Thoughts on immigration – “Legality”

I didn’t expect to see the day, at least not so soon, that immigration would fall dead center in the national spotlight. I suppose hundreds of thousands of people marching in what police across the country are simultaneously calling “the largest demonstration I have seen in this town in my whole career” will have that effect.I guess it was inevitable, but when I became aware of the depth and pervasiveness of the issue through my job a few years ago, I was shocked.
The Congress is taking on immigration reform, and the last few days I felt a bit of hope for my Mexican brothers and sisters. As you read in my last post, I am very close to this issue on several levels. My job basically requires, in an unspoken way, that I hire immigrants. But less people know that I married an “illegal alien,” who is currently somewhat less illegal because he is in the process of becoming legal by nature of marriage, to me.

Sunday I watched a few minutes of a weekly local talk show showcasing a neutral host flanked by an array of arguing commentators from the left and right. As I flipped, I caught their brief immigration conversation, where the speakers tossed about their catchphrases and cliches on “aliens” and “legality.” The comment that sticks in my head went something like this, in response to the Milwaukee march last Thursday and others around the country this weekend: “Illegal aliens have no right to go marching in the streets telling our government what to do about their status.” This comment really stuck with me because on one hand, people that aren’t citizens of the United States may not have that right, and if someone were to frame the question around a different issue, I might agree. However, the comment still irritated me. The discussion of whether racism or the end of the American middle class were at the heart of this issue went on, but I was thinking about this concept of legality.

A lot of the politicians, commentators and, I would guess, regular people on the street cannot get over the fact that an illegal act marked the start of the great majority of these immigrants’ life here. They paid someone, then crossed the river in Texas or the desert in Arizona, undocumented, hiding, running, fearing the turn of the cameras on the border and the eyes of border patrol. It is, indeed, a crime, although it is almost never prosecuted, punished or even considered. And when crimes aren’t prosecuted, people don’t obey the corresponding laws. I mean, there are plenty of people who don’t wear seat belts, although that’s technically illegal, but the chances of getting a ticket for that are slim to none. Speeders, myself included, know that the likelihood of getting a ticket as long as you are careful and stay less than 10-15 miles over the speed limit is unlikely at best. So if the government is letting people over the border, businesses are allowed to hire undocumented workers as they please, and there is almost no chance of being picked up for the fact of being undocumented, what kind of message are we sending? I am not on the enforcement side of this debate, namely because we are at fault here, and if many of us could place ourselves in the shoes of a Mexican, we would probably take the opportunity and do the same thing – we would do what we know will benefit our families and communities.

So I started to think about the likelihood of myself, being who I am, deciding to illegally sneak into another country, without a visa, because I had something really life-changing and necessary to do there. The thing is, I would never do that. Why would I never do that? Is it because I am a law-abiding person? Perhaps to some degree. Like most people, I speed, and if Sensenbrenner’s bill passes, I will become a criminal by means of aiding undocumented immigrants in various ways. But more importantly, I wouldn’t cross a border illegally because I am an American. Americans don’t need to sneak anywhere. Not only are we are already in one of the best places in the world on many levels – economically, socially, culturally, but we are incredibly rich and powerful. Most Americans are able to get a visa to almost every country in the world with little effort, welcomed by many people because our tourist dollars feed economies. If I wanted, I could take my Hyundai Elantra and drive all the way to the border of Mexico and go across. I might need a passport, but not even a visa.

If a Mexican wants to come to the U.S., even just for a two-week vacation, they have to prove that they have a bank account, $1,000 US in that bank account for a year (a lot more in Mexico than it sounds like here) as well as proof of property ownership in Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students apply to come to the U.S. every year to take places at universities that are offereing them full scholarships. Only a fraction get to come, the ones that we let in, because there are quotas and restrictions that other countries simply do not apply. My South-African blog friend Allan just informed that it cost him $4000 to get a visa to come here. The cost is too great, yet we are demanding more and more low-wage workers every day. If there weren’t jobs, let me tell you, these people would not be here.

So with all that in mind, I sometimes feel sick about being an American. I was thinking about why I am not patriotic, why I am happy to live in this country, but sometimes feel that our values are all out of whack. Why have I frequently felt ashamed about being in American when traveling in other countries? I think I have part of my answer. The pride that so many of us have as Americans is blinding us. We can’t fathom how a person can make an illegal choice that will give them an opportunity they will never have in their own country. We can’t imagine it because we would never have to make that choice, because we are Americans, because we are privileged, lucky perhaps, special. Although there are inequalities in our society based on race, class and wealth, I believe almost anyone here has opportunities to be successful on some level. If you work hard, study hard, make good choices, there is potential for great success.

Mexico, to use the obvious example, is a different story. Brilliant students with no economic means are unable to go to college. An average person with a high school diploma will be lucky to find a job that pays more than $100 per week, and that’s working 70-80 hours per week doing hard manual labor. As Americans, we complain about situations and conditions that seem luxurious to other people. My mom recently told me a 28-year-old woman in her office made a comment that she “wouldn’t get out of bed for more than $50,000 per year”– a fortune to more than half the world. We are blinded by our own wealth, success, pride and way of life. Many countries around the world see our media, they have our television shows dubbed into their own languages, they watch our movies, drink our Coke and increasingly consume our junk food. We, on the other hand, see very little of anything that isn’t American, or designed for Americans. Few Americans watch foreign movies, even less see foreign television, and most of what we eat is either ours or a hybrid made to American tastes.

So I guess I wish we could all have a little more perspective. It seems these marches and discussions are affecting the way people view this issue, for the better. I hope that more people will research this issue, take time to understand it, not just write a whole population of people off because they broke a law.


3 Responses to Thoughts on immigration – “Legality”

  1. Matt says:

    I appreciate your comments, Laura. I think many of us find it hard to be patriotic these days. Maybe we’re just not meant to be.
    I realize this might not be the place to ask this, but is there a reason our blog isn’t in your links list?

  2. Jen J says:

    I like the new blog!

    The weird thing to me is that this issue is universally put in a negative frame. It’s all in how you say it, right? I mean, many immigrants are the portrait of the American ideal and have all the elements of a great narrative:

    noble motive, emotional separation from loved ones, danger, adventure, rags-to-riches, hard work, enduring family devotion (dare I say “family values” and charge this politically?)

    I don’t understand why this narrative has instead been framed soley in dry terms of legality (like you pointed out before). I mean, even discussing the impact of immigration on the distribution of scarce resources would be more interesting–and more pertinent (ie claimed drain on social benefits and health care–*taking into consideration the benefits that companies (and tax revanue) reap from good cheap labor). Speaking of cheap labor–what the heck happened to the humanitarian stories I saw last fall regarding California’s (state or citizens? I don’t recall) effort to build more livable housing for migrant workers?

    And don’t get me started on our idiotic limitations for admitting highly educated foreigners for school and/or work visas. I understand that they might pose a very real challenge to, well, us… educated middle class Americans looking for jobs. But if you buy the idea that intellectual capital generates real capital in terms of new ideas, businesses, and jobs, the long-term gain is worth some short term discomfort.

    Achh! I need to get back to work. More talk later.


  3. Laura says:

    Hey Matt.. your blog is in my list, but my list only shows 6 at a time now.. I like that people have less choices and the list isn’t so daunting and long all at once, if you hit refresh a few times, your’s will show up.. don’t worry, I would never forsake you guys. =)

    thanks for your guys thoughts.. Jen – I love your opinion and eloquence on everything.. thanks. good luck with your paper!

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