- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2002

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, some in the immigrant community feared a severe backlash. After all, those who carried out these horrific acts in one way or another had recently immigrated to the United States.

Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University and keynote speaker at a Hofstra University conference held on Long Island on April 9, was pleased to declare that these worst-case fears post-September 11 were not carried out. He noted an "unexpected lack of anti-immigrant hysteria."

The United States certainly has experienced severe fits of anti-immigration sentiment during its history, and there always have been vocal voices bashing immigrants. In recent years, one only need look a little further east of Hofstra on Long Island to the suburban town of Farmingville for some ugly examples of backlash against recent Mexican immigrants whose major offense has been seeking work as day laborers on certain street corners in the early morning. Yet these people have been met with verbal, civic, and in at least one instance, violent opposition.

However, a striking coalition cutting across the political spectrum in recent years has been coalescing in support of immigrants and in recognition of the importance of immigration to the United States and our economy. This phenomenon was clearly evident at the Hofstra immigration conference.

On the political left, for example, the labor movement used to be vehemently anti-immigration, as immigrants were viewed as lower-wage competition for jobs dominated by labor unions. But facing a long-term decline in union membership as a share of the private-sector workforce, labor unions are now reversing course and trying to embrace immigrants.

Indeed, an organizer for the Laborers' International Union, Byron Silva, spoke at the Hofstra conference. Though it must be said that his message of immigrant workers being "exploited" sounded like something from Karl Marx, and may not find a receptive audience among immigrants, who are inherent risk-takers seeking out opportunity.

Meanwhile, the conservative side of the political spectrum has had a love-hate relationship with immigrants over the years. In recent times, the Republican Party, for example, offered a generally positive immigration message under President Ronald Reagan; ran afoul of immigrants by pushing Proposition 187 in California and provided a platform for Pat Buchanan's anti-immigration message during part of the 1990s. With the election of President George W. Bush, the GOP may be returning to a more pro-immigration position. Overall, the GOP still sends mixed messages. That is a missed opportunity, as a coherent Republican message of traditional social values and pro-growth, pro-opportunity economics would seem to hold a natural appeal for many immigrants.

As for the business community, it long has been pro-immigration for two fundamental reasons. First, immigrants are an obvious source of both skilled and unskilled labor. John Bingham, director of immigrant services for the Diocese of Rockville Centre's Catholic Charities on Long Island, noted two enduring truths about immigrants while speaking at the conference: "Most come here to work and join families," and "strong American economies pull in immigrants." Mr. Bingham added: "In droves, employers want immigrants."

The second reason that the business community embraces immigration is due to a strong propensity for entrepreneurship among immigrants. Tejinder Singh Bindra served as an example at the Hofstra gathering. He is an immigrant, and the co-founder of the Jeetish Group of Companies and president of the South Asian Business Association. He eloquently expressed the optimism of the immigrant entrepreneur, noting that in the United States, "If you truly want to work hard, the sky is the limit."

After September 11, as Mr. Chishti noted, national security will play a larger role in immigration policy, as well it should. However, with proper and rigorous precautions implemented to make sure that those who wish to harm our nation are kept out, those seeking to live out the American dream and contribute to this nation should be welcomed with open arms.

It may sound trite, but we are a nation of immigrants. And as Mr. Chishti pointed out at the close of his Hofstra keynote address, "Immigrants remind us of the promise of freedom and opportunity for all."


Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business Survival Committee and a columnist for Newsday on Long Island.

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