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Need knows no nationality

Dan Smith

If a child has no toy at Christmas, or a family has no home, or food or electricity, do we ask where they are from or simply find a way to meet their need? For those of us at the Vail Valley Salvation Army, and hopefully most Americans, we meet the need and leave the question of origin or nationality to others. Need truly knows no nationality.But lately there has been a constant stream of letters to the editor and calls to Tipsline decrying any employment, aid or benefits provided to anyone who may be in the country illegally. The apparent assumption underlying these comments is that anytime anyone of foreign descent, or who doesn’t speak good English, gets a job, receives aid from the government, sends their children to school or even gets some help from the Salvation Army, they must be an illegal. Native-born Americans could never need assistance, unless of course they had been victimized by those of foreign birth. Such complaints aren’t new or unique. They have been the reaction to every wave of immigrants – Irish, German, Chinese and now, for the moment, Hispanic. The Irish of the mid-1800s, many of whom fought for the Union in the Civil War, were hated, reviled and feared by native-born Americans. In the West, Chinese immigrants who built our railroads were objects of the same fear and discrimination. You might hope things would get better in the 21st century, but apparently not. Even though need knows no nationality, prejudice and fear probably know no historical time limit. It’s time to take a look at the facts and, perhaps, gain some understanding of reality.Many of the complaints voiced thus far deal with jobs, so let’s look at employment. Based on the latest data available on the Eagle County Web site, the unemployment rate in the county in 2001 was 2.8 percent, well below the 3.7 percent unemployment for the state and 4.8 percent for the nation as a whole. Remembering that 2001 was a time of great economic turmoil in the nation, those statistics don’t lend very much credit to allegations that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from lawful residents. Clearly, if you want a job, the job is there to find in Eagle County. But for some, it is always easier to place blame than to look for work. The second complaint often given voice is that illegal immigrants consume all the social services. Here again, reality and allegation differ markedly. According to the latest census, about 28 percent of the population of Eagle County is Hispanic. An article in the Rocky Mountain News quoted a Colorado Department of Education estimate that there are 150,000 to 200,000 illegal aliens of all nationalities in Colorado. Based on the state’s 4,301,000 residents, that is about 3.5 percent of the population. Even if you doubled the figure for Eagle County, clearly the vast bulk of our residents of foreign descent are here legally. So the assumption that anytime “one of them” gets aid or sends their children to school, they are an illegal, is highly questionable at best, The county’s social service agencies like the Salvation Army generally place need above nationality in their decision- making process. If someone is in ned of emergency support help, it is the American way to provide that support. While county data isn’t readily available, the latest statistics from the Salvation Army again show that need doesn’t ask for a passport – or even require that you have one. In 2004, the Salvation Army processed about one case per day, and about 47 percent of them were non-Hispanic and I assume lawful residents of the United States. Some of these families needed help with rent, food or utilities. They received food baskets over the holidays or their children got toys at Christmas. They may have received help with medical or dental expenses, or emergency lodging. In short, the Salvation Army met their needs and didn’t ask their nationality. The folks standing in the cold in front of Wal-Mart ringing the bells didn’t demand that the money they collected go only to Americans. The families helping assemble and deliver the holiday food baskets didn’t want to see a passport before they made a delivery. The volunteers who manage the food pantry don’t check IDs. We’re in the business of meeting emergency needs – and need knows no nationality. Dan Smith is the chairman of the board of the Vail Valley Salvation Army, as well as an adjunct professor at Colorado Mountain College. The views he expresses are solely his own.Vail, Colorado


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