Kean University’s fourth annual Human Rights Conference was held in the Wilkins Theater on February 11. “Immigration: A Melting Pot No More?” took up the topic of illegal or undocumented immigrants.
The attendees were students from a mixture of classes, from middle school through high school and college, as well as guidance counselors, teachers, education professionals, and other people interested in understanding the aspects of the debate that is raging now, as it has periodically throughout the existence of the United States of America.
Dr. Hank Kaplowitz, Special Assistant to the President for the Human Rights Institute. opened the conference and gave us an overview of the day. It was Kean University’s President, Dr. Dawood Farahi, who put the first face of immigration forward–his own. He discussed what it meant for him to emigrate from Afghanistan to the United States in 1973. Hard work and his own mettle helped him rise to become the Kean’s President, an opportunity he feels he could not have gotten elsewhere. Dr. Farahi highlighted the importance of coming together to hear arguments, gain knowledge, and understand that there is no vaccination for bigotry. Only education can bring awareness of the differences among us, and how that diversity is what makes beauty in the world.
Leading off with the first Keynote Speech was Ambassador John R. Bolton. His speech, “Immigration in America: Challenges for a New Century,” actually veered off from Immigration. Ambassador Bolton preferred, he said, to address the concept of Citizenship, going neatly between and around the horns of the dilemma. Favoring the politician’s ruse of answering the question you wished was asked rather than the one that was, Ambassador Bolton discussed how the path the US took to nation-hood sets us apart from the other countries, as we were founded very clearly on a set of ideals surrounding individual liberty. This forms the foundation of the American Dream. For the French, for instance, you are born on French soil, you have French blood, you speak French, ergo you are French. His point was, that for immigrants coming to this country, he saw danger in the lack of a melting pot in the present day. Enclaves that remain true to the country outside the US may prevent what he calls the Americanization of the new immigrants. Failure to learn the language and customs makes it harder for them to assimilate and can lead to troubles later on if allegiances are not clear. Some countries, he says, feel that the sense of American Exceptionalism, the sense that the US is special and above other countries, makes us seem arrogant when, in fact, the founding of the country on the basis of liberty does make us special.
Citizenship is more than birth and more than naturalization, and it is that citizenship, NOT immigration, that is freighted with emotion. Debate on immigration will continue as long as the US remains attractive as a place for people to emigrate to. Ambassador Bolton’s stated view is that it matters less how someone arrives–whether legally or illegally, but rather will they “Americanize” when they arrive. If people are willing to commit fully, then that Americanization can succeed. If they do not melt into the melting pot, then trouble begins.
Invoking the name and concepts of President Reagan, Ambassador Bolton avers that the US was in the spot where we now stand more than 25 years ago. We failed to enact immigration reform then and he fails to see how it can be accomplished now.
This elder statesman spoke over the heads of most of the audience, many of whom were young enough to be his grandchildren. Ambassador Bolton tied drugs in with illegal immigration and border control, conflating immigration with drug violence and painting the same dire picture some of us remember the Republicans painting in the 1980s, a revisiting of a NeoCon Butterfly Effect, a dark picture, indeed.
Lawrence Downes provided the counterpoint. Downes is a member of the New York Times Editorial Board and has written widely on immigration in many editorials and op-ed pieces. He also has written on Haiti, the environment, and veterans’ concerns. Well versed in politics, Downes briefly discussed his affiliation with the times, and explained to the students, “It’s like an iPad made of paper that we publish today with everything that happened yesterday.” Downes was more effective in reading his audience than was Ambassador Bolton. The US population is about 310 million, more than 11 million of whom are illegal immigrants. Some Republicans would describe these people as gang bangers and drug addicts. While some immigrants may be violent, most are farm workers, students, nannies, and so on. They are united in moving here for a better life, to help their families get an education. While a great deal of attention is being placed on controlling the borders, that emphasis does little to address the people who are already here. Mass expulsion is not the answer and both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have understood this. After 9/11, however, mass roundups and trials tore immigrant families apart in the fury against people who seemed, to some, to look like the terrorists, while trials for robberies, racketeering and drugs plummeted. Vilification of immigrants continues, according to Downes, in even greater numbers in the Obama administration than in George Bush’s. There are too many lock-step Republicans and obstructionist Democrats who have killed comprehensive immigration reform. Part of the problem is the language around the debate.
Downes says that the word “illegal”, while accurate in its strictest sense, limits the debate and unfortunately that word has become code for racial hatred. It goes too far, and Downes says “the word leaves the target of the word diminished”. Further, the debate separates us at people – into “we” and “they”, people with rights and people without.
Rather than using “illegal”, Downes suggests that “undocumented” or “unauthorized” would be more accurate and would provide a sense that someone could redeem him or herself. People would like to be documented, pay their debt to society with a punishment that is not overly punitive, but appropriate to the offense and move forward with their lives.
Employers use immigration status to keep employees on artificially low wages. Service industries are rife with abuses, and only once we elevate the artificially low floor for wages, will we be able to see the demand for undocumented workers decline. Immigrants have always been willing to work hard, but our country has had, throughout its history, unscrupulous employers more than willing to exploit that desire to make a better life.
The Q&A portion was quite interesting. The body language of the two men, sitting adjacent, was fascinating–each had his legs crossed, but essentially away from the other. Consistently Downes was seeking consensus, only to be squashed each time by Ambassador Bolton, who ultimately did not make a good impression on the adult attendees. Downes was looking at every angle, and while New Jersey is a blue state, educators don’t like to be talked at–they prefer a dialogue similar to that which they pursue with their students.
The afternoon session was an examination of immigration from a very historical perspective. Drs. Frank Argote-Freyre and Christopher M. Belitto presented the perspective of the early Romans and discussed how they approached immigration. This is particularly interesting since, as Dr. Belitto pointed out, the Romans were technically the ones migrating outward. Equally interesting is his idea that the Roman Empire did not fall, but rather was transformed into something very different. This is a neat argument to consider as the perspective of many who consider Rome to have been the pinnacle of civilization and who claim that the Western world is on a similar “decline.” Dr. Argote-Freyre talked about introducing his students to actual undocumented immigrants in Central New Jersey, where people can see for themselves that most of the immigrant population is doing what our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents did before us. Dr. Argote-Freyre also pointed out that it is often that third generation who is the most intolerant of whomever is the next group of immigrants to arrive.
All in all, the Human Rights Conference was again a huge hit. Perhaps you’ll join me at Kean University on February 16 for the opening of One World, One Tribe by Reza, a photography exhibit at the Human Rights Institute Gallery on campus. People from exotic locations will be featured, people who look like us but don’t have the rights we have. Check them out at