[OUTLOOK]The importance of demographyEvery year the U.S. congressmen and senators submit all types of immigration bills. For the last two years there have been more than 500 instances of immigration-related bills and hearings. The number of illegal immigrants now exceeds 10 million. After 9/11, the possibility of terrorist infiltration by way of illegal immigration became real. Thus, the problem has become an “issue of urgent settlement” rather than an “issue to be dealt with sooner or later.”
The White House advocates that the country should secure its safety through amending its immigration laws. Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy designed a bill to strictly enforce the immigration laws. The House of Representatives passed a bill designed to expel illegal immigrants and to punish those who aid their stay, but another bill for step-by-step legalization failed to pass by the Senate. As human rights groups and the Hispanic community sympathized with the illegal immigrants, demonstrations against strict immigration laws spread across the country.
Why has the American government ignored the situation until now when the number of illegal immigrants has reached 12 million, with Mexicans accounting for more than half?
The first U.S. immigration law was for Europeans coming by boat. There was also a special law for the Chinese people who came to the West Coast in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
America’s Southwest and California used to be a Mexican territory before the Mexican War and Mexican residents remained there even after the war was over. Some of them received American citizenship but most crossed the border freely and kept their jobs. Soon, there was increasing demand for cheap labor for farming and mining within America, while the difference in wages between the two countries increased. Thus, the influx of Mexican people also increased. In these historical circumstances, there were no measures to stop the Latin American influx in the immigration act of 1924, which introduced a system of national quotas, or the immigration and nationality act of 1965. As many people had entered the country illegally over the border with Mexico since the 1980s, America intensified its border control but the number of illegal immigrants hasn't dropped.
This problem pushes U.S. citizens to choose between law and reality.
The law serves as a center of gravity in American society, where diverse races and cultures coexist. From that point of view, illegal immigration should be punished because overlooking violations of the law leads to the collapse of society. During the Great Depression, the city of Los Angeles expelled Mexicans to give their jobs to U.S. citizens. The other argument is that most illegal immigrants do no harm to others but, instead, contribute to the American economy by providing cheap labor and should be treated differently from those who commit felonies. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan gave 2.7 million illegal immigrants the right of permanent residence.
Hispanics have now become the third biggest racial community and exercise enormous power in U.S. politics and the economy. The Congress and the Senate have 25 members with a Latin American background and the city of Los Angeles has elected its first Hispanic mayor. U.S. President George W. Bush also appointed Alberto Gonzales as attorney general.
With the upcoming off-year election, the U.S. Congress needs to decide between strict laws or a compromise with reality. Immigration laws and policies on illegal immigrants are important in Korea as well, as the country wants to become one of the 10 biggest economies. That is probably why former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew said, “What decides growth and security in the 21st century is not democracy but demography.”
* The writer is a professor emeritus of international relations at Sejong University.
by Kim Joung-won