November 12, 2018

LEE | Immigrant Nation

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A little over two years since coming to Cornell, I have grown accustomed to living in the United States and find myself having adopted several minute but quintessentially American traits. I now use slang or shorthand like “legit” or “lmk” without thinking about it, engage in small talk with waiters and walk around in the rain without an umbrella. These were all strikingly different aspects of American language and culture despite my 10+ years of being educated in international schools that follow the American curriculum.

Although I wouldn’t consider myself American, I have adjusted to living in the U.S. and do my part living here as a non-citizen. Academically and culturally, I provide an alternate perspective for my peers who have never travelled outside of the country. Economically, I carry out my role as a consumer of American goods and services and as a student employee working on campus and paying taxes accordingly. On most days, I feel no different from my American peers living and studying here with me. But every now and then I am reminded of my place here at Cornell and in American society.

The disparity is most striking upon my arrival at JFK International Airport after returning from home over break. As I wait somewhere between 30 minutes to 3 hours to pass through immigration, I remember my specific position as a non-citizen regardless of how many documents I have to prove my legal status. With the Cornell University International Students and Scholars Office’s rebranding under the name of the Office of Global Services earlier this academic year, I was once again reminded of why I was selected for admission to Cornell and to receive education in the United States. I am temporarily here to enrich the experience of my American peers and foster a diverse learning environment.

Like myself, many immigrants and nonimmigrants living, working, studying in this country have their own distinct experience and reasons for being here. Citizen or noncitizen, temporary or permanent, we bring unique backgrounds to contribute to the economy and continue to develop the values and beliefs that mold American culture. Migrants always have and will serve as the cornerstone of the United States of America.

Yet measures to limit immigration to the U.S. have been on the rise. In the last couple of months alone, President Trump announced his intentions to cap refugees admitted for resettlement to 30,000 in 2019, cease birthright citizenship and limit the means through which one can seek asylum. Such policies undermine the potential for immigrants to augment the American economy and culture, when what we need is immigration reform not reduction.

I understand and agree with the need to retain integrity in the immigration process and protect a nation’s borders. The legal system which serves as the backbone of our society should be upheld through honoring established immigration laws. Disregarding such laws neglects the effort of law-abiding citizens who obtained proper immigration status through existing legal measures. Nevertheless, it is no question that current immigration policies call for reform due to its inability to promptly maximize the tremendous value that immigrants bring to American society.

Immigration has a mostly net positive effect on the wages of U.S.-born workers. Unauthorized immigrants account for approximately five percent of the workforce, with this number quintupling in the field of agriculture. Refugees are integral to the recovery of cities struggling from population cuts and economic setbacks.

I personally witnessed the value of refugees and immigrants while working at an economic development organization in Buffalo. These people who have fled their home country in search of better economic and educational opportunities in the U.S. are ready to take on any available opportunity. They live, work, shape communities and even open up their own businesses to realize their American dream while revitalizing the city. The cost-benefit analyses conducted by immigration policymakers are often shortsighted in that they do not consider soft skills and attributes such as work ethic or the full long-term socioeconomic benefits that immigrants bring to make this country what it is.

Amidst complex immigration policy debates, let us not forget that the United States of America was founded on stolen land. Apart from indigenous Native Americans, the various ethnic groups that currently inhabit the country all migrated from elsewhere. This nation of immigrants could not have been built without the myriad of people coming from all over the world to make it the superpower that it is. Most importantly, we cannot ignore the vast micro and macro-level socioeconomic contributions made by immigrants — former and incoming.

DongYeon (Margaret) Lee is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Here, There and Everywhere appears alternate Tuesdays this semester. She can be reached at margaretlee@cornellsun.com.