Travelling up the east coast of the United States, David Whitley encounters a few people who tell the tale of modern day immigration.


Past and present

The days of open door immigration in the United States, as told so profoundly at the old registration centre at Ellis Island, are long gone. These days, emigrating to the United States is a tough, ruthlessly controlled process, and most of the millions that came in the past would stand no chance now. But while Ellis Island tells the story of America’s past, it also provides dark hints about America’s present. One of the key things learned on that island is that it is always easy to blame immigrants for everything. It’s something that is seen across the world – they come to our country, take our jobs, commit all the crime and insist on keeping their own culture rather than learning to assimilate with ours.



There are few parts of the world where this isn’t the tale. Britain shrieks about Pakistani immigrants, Australia frets about the Lebanese, South Africa worries about the Nigerians and Zimbabweans, Germany thinks it’s overrun by Turks, France wants to chuck out the Roma, Italy thinks its drowning in a flood of Africans and Albanians and the suspicion about the Somalis, Afghans and Iraqis is almost global.


Immigration in the US

The US – a country, remember, that is almost entirely founded on immigration, is one of the worst culprits for such scare stories. Illegal immigration is a massive issue here, and whilst some call for an amnesty that would allow for those who have overstayed their visas to stay in the country, the Send Them Home crowd is far more vocal. A sizable percentage of US citizens would probably prefer it if no-one was allowed at all and that all jobs were kept for good, patriotic Americans.


If only it was that simple. Travelling up America’s east coast, I keep encountering admissions that put multi-cultural America into perspective. In Washington, for example, I had an excellent meal that I later discovered was cooked by a chef from El Salvador. The joint’s owner told me: “America’s great restaurants would collapse without Central American labour. Pretty much every single one of them is reliant on it, and a lot of it’s not legal.�?


This is America’s dirty secret; the low paid immigrant workers (legal or otherwise) are what keeps the wheels turning. This story was replicated in Pennsylvania’s idyllic countryside. My uncle told me about the attitude of many locals to the Mexican workers who were doing all the donkeywork on the local farms. “People say they are taking American jobs, but they’re not – they’re doing the jobs that Americans don’t want to do. Stop Mexicans working on the farms, then send the illegal workers home, and the agriculture industry will be in a horrible mess.�?


An enlightening taxi ride

That’s the tale from those who are prepared to admit what’s happening. But what about from the horse’s mouth? Well, in New York, I hopped in a cab that I suspect wasn’t entirely legitimate. It wasn’t yellow, there was no meter in sight and the driver was a Nigerian chap. He was friendly, articulate and pretty open, so I ended up chatting with him all the way back to my hotel. His tale was sobering, and somewhat heartbreaking.


He had come to New York 20 years ago, and has been living in the city ever since. He sends the majority of what he earns back to Nigeria, to a wife and three children he hasn’t seen in two decades. This is despite facing New York living costs that most New Yorkers will whinge leaves them scrabbling around the poverty line. Yet my cabbie still seemed grateful for the opportunity to be here; happier to hold forth about Africa’s problems than those in his adopted nation. This man, America, represents the vast majority of the people your more lunatic fringes like to demonise.


America’s amazing diversity

One of the things I have enjoyed so much about being in the States is the diverse communities that make up little exclaves. I love that Washington DC has loads of Ethiopian restaurants, and streets that may as well be El Salvador. I love that almost as many (if not more) Puerto Ricans live in New York than Puerto Rico and that Staten Island has the largest Liberian population outside of Liberia. The distinct Chinatowns, Little Italy’s and Ukrainian villages are the prominent manifestations of something far more impressive. You can find the world in the United States; that’s what makes it great. For a country that has historically accepted the world in its embrace, to start rejecting it would be an almighty shame.


Read Ellis Island – where the United States begins - Part 1here