Real people at the heart of immigration debate

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.”


10 Responses to Real people at the heart of immigration debate

  1. laurafern says:

    I’ve already got some lovely comments already this morning….

  2. laurafern says:

    From KT: Yes, there are honest, hard working people who are trying to enter the country. If this is really important to you, publish your address so that the illegals coming in who only want free health care and free housing can stay at your house and you can support them. I also suggest you visit certain areas of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, places I used to live, and see for yourself the shack towns and gathering places of illegals and how it drags down our society. You find a way to keep out the millions of scum who are also trying to get in and your article might have merit.

  3. laurafern says:

    From WE: Madame, why not take all the passion you feel for the Illegals, who broke the law to get here and take the issue up the the Mexican Government! The criminals who run the government of Mexico always seem to get a pass. Why do or have they not provided jobs for their beloved people..Why is it that Mexico has no middle class only rich and poor. The Mexican government needs to start being accountable for the very people you feel so sorry for. Mexico is a resource rich nation, but is controlled by drug cartels and thieves. It is time for Mexico to quit exporting it’s poor on to the American taxpayer and start taking care of it’s own. I do believe that if Mexico did not have the option of exporting it’s poor they would eventually have to deal with the vast amount of people demanding the government start providing jobs, school, healthcare. It is time for America to just say no!

  4. laurafern says:

    From VC: Of course they are, and as one who has worked throughout Latin-America and Mexico I sympathize much with the plight of the illegal alien residing within the United States. I know people end up here illegally for many reasons. Not the least of which is a frantic grasp at a better life. Still, it can’t be stolen!

    What you say that are myths about illegal aliens being here an having no impact and cost to U.S. Citizens is completely wrong! I laud your propaganda and emotionalism, but it won’t work, even if it is the truth of your experiences. Countless costs are incurred by illegal aliens to our social system. The phony social security numbers they use clog our Federal Administration efforts. Our local health services are bankrupted. We can’t afford you, no matter how wonderful you are, and you’re indeed wonderful!

    We have laws in our Nation to protect us against invasions by people of other countries. Because the situation is so far out of hand now, and because of the strident activity by pro-illegal aliens to change, pressure, and nullify our laws on immigration, American citizens have to enforce our immigration law, to survive the invasion! We don’t do it gleefully with happiness. It is not a fun activity, but it must be done. We have no choice!

    Nobody likes to bring hardship on another, yet the coming deportations and closing of services heretofore available to illegal residents should concern people here with no status. It is in no way a racial matter, or hate directed at you. We simply won’t allow any peoples to invade uninvited! Don’t you recognize truth? No sabes la verdad?

    My great disgust is how illegal aliens have been given hope of amnesty by American politicians! My other disgust is the harm it will inflict on the children. That cannot be avoided. Many will suffer the indignity of deportation. We are in fact at war now with the illegal alien. People could have avoided this by not breaking our law and coming here. I hope we will be able to avoid rioting in the streets but I doubt it.

    If I were not a real American citizen, or a legal immigrant I would go home to my country. At least I would not suffer the indignity of deportation. Yo no quero via con ICE!

    The United States attititude toward illegal residency is changing rapidly. People who are here illegally and are not citizens should worry! We are about to witness a serious economic recession too. Things aren’t good.

  5. alexsi says:

    Senators and the media knew the opposition to the immigration bill was at least 3 -1 Opposed, sometimes 4 – 1. People need to stop with the lies and misinformation. Here are 3 respected polls with the facts (Zogby, Gallup and Rasmussen). These are not bias MSM polls.

    The immigration bill failed because a broad cross-section of the American people are opposed to it. Republicans, Democrats, and un-affiliated voters are opposed. Men are opposed. So are women. The young don’t like it; neither do the no-longer-young. White Americans are opposed. Americans of color are opposed.

    Rasmussen polled 3000 nationally by telephone and found that only 22% of Americans Support(path of citizenship) the legislation. When a bill has less popular support than the War in Iraq, it deserves to be defeated.

    When offered by itself, there is strong support for the House bill: 76 percent said it was a good or very good idea when told it makes the illegals go home by fortifying the border, forcing employee verification, no renting( therefore aiding) to illegals and encouraging greater cooperation with local law enforcement while not increasing legal immigration; 24 percent said it was a bad or very bad idea.

    When given three choices (House approach, Senate approach, or mass deportation), the public tends to reject both the Senate plan and a policy of mass deportations in favor of the House bill; 24 percent want the Senate plan, 14 percent want mass deportations; while 62 percent want the House approach. 76 percent oppose the Senate(path to citizenship) approach.

    One reason the public does not like legalizations is that they are skeptical of need for illegal-immigrant labor. An overwhelming majority of 77 percent said there are plenty of Americans to fill low-wage jobs.
    Another reason the public does not like Senate proposals to legalize illegals and double legal immigration is that 78 percent said they had little or no confidence in the ability of the government to screen these additional applicants to weed out terrorists and criminals.

    Public also does not buy the argument we have tried and failed to enforce the law: 82 percent felt that past enforcement efforts have been “grossly inadequate,” while only 15 percent felt we had made a “real effort” to enforce our laws.

    Opinion Are Strongly Opposed
    opposition outweighs support by a three to one margin among those who do have an opinion. Among those who say they are following news of the immigration bill most closely, opposition is at the 72 % level. There are only minor differences between Democrats and Republicans in terms of views of the bill. Independents are most likely to be opposed. .

    Illegals (criminals) show a continued pattern of criminality that begins with illegally entering our Country or home. If an American citizen uses another persons S.Security number or steals someones identity they are arrested and charged. If Americans drive without Driver licenses, insurance, tags, etc. they are ticketed, next time arrested and charged. Americans also are arrested for not paying taxes, social welfare fraud and the list continues..

  6. laurafern says:

    From JM: I don’t understand your point of view. The stories you related are no doubt a dime a dozen, but that is because illegal immigrants seem not to comprehend that their past actions and current status are illegal. We can debate this country’s immigration policies and whether immigrant quotas from various countries is suitable, but a policy of granting US citizenship or even an extended stay in the US to a person who somehow managed to cross the US border illegally cannot be tolerated. There are many hard-working people the world over, not just in Mexico. Would it be your policy to simply open the US border and allow unregulated and undocumented immigration from anywhere else on the earth? (Would Mexico or Honduras allow the same type immigration?) My Dad was an immigrant who came here legally along with his tired and poor parents back in the 1920s. Your attitudes insult the people who do and have done what is necessary to enter this country legally.

  7. laurafern says:

    From JG: I just read your column on the opinion page of the Milwaukee newspaper this morning. Congratulations to you and your husband for the green card and visa. I know that there are illegal immigrants in this country who are hard working and all that. I hesitate to call them “undocumented” since surely there is a document somewhere in the world attesting to their presence on this earth. They are, in fact, illegal. I guess I do not understand why some of them feel that they have the rights of American citizens when in fact they are criminals. Like it or not, whether the law should be changed or not, these people are here having broken the law. The thing that really galls me is that some of them refuse to adapt to their new country at the very least as a signal they WANT to become responsible citizens. Why do we have to have various languages on nearly every sign you come across? I have no problem with any immigrant speaking whatever language they feel most comfortable with in private, but I am a government (state) employee, and I resent demands that we provide interpreters for Hmong, Spanish, Portuguese, or Swahili-speak English, or bring your own interpreter. Most of my colleagues and I are happy to try to understand broken English, and are delighted to help people who are trying to understand but are having difficulty.

    When I visited Italy, I knew I would have a communication problem, and it was MY problem, not the Italians. When I visited Panama, I also knew that I would have a challenge with my -0- knowledge of Spanish, but never thought of demanding that they speak English. Again, it is MY problem, and it is my problem to make myself understood, not their responsibility to understand me, or go take a Berlitz course in English to facilitate communication.

    It is the arrogance of the illegal immigrant that irritates me more than even the fact that they should not be here in the first place. They have broken our laws, and come into this country without jumping through the hoops, some of which I am sure are hard to understand and may even be unecessary but they are the hoops, and then they rub my nose in it, in effect, by demanding that I march with them, empathize with their self inflicted plight and support their demands for “equality.” I find that insulting.

    I have a loyalty statement that my great grandfather was required to sign when he came to this country from Germany in the late 19th century. In that statement he renounced any loyalty to the Kaiser or the government of Germany, and affirmed his loyalty to the US. He was required to carry that with him whenever he traveled.

    There was a time when the fast track to becoming a US citizen was to serve in the armed forces. I am not sure if that is still the case, but why not? What better way to express loyalty and desire to be an American than to be willing to fight for that right?

    No, I am not for any type of amnesty for these criminals. They may be hardworking and only trying to make a better life, but why not work politically and economically in their own country to make a better life there? Poverty is not a crime, but digging yourself out of poverty by breaking laws, is.The US is not a dumping ground, we are the melting pot. There is a difference.

    Please do not presume that I have no heart because I want illegals to go home and do it the right way. I will do all in my power to help anyone get to this country legally.

  8. laurafern says:

    My response to the previous comment – from JG:

    First of all, when people talk about immigrating legally, they rarely understand that there is no way for poor, hard-working, low-skilled people, in most cases, to immigrate legally to the U.S. You are either a relative of a U.S. citizen, or you have an employer that will do a petition for you. A few thousand people win the diversity visa lottery, but Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, most and most Central Americans cannot even qualify for those visas, so there really is no means for them to “go home and do it the legal way.” And employers that petition are not looking for restaurant or field help. They are big, high-tech corporations that mostly bring in high-skilled workers from Asia that will work for cheaper than the average American engineer. That’s a generalization I admit, and I have no problem with Asian immigrant engineers whatsoever, but I find it ironic how little the average American knows about legal immigration. But I guess as long as it’s legal, it must be completely upstanding and wonderful for the economy and everyone.

    But when you say you want “illegals” to go home and do it the right way, it’s really important to understand that that means NO WAY. I guess, as you said, people should work in their own countries to better their life, but would have you said the same to your own presumably immigrant ancestors? They took advantage of an opportunity because it would improve their life, and there was work in the U.S. The only difference is that today, our laws do not allow this natural migration that keeps economies growing. Maybe because we are all paranoid about national security and have been fooled into thinking undocumented people do not pay taxes (usually not true) and sit on welfare (almost never true). When my grandparents came here, they just showed up and signed some papers. It was easy. That sort of process simply does not exist anymore.

    Second, undocumented immigrants cannot serve in the military. I believe that a green card holder can serve in the military and speed up the citizenship process, but considering, in my husband’s case for example, that he only waits 3 years for citizenship, that’s not really a big perk.

  9. laurafern says:

    From TB: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Sounds great and has been the policy of this country as long as those who come here do it legally. Do you mean give me your lazy, your unwilling to get off their dead behinds and work, your masses who want everything free.

    I do believe I am not filled with hate. However, if fundamentalist legalism means I believe that the laws of the land should be upheld I will admit to that. As to being part of a vocal, anti immigrant minority, I deny part of that also. I am part of the growing vocal anti illegal silent majority that is finally coming to life, uniting and making its feelings known. Illegal is illegal and anyone who says otherwise had better wake up to that realization. Perhaps, the time will come when we will also take those who aid and abet these lawbreakers to task as well. That includes individuals as well as employers. Anyone who admits to have being here illegally should never be given access to this country. If they knowingly came here illegally they should never again be allowed to return.

    As to the “grand bargain” collapsing. That is proof positive that the majority of those people who live here legally, and of all ethnic backgrounds, have spoken and will continue to speak. Yes, I do want border security and I do want the laws enforced against those who illegally employ those individuals here illegally. Should these things be done the need for mass deportation will not be necessary as most of the illegals will leave on their own. Perhaps, those people will then attempt to improve the conditions in their homelands. The ones that are left, who are the true free loaders, can then be rounded up and deported.

    We are a nation of laws. Always were and always will be. That is the one single thing that makes us what we are. Deal with it. If the laws are to be changed then so be it. Do not play the race or the victims card. We, the legal citizens, are sick and tired of it and it will not work any longer. Marches, demands for “equal rights”and an in your face attitude have proven to accomplish only one thing and that is defeat. Thank you for that.

    You are aware, of course, that if your husband had done the honorable thing and served in our military he would have had the inside track to citizenship. I would personally have shaken his hand and welcomed him not only as a citizen, but as a comrade and a brother.

  10. laurafern says:

    My response to TB:

    “We are a nation of laws. Always were and always will be. That is the one single thing that makes us what we are.”

    We are a nation based on justice. There is a big difference. I’m amazed that you would define our nation by our laws. I assume you are conservative – what about tax laws? Do you worship them as well? What about the fact that the Social Security Administration collects billions of dollars from illegal workers each year, never to be reclaimed. My husband has worked in this country for eight years. He has filed taxes and paid social security, medicare, and everything else every American citizen pays on their payroll. He will never be able to recoup anything he has already put into Social Security. Maybe that is fair, but no one talks about that.

    Also, undocumented immigrants cannot join the military. That’s an urban myth. Now that he is a lawful permanent resident he could, but I would never, ever let him “defend” our despicable national policy. That is, of course, another issue.

    I always laugh when people say they support only legal immigration. What about the fact that our current immigration laws allow NO opportunity for any “tired and poor” people to actually immigrate legally to the U.S.? Were you aware of that? Other than a few lucky people who win the visa lottery each year, and those petitioned by employers (almost entirely people who have very high-level jobs and would certainly have opportunities to use their skills in their own countries) and immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, there are no visas to even apply for. These is no means for the poor in Mexico or Central America for that matter to even begin to immigrate legally to the U.S. Yet our trade policies have bankrupted millions of farmers in these nations. What were we expecting them to do? Particularly when U.S. employers have been chomping at the bit to find low-skilled, hard-working people for jobs Americans do not apply for?

    And what would you say to the millions of U.S. employers and co-workers that have knowingly hired and worked with “illegal” immigrants? Do they also deserve to be punished? Have you ever eaten at a restaurant in Milwaukee? I can almost guarantee that at least a half the time an undocumented Mexican cooked your delicious meal. Maybe you should turn in all those people to. What about our economy? With very low unemployment as it is, do you think it can handle the departure of maybe 12 million undocumented workers – most of who work for less than $10 per hour – picking vegetables, bussing tables?

    It’s very easy to say illegal is illegal and that’s it, but it’s so much more complicated than that.

    With 600 words, it is impossible to delineate my full views on immigration, which I suppose is why I direct people to my blog from time to time.

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