US does not realize value of immigrants

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/8 18:18:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Amid the bitter debate on immigration in the US, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently asked on Fox News "what good does it do to bring in people who are illiterate in their own country?" It's not a surprise that Sessions, a fan of merit-based immigration system, doesn't know the answer. But I cannot pretend I don't.

In 2016, I interviewed 100 or so former undocumented Chinese immigrants and they have provided me the answer.

These immigrants, for a time, were all students of a school in a rural area of the coastal Fujian Province called Tingjiang Secondary School. Most are middle-school graduates and some dropped out before graduation. They spoke little English and had no special skills before they were smuggled into the US. They all came here with direct or indirect help of an alumna named Cheng Chui Ping, the notorious human smuggler "Sister Ping" behind the Golden Venture incident in 1993 when a cargo ship with 286 Chinese immigrants on board ran aground on Rockaway Beach in Queens. Ten drowned and the rest were arrested.

To be sure, these are not the only alumni from that school who came to the US during the high tides of human smuggling from China in the 1980s and the 1990s. The school's American Alumni Association boasts 15,000 members including many former teachers, and most came into the country in a similar way.

Ping, who was caught in 2000, died in a Texas prison in 2014 from cancer. With a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I was able to travel around the US and China to talk to the so-called snakehead's alumni to figure out what smuggling had done to their lives and what the migration of this crowd meant to both the US and China.

Studies about the economic and social impact of undocumented immigrants in the US are often sketchy because of the shadowed life they live. And the studies often point in different directions based on the stances of the researchers on the debate. For example, the liberal Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy emphasizes undocumented immigrants contribution of $11.74 billion in state and local taxes annually, and the Economic Policy Institute estimates legalization of their immigration status will boost the figure by another $2.1 billion.

Meanwhile, the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates that governments are spending $116 billion a year to provide services to these people.

A 2007 report of the Congressional Budget Office noted that the tax revenues undocumented immigrants contribute to state and local governments does not offset the total cost of services provided to them. But in the long run, tax revenues of all immigrants exceed the cost of the services they consume.

Confusing figures aside, my interviewees have provided a way to understand the issue through their narratives.

A general picture of their lives looks like this: after a long and often-dangerous trip to the US - which often involved stops in several countries - they'd mostly go to work in Chinese restaurants as cooks, waiters and waitresses, handymen and delivery men. Normally they'd work 11 hours or more per day, seven days a week. With the board and lodge provided by the restaurants, they saved almost every penny they made. It would take them one or two years to pay back the smuggling fee, which jumped from $18,000 in the 1980s to $30,000 in the 1990s.

They'd keep working like that for another five to 10 years before saving enough to often open their own takeout restaurants. At its height, between 2000 and 2010, there were more than 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the US and a substantial proportion of takeout restaurants was run by immigrants smuggled in from Fujian Province.

Supporting businesses were also thriving, such as job placement agencies which connected these workers and the restaurants, and the intercity buses in Chinatown that brought immigrants from New York's Chinatown to Chinese restaurants around the country.

In the past 10 years, the smuggling waves from Fujian have been dying down because of China's rapid economic development and policy changes, such as its repealing of the one-child policy. This has created a labor shortage among Chinese restaurants. A vacancy for a cook for takeout restaurants offering $1,900 a month in the 1990s was often filled immediately. Now the same position offering $3,500 may be left open for weeks.

Without these people, at least the popular Chinese fast food combo of three courses plus a soup for $5 won't have existed, the hot meals delivered to Americans on a snowy day may arrive cold, and the intercity Chinatown buses that serve so many budget travelers wouldn't have been running.

This is not the complete answer to the Attorney General's question because the contribution of the American-educated children of these "illiterate" immigrants to this country is only just beginning.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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