. (CEA)

No significant correlation has been found linking jobs lost to native-born workers and immigration. (Pew Center research)

Immigrant children value education more highly than native-born children. (Harvard University study)

But facts don’t seem to matter because, like seniors hazing freshmen, entrenched societies continue the tradition of blaming and harassing newcomers. Maybe that’s what makes them so strong.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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