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Foreign-Born Census Data Sing American Success Story, Point To Policy Priorities
by Frank Sharry

Overall, the Census 2000 data released today depict an American success story. This nation of immigrants continues to be a beacon of hope and a land of opportunity to immigrant families seeking the American Dream, and by working hard and bringing their traditions of strong families and strong faith, newcomers are helping to revitalize cities, spur economic growth, and breathe life into one of America's defining traditions.

While Europe finds itself engulfed in a spasm of xenophobia, America should take heart that we attract immigrants at all levels, which helps America maintain its cutting edge economically, politically, and culturally. No wonder we stand alone as the preeminent nation in the world.

The numbers should be kept in historical context. The percentage of foreign born now stands at 11%, and at the turn of the century the percentage of foreign born was approximately 15%. It should also be remembered that throughout history, whether it was the Germans, the Irish, the Eastern Europeans, the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Mexicans, every new wave of immigrants was met with suspicion and doubts and yet, ultimately, every past wave of immigrants has been vindicated and saluted. We are confident that this 400 year-old success story will continue, because we have seen the magic that happens when you combine a nation based on freedom, opportunity, and tolerance with immigrants and refugees strong enough and courageous enough to seek a new life in a strange land.

This is good news.

The last decade produced some 4.5 million new citizens, something both political parties have already noticed. The fact that that the percentage of those becoming citizens has stayed more or less constant indicates that many immigrants made strenuous efforts to become U.S. citizens. That naturalization rates kept pace at the same time as 1) a growing number of immigrants were ineligible for citizenship (due to not having been in the country as permanent residents for five years or more, or because they lack legal status altogether); and 2) the citizenship process for much of the decade was beset by controversy, long backlogs, and higher fees, is remarkable.

Control of the White House and Congress may well turn on who is most successful at appealing to these new voters, and those that will follow.

There are policy implications in the numbers.

Although over half of the immigrants who speak a language other than English at home speak English very well, the growing number of new arrivals who do not shows how urgent it is for this country to provide more quality English classes to new arrivals.

Also, we need to increase our efforts to promote and facilitate citizenship so that more newcomers become Americans by choice.

Finally, the fact that some 8.5 million of the nation's 31 million foreign-born are undocumented (according to the Urban Institute), the need to deal with this reality intelligently as part of an intelligent overhaul of U.S. immigration policy is even more evident.

The increase in the numbers of immigrants in the Midwest and South suggests that immigration as an issue touches not only gateway states but the heartland of America as well. This is because these areas are creating more jobs than workers, and immigrants are filling critical niches in the labor market. The confluence of demographic, economic and political forces and factors is likely to continue to shape the policy debate on immigration in the coming decade, and overwhelmingly in a positive direction.

About The Author

Frank Sharry is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum. The Forum, based in Washington D.C., is one of the nation's premier immigration policy organizations, and has a membership of over 200 organizations nationwide. The Forum's mission is to embrace and uphold America's tradition as a nation of immigrants. Since becoming the Forum's Executive Director in 1990, Mr. Sharry has emerged as a leading spokesperson for pro-immigrant policies in the United States. He frequently appears in print and on television, ranging from the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and The Washington Post to debates on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the McLaughlin Group, and CNN's Crossfire.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.