Immigration Orange Lessons

August 29, 2007

I want to direct attention to some really fantastic essays that Kyle has written over at Immigration Orange.

I thought I posted links to the first three the other day, but it turns out I only posted those on immigrate2us, not here.

So here goes:

#1 The correct term is migrant

This is probably true – although I don’t personally feel the need to redefine the terminology of the debate. However, I see this as a way to chip away at the American attitude that foreigners are dying to come to the great U.S. of A. because they want to be Americans. Sure, a few do — many more just want to work. Let me repeat – they are migrating to work – not setting out to permanently immigrate.

#2 Justice for migrants

“Anti-migrant advocates like to put “the law” on a sacred pedestal, while they completely divorce “the law” from justice. The law and its application, need I remind everyone, is supposed to serve justice.”

#3 ‘I am pro-legal immigrant’ and ignorant

I’ve argued this point many times before. The average American believes there actually is a legal method for poor and working-class people to enter the U.S. legally. This is false in almost all cases. Legal immigration is basically reserved for: immediate family of U.S. citizens and people who have a job offer from the U.S. company that is willing to go through the time-consuming process of filing for their employment permanent residence forms. Farmers and restaurant owners do not do these sort of applications for $8 per hour employees.

#4 ‘No Amnesty’ except for Cubans

Nothing against Cubans – but why are they allowed what basically amounts to amnesty? There are certainly worse-off nations, as Kyle points out, such as Haiti.

#5 ‘America First’ makes U.S. citizens suffer

Citizens argue for the protection of the U.S. no matter what the consequences for the rest of the world. To some, this might seem to be a noble and patriotic position to take. But the truth is that the health and prosperity of the United States and its citizens is inextricably intertwined with the health and prosperity of the rest of the world.”

Amen, amen, amen.

I wish I could say things this well.

Thanks Kyle for this series.


Rumors of enforcement really just a ruse

August 28, 2007

I kind of have to laugh at this.

A few weeks ago I commented about the new Department of Homeland Security plan to start major crackdowns on employers who hire undocumented workers. A few restaurant people I talked to laughed it off, thinking it would never happen. People on the immigration forum were scared. Many have filed petitions for their undocumented spouses, but won’t have an interview for a year or more. What would they do if their husband or wife lost their job?

I was torn between feeling that the plan seemed utterly plausible and also extremely improbable. The Bush Administration is not even foolish enough to think waves of firings – resulting in loss of employment for hundreds of thousands of parents, renters, homeowners, farmhands, cooks and maids would be a good thing for our economy right now. Some suggested this was a scare tactic – a way to frighten enough Congresspeople into passing a reform that would allow a path to legalization for the millions of undocumented workers currently in the U.S.

And as much as the sort of people who have been commenting on my short and somewhat random Journal Sentinel column from today believe that we should just start getting rid of all these “criminals,” even the Bush administration knows better. That’s probably why they cooked up this scheme – create a lot of media attention around a crackdown that will never actually do anything, because – oh my goodness – its main enforcement tactic is illegal. Ha! Gotcha!

Of course, a quick Google search results in hundreds of news stories in all the major papers from the days in early August¬† after DHS actually announced their new plan. Most Americans who read newspapers and listen to television news probably saw those stories. Most probably thought – “Yes! The government is doing its job – enforcing existing laws – punishing the lawbreakers who are ruining our country! Yeehaw!”

A second Google search finds only a few articles, in smaller papers, revealing the truth — that Social Security is actually not allowed to alert the Department of Homeland Security (the agency that would theoretically be doling out fines for non-compliant employers) about the mis-matches because of IRS privacy laws.¬†

Basically, none of this enforcement is actually going to happen. Smoke and mirrors. Just like I should have expected.

Real people at the heart of immigration debate

August 28, 2007

Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Aug. 28th, 2007

One year ago, my husband, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, left our home in Milwaukee for his visa interview at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Today, after 11 months of waiting in Mexico, he is back, with a valid Social Security number and that elusive green card.

I’ve alluded to our situation before, particularly in May, after I left the immigration march on the streets of Milwaukee feeling that the energy and enthusiasm of the millions of undocumented workers in this country would never align with the feelings of hate and fundamentalist legalism that seem to drive our nation’s vocal, anti-immigrant minority.

I also questioned whether the Department of Homeland Security would determine we had proved enough “extreme hardship” to grant my husband a visa. For anyone still wondering, immigrants who marry U.S. citizens do not immediately become U.S. citizens.

A week after my May column was published, I received an unexpected letter, which gave my husband an appointment to pick up his visa – essentially, notice of our approval.

Meanwhile, the so-called grand bargain immigration proposal being discussed in Congress caught fire from all sides, collapsing as those who only want border security and mass deportations clashed with those who want a legalization program for the millions of undocumented residents living within our borders.

As the national debate deflated, my husband returned legally. While we were thrilled with the outcome of our case, I began feeling a dull sense of defeat about the prospects for a fair national reform to our immigration system.

As our lives return to normal, I’ve had a difficult time ignoring countless other families and friends who are stuck, in one way or another, because of both their personal choices and the immigration system that provokes and punishes them.

There is my husband’s distant cousin, Jose, an exceptionally hard-working and responsible individual, who has lived without documentation in the United States for more than eight years. At a party this summer, I heard him comment how much he had hoped for an immigration bill that would have allowed him to remain here legally. But as of now, he has no options.

Then there is Cindy, a young woman I met via an online immigration forum. Cindy’s parents brought her across the Mexican border when she was 4. She grew up in California and Texas and graduated near the top of her high school class. The only thing that kept Cindy from college was a valid Social Security number.

Cindy married her high school sweetheart, a U.S. citizen, two years ago. She is now a lawful permanent resident.

Cindy’s sister, however, just a few months old when their family came to the U.S., has no options. She is engaged to a Honduran immigrant, and although she has resided in the U.S. for all but a few months of her life, she has no opportunity to remain here legally.

These stories, sadly, are a dime a dozen. On a national level, the debate centers on the idea that our country is crawling with lawbreakers who strain the welfare system while evading taxes.

These myths control the debate and distract from the economic, social and cultural questions that belong at the center of the discussion over immigration laws.

Are we going to be a nation that erects walls – both literal and figurative – to keep the world’s poor and needy at a distance? Or could we attempt to embrace our history? Could we be a nation that embodies the principles inscribed on our most iconic statue?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

a very Wisconsin weekend

August 27, 2007


After a week of almost constant raining in Milwaukee, I had the pleasure of spending this weekend “up-north” at my old friend Nicole’s cabin on Dake Lake in Waupaca, Wisconsin. Waupaca is about two hours north and west of Milwaukee, a relatively short drive to a very idyllic place.

I generally headed much farther “up-north” for at least a week every summer with my own family until sometime in high school. It’s a Wisconsin tradition for the average middle-class family. We almost never traveled out of state (other than to Chicago) as kids, but to Eagle River, Minocqua or Antigo, we most certainly did. (Back in the day, I’m sure all these places did not have websites).

I’ve been going up to Nicole’s cabin occasionally since elementary school. We used to hang out on her parents’ boat, work on our tans (Nicole was always so far ahead of everyone else in that regard), visit the local lake hangouts – the Casino, the Harbor Bar, and the Wheelhouse restaurant, and just generally enjoy the summer sunshine. It was always great fun, but it’s so much easier to appreciate these getaways as an adult.

I haven’t been to the Peterson cabin in eight years, and was happy to see that not so much has around the area. There are a few more so-called McMansions dotting the lakes, but not as many as I feared.

Their cabin reminds me of the definition of “shabby chic,” and smells the way same familiar way I remember it. Nicole has always told stories about Waupaca, to the degree that the places and people have become familiar to me as well, although I’m not sure I have actually spend more than five or six short holidays at the cabin. But this indirect, strangely distant familiarity is a great, nostalgic feeling to have on a relaxing weekend.


Now, as adults, we’re not so embarrassed to cruise the Chain ‘O Lakes on a giant pontoon boat, we happily drank beer sheathed in styrofoam and take 30-minute power walks. I got some reading done, caught up with high school girlfriends, let my e-mail and laundry pile up, enjoyed micro-brews on the boat, and even went on a round of tubing.

It was a great weekend. Only tainted by being back in the office, with rain falling outside my window again.

still living

August 23, 2007

Well, I’ve been pretty quiet for a while, haven’t I?

I may be out of my writing slump, as I finally just finished another, or possibly my last, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel community column. I’ll post it in a few days or as soon as it’s published in the paper.

It’s been one year since my term as a community columnist started, and any week now there will be a new group. I wish I wouldn’t have been so flaky about it the last few months, but I’ve been busy getting back to life with a husband, and summer is a pretty busy time for selling vaccines, so I just haven’t had as much time to read and process and form opinions, particularly on local issues.

In addition, every day that passes without an update on great blogs like Migra Matters, I become a little more sad about the state, or lack thereof, of any sort of immigration discussion in this country. Despite the amazing writing of activists and commentators like Kyle, Man Eegee and others, much of the discussion remains tainted by the buzz words “border security,” “amnesty,” and “illegal aliens.” Politicians want to do something popular, but the country is so divided on the issue that nothing is really “popular.” What happened to doing what is right? What happened to doing what is best for our nation?

So what is one to do? I’ve been keeping busy on I’ve noticed a glut of people in the same situation as Fermin and I, landing on the site after being let down when no immigration bill passed. Now they will begin the long, tedious journey of petitioning their spouse, filing a waiver, etc. I think it’s good karma to give back, so I try to give advice based on my experience and what I’ve read.

That’s about all that’s going on in my world right now. On a completely unrelated note, I found this cool quiz – for the Milwaukeeans in my readership – you might enjoy this.

Rumors of major enforcement

August 7, 2007

I know exactly what a Social Security Administration no-match letter looks like. We receive them yearly, sometimes all in one day, five or six in one stack on the dining room table. To be honest, they sort of make me laugh, announcing the government’s lame attempts to cover its large ass.

Until, well, apparently next week, an undocumented worker using an invented Social Security number would receive said letter each year, proclaiming that the name and number did not match the Social Security Administration’s records, and requesting the employee do something to fix this discrepancy. Considering there is no enforcement whatsoever, the employee, and the employer, also notified, did nothing.

I recall the first time we received these letters at the Asian fast-casual restaurant where Fermin and met and worked for several years. I was given the task, with my meager Spanish, of explaining that each employee had to sign a piece of paper stating they received notification that their Social Security number did match. That was it. I was sort of freaked out, and my boss said this was completely normal. Wink wink.
This was possibly the start of my education in the ways of the undocumented worker and the companies eager to hire them. I’m not saying this restaurant went out of its way to hire undocumented Mexican workers, but those were the only applicants, for the most part, that could handle the kitchen. In fact, when we opened, we had a rather diverse kitchen staff – a few Asian high school kids off for the summer looking for a fun job, a few Mexicans, a few aimless recent high-school grads forced by their mom to put down the remote/video-game control and get a job. Guess which ones worked out? I eventually became the supervisor of this wonderful group of Mexican employees, and they taught me a TON. One excellent kitchen manager made $12 per hour, so these weren’t minimum wage employees.
For many restaurants, this scenario is completely normal. There is no virtually no enforcement of the Social Security number mismatches, yet state, federal, Social Security and Medicaid taxes are deducted as with anyone else. As the immigration debate has boiled over in recent years, there is the occasional comment that if employers and the government would simply enforce the laws as they stand now, we would not have this problem. And in one way, this is completely true. Many people blame the immigrant workers, but neglect to ponder how much government-employer-undocumented immigrant collaboration actually has gone on to make this whole system work that way is is, or isn’t.

And while part of me wishes we could return to the days when the media and the politicians ignored these people and just let them go about their hard-working business, I know that will never happen. And if our elected officials are too afraid to pass laws that will actually expand legal immigration to meet the needs of our economy, I guess all we can expect is to watch the Department of Homeland Security start enforcing what it has to enforce, no matter what economic, social and cultural consequences it may have.

(In addition to the link to an LA Times article under the words “apparently next week,” above, a more comprehensive piece was published today in the New York Times).

regrets for a national failure

August 6, 2007

I was vehemently opposed to the so-called “Grand Bargain” immigration compromise during its short lifespan this year. I generally agree with this commentary and also feel that it would have made changes where they were not necessary, and probably would have resulted in the same long-term problems we have today. I am a firm believer that this nation needs more legal immigration so that illegal immigration is not such an attractive option, for Mexican and other Central American laborers, as well as for U.S. employers. I’m not a fan of any program that would bar unskilled, laboring people from this country, because those are the same sort of immigrants whose descendants are now me, and probably you.

In the last few weeks, however, I’ve mourned the opportunity the nation lost this year. During the weeks that led up to the bill’s death, resurrection and final passing (to the afterlife), I was too preoccupied with how bad the bill was to really think about the way less informed people might feel. (I don’t mean to sound condescending right there, but frankly, even I, fascinated and personally involved with immigration, had a hard time reading, analyzing and drawing conclusions on what the a bill resembling the “Grand Bargain” might have meant. I certainly do not fault even an average, liberally minded person for not delving into the issue to the necessary degree).

As the debate raged, we found out that Fermin would be re-admitted legally, and things have been looking up for those petitioning their unlawfully present Mexican spouses in particular. So while immigration is still real and personal, I wasn’t personally waiting on the passing of reform, rather luckily in fact, but the truth is, thousands and thousands and thousands are still waiting, and they were hoping.

And a few days ago that hoping came home a little bit for me again. I was reminded, so to speak. I live with undocumented immigrants, and their struggles are real to me every day, but I have sadly become somewhat used to those struggles, and the immigrants I live with are all so undecided about their futures that it would be hard to say they were truly disappointed when no reform that would allow them to pursue legalization materialized. Compared to many, they have lived in the U.S. a short time, and are therefore less attached to their lives here. But each day they remain in the U.S., the more complex those feelings become – my sister-in-law has a U.S. citizen child, my brother-in-law has learned to speak excellent English, they have jobs, they have parties. They dream of Mexico but do not return. Their lives are entangled in the politics and economics of two huge nations. It is complex.

But my husband’s cousin Carlos has lived in the U.S. for almost a decade. He speaks English and has adjusted well to life in the U.S., holding a good-paying job for many years. He has family here, a long-time girlfriend, a car, an apartment, etc. He is the type of responsible family person that would purchase a house if he could get a loan, but of course cannot because he has no Social Security number. He is smart and well-spoken and fun. And one of the first things I heard him say at the birthday party was a comment about Congress lamentably not passing any reform this year. He sounded disappointed. He looked disappointed. This good person is the type we are embittering with every year of inaction.

And it made me really sad. Carlos has no chance toward legal status in the U.S. without a reform bill passing. He will remain in the place he considers a sort of home until immigration authorities are alerted to his presence by some freak occurrence, or he decides to return to Mexico. Many Americans complain that Mexican immigrants have not assimilated, but I wonder how they can dare say that when we have refused to allow them to assimilate? If you had unclear, undefined, precarious status in another country, would you not find it difficult to love that place as a home?

Carlos is the sort of human being who will be an asset to any country he resides in. He is not alone, and his sadness made me sad. A birthday party is a time of celebration, but millions of undocumented immigrants are still waiting on some sort of reprieve from a country that has lured them with jobs, employed them without reservation, catered to them with elaborate, fully American marketing schemes, coddled them with home loans and tax refunds, but rejects them as citizens and members of society.