What the sentimental arguments and the legalistic arguments too often understate are the economic factors behind immigration.
Both sides of the immigration debate wrap the issue in sentiment and oversimplification. Both talk about immigrants pursuing the American Dream, hungering for freedom and opportunity, embracing their new American identity. The only difference is that immigration advocates associate these sentiments with today's immigrants, while opponents reserve them for immigrants that arrived a century ago.
What the sentimental arguments and the legalistic arguments too often understate are the economic factors behind immigration. Most people's first loyalty is to their family, not to some idealized national identity. For centuries, people have come to America to make money. They have always sent some money to help family in the old country, and many immigrants have always dreamed of eventually returning home.
According to the Wall Street Journal, historians estimate that 30 percent of immigrants arriving between the Civil War and World War I returned to their country of origin. Italian immigrants in the early 20th century sent four out of every five dollars to family back home, one study found. There would be fewer Italian-American immigrants in MetroWest today, historians say, if World War I hadn't prevented thousands of homesick immigrants from returning to the old country.
Recent immigrants from Brazil have a new term for this old practice. ``To do America'' means to come here for a few years, earning enough to pay for a home, land and maybe a business back in Brazil, then return.
Immigrants, driven by poverty and ambition, tend to be a practical lot. The math of the immigration economy is now changing, and it appears to be reversing the tide of immigration from Brazil.
Statistics are hard to come by, though one - the number of Brazilians arrested along the Mexican border - shows a striking drop from more than 31,000 in 2005 to just 1,460 last year. But those close to the immigrant community say they are seeing fewer new immigrants from Brazil, and more headed home.
A big factor is the falling dollar. Five years ago, you could get three Brazilian real for one U.S. dollar. Now, a dollar brings 1.84 real,
meaning money sent home from America doesn't go nearly as far.
There are other factors in the immigrants' calculations. Stepped up border enforcement has raised the price of illegal immigration. Workplace raids have increased anxiety. The failure of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress has discouraged illegal immigrants who had hoped for a way to emerge from the shadows.
``I'm tired of living as a criminal,'' one illegal immigrant told a Daily News reporter. ``I cannot drive, I have to use false names, and I'm afraid of the police and immigration. I'm tired of living in fear and away from my family.''
The man is headed back to Brazil years earlier than he had planned, he said. ``To be far away from my family for so little money is not worth it.''
As with earlier waves of immigrants, many of the newcomers will stay and build lives here. Over time, they will enrich this country far more than the meager earnings of their first years enrich their countries of origin.
That's another historical fact both sides of the debate should remember: Immigration has been a key ingredient in America's economic dominance for centuries. We choke it off at our peril.