On October, 8, 2014, The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc. produced a panel discussion with the Cambridge Forum entitled Immigrant Struggles, Immigrant Gifts after its book by the same name. The discussion used America’s immigration history to bring perspective to today’s immigration issues. Panelists included contributors to the book William G. Ross and Deborah D. Moore as well as policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh.
Diane Portnoy, founder and CEO of The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc., moderated the panel. She framed the discussion by saying, “Each wave of immigrants, regardless of their native country, religion, ethnicity or skin color, has experienced what immigrants today are experiencing. Yet, they have gone on to make major contributions to the country… . With a greater understanding of our past, my hope is that we strive for a future with fewer struggles and more gifts.”
William G. Ross is the Lucille Stewart Beeson professor of law at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law and a contributor to the book. He brought the prospective of one of the largest ethnic groups in America, Germans. Ross explained how Germans today are nearly invisible as an ethnic group but were once a very distinct group that was widely criticized for language, religious and cultural differences in ways that are reminiscent of criticisms leveled at recent waves of immigrant groups.
As a law professor, Ross also brought deep knowledge of America’s immigration legal history. He noted that until the late 19th century, immigration was largely a state-level issue. When the federal government started enacting immigration restrictions, they were discriminatory measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and the quota system enacted in the 1920’s. That is why Ross equated the 1965 Immigration Act eliminating quotas with the Civil Rights Act in its impact on creating a more just society.
Deborah D. Moore, director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and a Frederick G.L. Huetwell professor of history at the University of Michigan, is also a contributor to the book. She used the long history of Jewish immigration to this country as a case study for the American immigrant experience. Moore also illustrated how Jews have impacted social issues such as education and women’s rights. To explain the importance of immigrants in today’s society she said, “Immigration is integral to shaping our culture. Immigrants continue to bring new ideas and vitality, and they see things natives don’t see.”
The last panelist, Alex Norwasteh, is the immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. He began by saying that when Ellis Island was a critical entry point for immigrants to the United States it was called the “island of tears” for turning away just two percent of newcomers to this country. In contrast, today’s immigration laws are much more restrictive. For example, there is virtually no way for a low-skilled immigrant without family here to get a green card. He pointed out, “If those rules applied many years ago, most of us would not be here today.” He went on to describe the many economic benefits of immigration and concluded by saying, “It is rare that you get an economic policy change such as allowing more immigration that would be so beneficial to so many people, Americans and immigrants, with such a small cost to everyone involved.”
The audio broadcast will be available on NPR stations nationally through the National Public Radio satellite system. Thanks to WGBH Forum Network, the video of the event in its entirety is available on YouTube: