Monday, December 20, 2010

Dream Act and a bit of history

Education blog has been on vacation, lately, because I've been overwhelmed at work. But when I can catch a free minute, I've been reading an account of the Mexican-American war. This reading occured just as the Senate was rejecting the so-called Dream Act, which would have created a road to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. The Dream Act would have provided certain illegal and deportable alien students who graduate from US high schools, who are of good moral character, arrived in the U.S. illegally as minors, and have been in the country continuously and illegally for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment, the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency if they complete two years in the military or two years at a four year institution of higher learning. There are arguments for and against the Dream Act, but the coincidence of reading about the Mexican American War places it in a context that I hadn't considered before.

Mexico's colonial history dates from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521. For the next couple hundred years, Mexico and our own colonies shared a parallel colonial history, each incorporating many of the governance traditions of our respective colonial mother, Spain and England. England visited upon its colonies the so-called liberal democratic tradition which offered a modicum of democratic governance to the propertied, white men of some wealth, and that tradition evolved eventually into our Constitutional government. Spain visited upon its colonies a substantially different colonial system, dominated by a central Viceroy. After attaining our respective independences, each country faced its own challenge from its former colonial mother country, but the second Mexican war with Spain extended far longer and was much more debilitating. By 1840, Mexico had considerable disadvantages in relation to the United States in terms of industrialization, economic growth, governance, and military power.

Under Presidents from Jackson to Polk, the United States pursued a policy of expansion and growth, and of subjugation of the native people who stood in the way of the United State's government desire to develop and populate new lands. This dispute over expansion created internal tensions within the nation, because politicians in the North saw expansion towards Mexico as potentially changing the balance in the Senate and Congress on the question of slavery. President Polk focused his administration on finding reasons to go to war with Mexico and eventually convinced a divided Congress to support a war of Mexican conquest.
After a costly war, with brutality on both sides, a war waged largely on Mexican soil, the army of the United States defeated the Mexican army. By the end of his administration., Polk's expansion policy had resulted in acquisition (conquest) from Mexico of all or significant portions of California, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. The economic and political consequences to Mexico and its people were ultimately to prove devastating. Mexico lost access to and control over vast water resources, leaving Mexico with the poorest and least farmable lands of its former empire. It lost control of gold, silver, and other mining resources, and as it turned out, it lost the future oil wealth of Texas. The immigration pressure from Mexico to the United States results, in part, from the economic destruction of the nation of Mexico, and in part on the less aggressive Spanish approach to industrialization and capital formation which characterized that nation.

One of the prices that a conquering nation pays for visiting economic destruction on a neighboring country is that the impoverished country cannot support its population leading to cross border immigration pressure for seekers of opportunity, employment and education. That means, that the conquering nation must either engage in costly aggressive, often futile efforts to stem the tide of immigration, or it must find ways to assure that the immigrants who do arrive are educated and incorporated into the population as full citizens.

Now before you decide to attack this blog from the left or right, I'd ask you to recognize that what I'm saying is embedded with historical and economic truth. If you are anti-Dream Act, you can support your argument from this historical perspective by saying, yes, I'm aware of the causes of those pressures, and it is precisely because of those pressures, that I believe that we must redouble our effort to keep our fingers in the dike and hold back the inevitable immigration pressures arising from economic inequalities. If you are pro-Dream Act, you can point out that a significant proportion of the child-immigrants have come to portions of our country that were originally part of Mexico, and that they have simply travelled from one part of the Mexican Diaspora to another. History furnishes arguments for either point of view.

Immigration has formed an important part of the economic, cultural and political history of our country and of North America. From 1881 to 1890, 41 percent of our nation's population growth came from immigration. From 1891 to 1900, 28 percent of our population growth resulted from immigration, and by 1900, nearly 14% of our nation's population were foreign born citizens. In the first decade of the twentieth century, more than half of the increase of our population was accounted for by immigrants, and about 14.6 percent of our population were foreign born immigrants. In each of those decades through the 1920's, immigration to the United States exceeded 3.6 million, ranging from a high of 8.8 million per decade to a low of 3.7 million. With the advent of the depression, and economic and political chaos worldwide, immigration into the United States fell to an all time 528,000 for the decade. The period of our greatest economic depression thus coincided with the period of our least immigration as well as a period of significant erection of international trade barriers.

The period from 1941 to 1990, witnessed a resurgence of immigration, particularly under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980's under whose presidency immigration rose to 7.3 million for the decade. Under Reagan, immigration accounted for 1/3 of the nation's population growth and the percentage of our population that was foreign born rose from historic lows --5.4 percent in the 1950's, to 7.9 percent in the Reagan decade. This resurgence in immigration may be traced to several factors: the support by Republicans for immigration as a supply of cheap unskilled labor to support economic growth,and a corresponding rejection by democrats of a national policy of hostility to immigrants of Latino or Hispanic descent. It may reflect as well the growing disparity in wealth among the Americas.

The Dream Act was not about history, after all, it was about solving a major emerging crisis in America's demographic future, and I'll talk about that in my next post.

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