The Tired and Poor Are Already Here

Just before Christmas last year, Jill Biden figuratively stepped over the huddled masses of homeless on the streets of America, and headed across the border for a high-profile campaign photo-op.  Her destination was a camp for migrants who had entered the US illegally and were awaiting adjudication of their cases in Mexico.

Twelve thousand children are homeless here in California, and our homeless population has risen to 151,000.  Last year, California was single-handedly responsible for the national increase in homelessness. 

Homeless camp on a street in front of a school in Los Angeles (YouTube screen grab)

Adjusted for cost of living, Census Bureau data show that California is also by far the highest-poverty state in the nation.

But it was not to the tired and poor in California that the Biden campaign sent its emissary for a high-profile Christmas-season media event.

As a private citizen, Jill Biden unquestionably has the right to choose the beneficiaries of her charity.  But this was no private outing, this was a campaign event.  Clearly, the Biden campaign had calculated that bypassing America’s needy in favor of a Lady Bountiful appearance across the border would be a winning campaign strategy.

In the same vein, California’s legislature recently imposed a state penalty on residents who cannot afford the Affordable Care Act’s sky-high premiums, while approving free health care for young adult immigrants who lack legal status.  My home county of Santa Clara has set aside millions for legal services for unauthorized immigrants, while the homeless shiver under our freeway underpasses, and food banks send out pleas for donations.

What does it say about our leaders, and our nation, that a closed fist for struggling Americans and an open hand for those who break our immigration laws is a winning political strategy?

In the four decades since I immigrated to the US from India, I have often observed that we immigrants think more deeply about the meaning of citizenship than our native-born peers.  This is not surprising - we are here by conscious choice, not by chance.  As part of our oath of citizenship we explicitly renounce “all allegiance” to the land of our birth and enter into community with a new people and a new nation.  When we take that oath, we recognize that we are entering into a solemn compact of duty and loyalty to America’s Constitution and laws, as well as to the well-being of the American people, with whom we are now joined in nationhood.

Civil rights leader and Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan eloquently expressed this ethos:  “A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good… a spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers that we share a common destiny.”

This has never been a partisan position.  It should not be one now.

Another core truth that we immigrants have reason to understand better than most is that this nation of immigrants cannot absorb all who wish to gain entry -- 150 million people, by Gallup’s recent analysis.  That being the case, our adopted country has a clear moral responsibility to put the well-being of its own citizens front and center when deciding who should be admitted, and the indisputable right to ensure that admittance is in accordance with its laws.

This, too, has never previously been partisan or controversial.   Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were both forthright about the importance of an immigration policy grounded in adherence to the law.  Yet today, presidential candidates are engaged in a bidding war for votes by promising de facto uncontrolled admission to  the US, coupled with commitments to extensive government services for those who enter illegally.

Given the chaos at our southern border, and the enormous number of visa overstays, a serious review of immigration policy and enforcement is clearly required.  Unfortunately, what we are getting instead is divisive demagoguery about nativism and xenophobia, and a menu of false choices with heavily loaded framing: inclusive vs exclusive, pro-immigrant vs anti-immigrant, welcoming vs unwelcoming.

But as the Biden vignette illustrates, this rhetoric skirts the core moral question: do we “welcome” and “include” struggling Americans, and make their advancement and well-being our first concern, or do we callously pass them over in favor of unauthorized immigrants, who are in direct competition with Americans for already inadequate resources?  At the national level, services for unauthorized immigrants impose a net fiscal burden of over $50B on taxpayers.

The moral problem does not end with government services.  There is strikingly little attention paid to the inconvenient truth that uncontrolled entry of low-skill immigrants most impacts the wages of the poorest working Americans.  As Harvard’s George Borjas has shown, unauthorized immigration reduces the wages of American workers by more than $100 billion a year.  The poorest American workers, and those with the least education, are the most affected.

Tellingly, American immigrants and minorities hold views that are sharply at variance with those of their self-appointed spokespeople. Immigrants in Maryland strongly opposed state sanctuary policies.   Zogby’s survey found that Hispanics and blacks overwhelmingly feel that there are plenty of Americans available to fill unskilled jobs.  They are also strongly in favor of immigration enforcement.  That is unsurprising -- they are directly impacted by the negative consequences of large-scale unauthorized immigration, unlike elite progressives living in gated communities and doorman apartments.

When trouble strikes Americans abroad, our nation comes together as a community, and exerts extraordinary efforts to bring our citizens home to safety.  With the Wuhan epidemic and quarantine making headlines, we read that the US government has evacuated Americans from the affected areas by special charter.  We cheer the sustained high-level efforts by the State Department that have successfully brought Americans home from North Korea, Iran, and other trouble spots.

We can and should harness the same spirit of national solidarity, national community and national priority to address the needs of Americans here at home.  America’s workers, as well as its tired and poor, deserve no less.

Paulette was a senior tech executive responsible for billion-dollar high-tech businesses in leading Silicon Valley companies. She immigrated to the US from India in 1978.  Linkedin

Just before Christmas last year, Jill Biden figuratively stepped over the huddled masses of homeless on the streets of America, and headed across the border for a high-profile campaign photo-op.  Her destination was a camp for migrants who had entered the US illegally and were awaiting adjudication of their cases in Mexico.

Twelve thousand children are homeless here in California, and our homeless population has risen to 151,000.  Last year, California was single-handedly responsible for the national increase in homelessness. 

Homeless camp on a street in front of a school in Los Angeles (YouTube screen grab)

Adjusted for cost of living, Census Bureau data show that California is also by far the highest-poverty state in the nation.

But it was not to the tired and poor in California that the Biden campaign sent its emissary for a high-profile Christmas-season media event.

As a private citizen, Jill Biden unquestionably has the right to choose the beneficiaries of her charity.  But this was no private outing, this was a campaign event.  Clearly, the Biden campaign had calculated that bypassing America’s needy in favor of a Lady Bountiful appearance across the border would be a winning campaign strategy.

In the same vein, California’s legislature recently imposed a state penalty on residents who cannot afford the Affordable Care Act’s sky-high premiums, while approving free health care for young adult immigrants who lack legal status.  My home county of Santa Clara has set aside millions for legal services for unauthorized immigrants, while the homeless shiver under our freeway underpasses, and food banks send out pleas for donations.

What does it say about our leaders, and our nation, that a closed fist for struggling Americans and an open hand for those who break our immigration laws is a winning political strategy?

In the four decades since I immigrated to the US from India, I have often observed that we immigrants think more deeply about the meaning of citizenship than our native-born peers.  This is not surprising - we are here by conscious choice, not by chance.  As part of our oath of citizenship we explicitly renounce “all allegiance” to the land of our birth and enter into community with a new people and a new nation.  When we take that oath, we recognize that we are entering into a solemn compact of duty and loyalty to America’s Constitution and laws, as well as to the well-being of the American people, with whom we are now joined in nationhood.

Civil rights leader and Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan eloquently expressed this ethos:  “A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good… a spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers that we share a common destiny.”

This has never been a partisan position.  It should not be one now.

Another core truth that we immigrants have reason to understand better than most is that this nation of immigrants cannot absorb all who wish to gain entry -- 150 million people, by Gallup’s recent analysis.  That being the case, our adopted country has a clear moral responsibility to put the well-being of its own citizens front and center when deciding who should be admitted, and the indisputable right to ensure that admittance is in accordance with its laws.

This, too, has never previously been partisan or controversial.   Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were both forthright about the importance of an immigration policy grounded in adherence to the law.  Yet today, presidential candidates are engaged in a bidding war for votes by promising de facto uncontrolled admission to  the US, coupled with commitments to extensive government services for those who enter illegally.

Given the chaos at our southern border, and the enormous number of visa overstays, a serious review of immigration policy and enforcement is clearly required.  Unfortunately, what we are getting instead is divisive demagoguery about nativism and xenophobia, and a menu of false choices with heavily loaded framing: inclusive vs exclusive, pro-immigrant vs anti-immigrant, welcoming vs unwelcoming.

But as the Biden vignette illustrates, this rhetoric skirts the core moral question: do we “welcome” and “include” struggling Americans, and make their advancement and well-being our first concern, or do we callously pass them over in favor of unauthorized immigrants, who are in direct competition with Americans for already inadequate resources?  At the national level, services for unauthorized immigrants impose a net fiscal burden of over $50B on taxpayers.

The moral problem does not end with government services.  There is strikingly little attention paid to the inconvenient truth that uncontrolled entry of low-skill immigrants most impacts the wages of the poorest working Americans.  As Harvard’s George Borjas has shown, unauthorized immigration reduces the wages of American workers by more than $100 billion a year.  The poorest American workers, and those with the least education, are the most affected.

Tellingly, American immigrants and minorities hold views that are sharply at variance with those of their self-appointed spokespeople. Immigrants in Maryland strongly opposed state sanctuary policies.   Zogby’s survey found that Hispanics and blacks overwhelmingly feel that there are plenty of Americans available to fill unskilled jobs.  They are also strongly in favor of immigration enforcement.  That is unsurprising -- they are directly impacted by the negative consequences of large-scale unauthorized immigration, unlike elite progressives living in gated communities and doorman apartments.

When trouble strikes Americans abroad, our nation comes together as a community, and exerts extraordinary efforts to bring our citizens home to safety.  With the Wuhan epidemic and quarantine making headlines, we read that the US government has evacuated Americans from the affected areas by special charter.  We cheer the sustained high-level efforts by the State Department that have successfully brought Americans home from North Korea, Iran, and other trouble spots.

We can and should harness the same spirit of national solidarity, national community and national priority to address the needs of Americans here at home.  America’s workers, as well as its tired and poor, deserve no less.

Paulette was a senior tech executive responsible for billion-dollar high-tech businesses in leading Silicon Valley companies. She immigrated to the US from India in 1978.  Linkedin