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Undocumented immigrants offer U.S. a shot of optimism

By Rudy Ruiz, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rudy Ruiz: Amid a waning euphoria, undocumented immigrants are optimistic
  • Ruiz: When Irish came to U.S. they met backlash, but immigration laws didn't limit them
  • Latinos are hard workers undaunted by challenges, like Irish before them, Ruiz writes
  • Ruiz: Undocumented workers' outlook, aspiration and determination a great benefit

Editor's note: Rudy Ruiz founded RedBrownandBlue.com, a site featuring multicultural political commentary; hosts a nationally syndicated Spanish-language radio show; and wrote a guide to success for immigrants, "¡Adelante!" (Random House). He is co-founder and president of Interlex, an advocacy marketing agency based in San Antonio, Texas.

San Antonio, Texas (CNN) -- Despite all the talk about a tide of pessimism surging in our country, optimism isn't dead. It's just in hiding.

The economy is struggling. The deficit is looming. Unemployment is hovering at about 10 percent. China is nipping at our heels for global economic dominance. Our housing, automotive and banking industries are on life support. The health care system is falling apart.

And the government charged with getting us out of the doldrums is "broken," according to 86 percent of Americans who responded to a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll.

Amid this gloom and doom, Patrick Alitt, American history professor at Emory University, wrote in an essay titled "America: The Miserable," that "the burst of utopianism that greeted Obama in 2008 has disappeared with the return of everyday politics and the slow grind of two unwinnable wars. Now everyone talks about decline, recession and aging."

America's most optimistic people are those waiting for a chance to come out of hiding.
--Rudy Ruiz
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But Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University argues that we're in a pattern of "Americans believing the country is in decline and then finding ways to rebound from both the fear of decline and the problems that gave rise to that fear."

Perhaps a little inspiration for that rebound in morale could be drawn from some of the least fortunate among us. Because when we look at the attitude and determination of undocumented immigrants, it's easy to see that optimism isn't dead. It's simply living in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to step into the light.

In a recent national survey of undocumented Latino immigrants, RedBrownandBlue found that the day laborer population has been among the hardest hit by the recession. Fourteen percent of male respondents said they work zero to 10 hours a week; and 39 percent said their annual household income is under $15,000 -- well below the poverty threshold of $22,128.

Given a national poverty rate of 13 percent, undocumented Latino immigrants are three times as likely as Americans to live in what we define as "poverty."

Despite these difficult circumstances, an overwhelming 74 percent said that if they had to choose again, they would still come to the United States. Eighty-seven percent said they believe America is special compared with other countries. And 71 percent said America is special because it gives people the opportunity to do better. Sounds pretty optimistic, right?

It should come as no surprise. Because as bad as things might look here, immigrants have seen far worse. Their knowledge of how much harder it is to scrape out a living -- much less get ahead -- in other parts of the world is still painfully fresh.

Our version of poverty is living large compared with subsistence south of the border. Just look at Mexico, our greatest source of immigrants. About four in 10 Mexicans were classified as poor in 2006. By August 2008, close to 5 million more had been pushed into poverty by a slowing economy, according to World Bank economist Joost Draaisma.

If you think those numbers sound bad, consider this: To be "poor" by Mexico's standards, city dwellers must earn less than $1,680 per year; campesinos -- or country folk -- less than $1,128 annually.

"[They] don't have enough resources to buy not only food but also to have basic health services or clothing and shelter," Draaisma said.

Wonder why people still cross the border despite our mounting efforts to stop them? The situation in Mexico has only worsened because of the American recession. It means the United States need less of our neighbor's exports, 80 percent of which come to the U.S. The recession has also exacerbated the unabated drug-related violence that continues to claim thousands of lives each year. Until life improves in Mexico, those most committed to seeking out a brighter future will continue to find their way to America, armed with both courage and, yes, optimism.

The Latino immigrant wave echoes those of bygone eras. In the 1850s, about 1.5 million Irish people made it to America in a few short years, transforming the urban landscape. By the end of the Potato Famine, Baltimore, Boston, New York and Philadelphia boasted booming populations that were 25 percent Irish.

The trend sparked cultural and political strife, anti-immigrant crime and abuse, nativism, discrimination, religious prejudice and violence. But it also fueled America's industrial rise with ambitious, passionate workers undaunted by the challenges they faced.

After all, as hard as it must have been, it was still better than famine. Interestingly, the only reason the Irish immigrants were legal is because they were not illegal. That is to say, immigration laws at the time didn't limit their number.

And, if different on paper, today's undocumented immigrants are no different in spirit. New immigrant groups have always fueled growth via their unbridled faith in the American Dream.

If they risked their lives to reach our shores, tough economic times will not deter them.

If they earned 10 times less wherever they came from, they won't mind helping us produce at more competitive labor costs.

And their combination of perspective, aspiration and determination can do America a great deal of good, if we just let it.

Let's resume immigration reform and embrace undocumented immigrants as a source of competitive labor, productivity, increased tax revenue and, yes, optimism. Because it might just be that America's most optimistic people are those waiting for a chance to come out of hiding.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rudy Ruiz.