Commentary: Immigration reform plan crushes the American dream

By Janet Williams
The StatehouseFile.com

I wonder what Stephen Miller and Donald Trump would have to say about my grandmother and her rag-tag immigrant family.

Janet Williams, editor, TheStatehouseFile.com

Miller, a senior White House advisor, and Trump support a sweeping immigration reform plan that would slash the overall number of immigrants while welcoming those with money, skills and English-language proficiency. In other words, we welcome the best and brightest and to hell with the huddled masses.

That would have included my grandmother and her family.

My grandmother’s story is like so many others. She arrived in the United States from Germany with her oldest sister not long after the turn of the last century. She joined her father, mother and younger brothers in a thriving immigrant community amid the coal mines and steel mills of Johnstown in Cambria County, Pennsylvania.

As best I can figure out from the faded lines on an old ship manifest from the Ellis Island website, my great-grandfather was a common laborer who came under the sponsorship of a brother.

They didn’t speak English when they got here and until the World War I they lived among German neighbors, shopped in German-run grocery stores and worshipped in German church services. I still have my grandmother’s German Lutheran hymnal and her faded confirmation certificate, also in German.

Still, my grandmother’s generation learned English quickly and she spoke the language flawlessly without a trace of an accent. That’s because she was determined to be American.

Her generation worked, married, raised children, sent them to college and encouraged them to dream of a life where anything was possible for them and their children – even for those who spoke no English and started with no education and few skills.

What they and most immigrants of all backgrounds bring to our great nation is determination, energy and a belief in the American dream of equal opportunity for all.

The so-called immigration reform proposal turns that dream upside down, barring many of the kinds of people who have made America a great incubator of innovation, technology and creativity. In my grandmother’s time, they came mostly from the poor and struggling populations of Europe. Today, they migrate from Africa, the Middle East and South America. What immigrants across generations share are a belief in America and a hope in a better future.

I can make plenty of economic arguments against this proposal. Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said the plan would bar the thousands of lower-skilled workers that his state’s agricultural economy depends on. Other data show that allowing more workers of all skill levels actually helps the economy grow without hurting the job prospects of Americans.

The Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonpartisan group of more than 500 political and business leaders, reports that immigrants play a significant role in Indiana’s economy. There are nearly 323,000 foreign-born residents in Indiana and in 2014, immigrant-led households earned $8.1 billion, or 5 percent of all income that year, according to the data compiled by PNAE. That income translates into $2.3 billion in federal, state and local taxes.

If you think our foreign-born neighbors are a drain on social services consider that in 2014, the last year for which data is available, they contributed $382 million to Social Security and $89 million to Medicare.

And what about jobs? PNAE estimates that immigrants in the workforce actually helped keep jobs on American soil, preserving more than 5,500 local manufacturing jobs. In addition, many start their own businesses and in 2014 generated $136 million in business income.

If you want to learn more about the contributions of our foreign-born neighbors I encourage you to attend an event next month sponsored by the Immigrant Welcome Center, an Indianapolis-based organization that helps immigrants integrate into our community. The Live Local, Think Global event features national and local leaders discussing “Who Owns the American Dream.” Information about the event can be found at this link: Live Local, Think Global.

Just because my family came here more than a century ago doesn’t mean I have a bigger stake in the American dream than the family who arrived here from the Congo last year. We all share the American dream.

Janet Williams is editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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