The Immigration Imperative

I am an immigrant, and there were several years that I was out of status, or in common parlance, illegal. I detest that term with a passion. People are not illegal. How quickly people in this country forget the words of their own Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed with their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Conservatives, and not too few liberals, use the term illegal immigrant to describe a large, diverse group of people, whose only crime is being present in this country, whose only failing is the search for a better life, for safety, security, and a way to feed their families.

People should be free to breathe the air, drink the waters of this planet. We are all born here, this is our planet. Too many people are kept in countries that are little more than prison camps, like North Korea, or in violence riven countries like Nicaragua, the Congo, or Mali

As someone who was legal, and overstayed his welcome, although I was able to at least indicate to USCIS my intent to adjust status to become legal, I can to some small extent understand the stress and trauma of people caught in an impossible situation.

People should imagine the physical demands of travelling through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, prey to bandits and rapists, being at the mercy of coyotes who extort their funds to take them to El Norte, The United States.

I once spoke to a young man from Nicaragua, through an interpreter, who had walked for three days through the deserts of the American South West, with nothing but water on his back. He made it to Florida and found work, low paying, back-breaking work, day in, day out. This young man has no future here, he can barely afford to pay for the hovel that he shares with an unknown number of people, always afraid of La Migra, the immigration service.

These undocumented workers, or as they call them in Europe, Sans Papiers, want what we all want, a chance, opportunity, freedom from fear. Far too many people use them as a proxy for a deeper underlying paranoia, the fear of foreigners, of people who look, or sound different. Most people wont say it openly, but xenophobia often boils under the surface.

The President, and the Senate, have proposed immigration reforms, and a few details of the plan are leaking out, probably to gauge public opinion. We must praise the President, and the Senate, even without the details, for pushing immigration reform. We liberals know that it will be watered down from what is really needed, but it will hopefully be important reform.

From what we hear, this is some of what might be in the final bill. First, predictably, concerns securing the border. Conservatives will have nothing to do with the bill unless we secure the border. What they will propose is anyones guess.

How much are they willing to spend to secure the border? Are the agents that currently patrol the border not sufficient for the task? What would conservatives suggest? A double fence, a higher fence, landmines, towers with guards, or dogs? Pilotless drones? At what point can it be said that the border is safe?

It is certainly understandable that any nation wants to monitor who enters the country, and who leaves when their time is up. Do we not already have these systems in place? Conservatives are incessantly complaining about the cost of government, and promptly want to introduce even greater cost to the system.

Everything costs money, yet Congress refuses to finance so many essential programs that should really take precedence over paranoid border enforcement. Would it not be more efficient to have an agent stationed on the border handing money to prospective immigrants with the insistence that they not return?

Perhaps we should just make sure that the agents on the border have the right training, and the right equipment to do their job. Conservatives should realise that if the demand is great enough, people will find a way, regardless of the steps taken to prevent migrant workers crossing the border.

A far more sensible approach would be to realise that certain jobs in this country, especially those that few Americans want, could be filled by people willing to do them. Provide a visa program for people who want to work on farms, or meat-packing factories. Make it a short-term visa, allowing people to move between their homes and the workplace.

This is unlikely to happen. Instead, for those 11 million undocumented workers in the country, a set of principles are being drawn up. They want to produce a tough, but fair path to citizenship for those people, many of whom arrived in this country as children, who had little choice in the decision.

Undocumented workers will have to register with the government to start the process of background checks. All well so far. My question is, how much is that registration going to cost the worker? Remember these are people who have very little in the way of financial assets.

Many probably earn less than minimum wage, have no bank accounts, and often have to pay the coyotes who brought them to this country. They live in packed communities where they are easy prey for extortion, blackmail, or assault. They do not have money tucked away under the bed.

I can understand that background checks are required to make sure that no-one with a criminal record is allowed entry, no-one that has been involved with the drug trade or autocratic regimes. That much is reasonable.

The next step invariably makes me shake my head. Prospective immigrants are required to pay a fine, like common criminals. We should remember that being here without documentation is not a felony, it is a misdemeanour, despite the fact that, if apprehended, workers can remain incarcerated for a year or more.

What will the fine be? George Bush produced the figure of $5000, which is just outrageous for an immigrant with few financial resources. To them, it is a king’s ransom, an amount that they are unlikely to be able to produce. Other figures have been bandied about, $1000, $2000, but the same remains true.

These are people living on the edges of society, in the shadows, they do not have the resources. Many arrived as children. What crime did those children commit when they were brought here? Are we really going to raise revenue for the state through the misfortune of others?

The next step is to have them pay back taxes. If you are earning $5/hr, what taxes can you owe? Do you really expect them to pay all that Medicare, Social Security and Unemployment Insurance? What do you do for someone who has been here for thirty years?

If they could afford that sort of money, they could finance their own retirement and would not need to stay here to get it. Besides, we forget, that for a family of two, the standard deduction and personal deductions are around $17k/yr before we start to pay tax. Do undocumented workers really earn more than that?

This is just the start, and places the immigrant on probationary status.

The next criterion is that they have to learn English, itself a ridiculous step, and one that really has not been thought out properly. These are people who often work long hours in tough conditions, for little pay. Where are they going to get the time, the funds, the transport, the teachers, the opportunity to learn English? These things take considerable time and money.

In addition, once a person is over the age of about seven or eight, it becomes increasingly difficult with each passing year to learn to speak a new language, and it must be practised regularly with a native speaker. In South Africa, where I grew up, I was required to take Afrikaans classes from my first year at school, and yet I never achieved proficiency with the language. To require people to speak the language is just not practical, and just establishes another obstacle for them.

Besides, in many parts of this country, citizens do not speak English, their home language is Spanish. Why isnt Spanish required as an option? It would make life far easier for many undocumented workers, who are from Spanish Speaking countries.

In many parts of this country, purported English speakers are close to incomprehensible when they communicate. Just because they are born here, should they be exempt from learning grammatically correct English?

I am certain that, as time passes, more criteria will emerge from the process. It is likely that the House of Representatives will make it so difficult that it will be impossible for all practical purposes.

There is only one imperative, in my mind. People living in the shadows in this country, who live with fear every day, who raise children that have no chance to succeed, need to have a reasonable path, at the very least, to earn a living. There is nothing more cruel, more inhumane, that denying anyone the right to work, to afford at the very least the basics of life.

I spent many years in this country unable to work because of my status. I ran through my savings, my technical computer skills became redundant, and any reasonable chance I had to resume my earlier life was swept away by the rules of immigration. I spent twenty years fighting for a chance to become a citizen, a chance that is now within my grasp, but was that fight worth the heartache, and the stress? I think ultimately it was, but at what cost?

I want the undocumented to have a fair chance at a decent life, especially, but not exclusively, the young, who should be able to attend schools and universities and contribute to this great nation. Congress, and the President should give them a fighting chance.

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