08/05/2013 10:47 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

The Glass Wall That Divides Us

For decades, Americans have known of the glass ceiling -- that often unspoken barrier, a level that women could not move beyond in career advancement. It was clearly gender discrimination and happily, we see that it has become mostly a thing of the past.

Another Glass Wall -- What Is It?

I think we live with a more insidious glass wall today -- one that divides our people and keeps our country from being ok. This glass affects men and children as well as women. Unlike yesterday's clear ceiling, it's vertical, blocking interaction while allowing a view. But it maintains that horizontal barrier too, denying career growth -- today's different glass ceiling. It separates citizens from others -- in that phrase I hate, us from them. It even divides members of the same family, where parents are not documented but some or all children are U.S. citizens, born in America. Imagine living under the same roof with two or more categories of status in your home. Hard to imagine unless you are living it. Hard to survive it without truly comprehensive immigration reform -- FAST!

When I think of this glass wall, I'm thinking of daily life through the lens of immigration reform -- comprehensive or not. Americans living and working in the United States are among these other Americans, undocumented folks, all the time. But they don't always know who's who. Can you look at 10 people you see today and know for a fact which person is documented or not? I didn't think so.

Stereotypes and misinformation (or purposeful disinformation) are the culprits that shape many people's opinions of who needs immigration solutions. We can all be fooled by who we think has papers and who does not. And to target folks from Mexico, Central and South America is just plain wrong and short-sighted.

How Many Live On the Other Side of the Glass Wall?

The figure we hear the most for total number of undocumented people in America is 11 million. To get that number, Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, crunched government data and used a formula. In a recent PRI program he shared information about immigration and research into it.

But looking at Labor Department survey data that includes workers' country of origin as the basis for estimating undocumented immigrants by statistical adjustments from the total number of immigrants in the country doesn't even give a clear picture. In the case of mixed-status families, spouses and children could be U.S. citizens, but they are affected by the status of their parents and siblings. When you look at the need for comprehensive immigration reform, you should look at 16 million or more individuals, he shared.

And the daily lives of these youngsters in America is affected in ways that are small and ordinary. Parents can't or won't participate in school functions. Young athletes can't travel across states to participate in tournaments, opportunities for enrichment activities are not possible, and more. Michael Fix, a senior vice president of the Migration Policy Institute, shared examples, including "it may mean that a mother is less likely to go to a PTA conference." Research shows, he says, that children who are U.S. citizens -- but whose parents are undocumented, in the shadows--are set back cognitively, socially and educationally. I have heard this and more in immigration reform meetings I attend in my city -- the glass wall hits families, kids, hard.

And the reality that undocumented minors are being deported without their parents, or conversely, undocumented parents are returned to their home country, leaving minor children U.S. citizens in America, just adds to the heartache and tragedy of our broken immigration system.

Who Lives On the Other Side of the Glass Wall?

About six million of the 11 million are Mexicans. Sixty percent are men. A majority live in large states like California, Texas, Illinois, and New York.

But more than four million immigrants without legal status now live in the Midwest and the South-with states like Georgia and Oklahoma seeing this population rise fast. More of the country now has a stake in the immigration debate, confirms Passel.

"It's part of, I think, the demographic underpinnings of what's turned this into a national debate instead of a local debate," he said in the interview.

"Any place that sends us immigrants, we have some unauthorized immigrants from," Passel says. But around 55 to 60 percent are from Mexico, "which translates to over 6 million people. There is no other country that has sent as many as 500,000."

But Mexican immigrants are not the only ones facing this issue. There are also hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos. Some entered legally, didn't plan on staying -- but did, according to Ben Winograd, a former attorney at the American Immigration Council, based in Washington DC.

Information from American Immigration Council shows that immigration (documented and undocumented) includes the following cultural and ethnic groups in these proportions:

Fewer than one-third (29 percent) of immigrants in the United States are from Mexico. Roughly 28 percent are from Asia, 24 percent from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean other than Mexico, 12 percent from Europe, and 4 percent from Africa. Moreover, contrary to some popular misconceptions, most Latinos in the United States (63 percent) are native-born -- not immigrants. And 29 percent of foreign-born Latinos are naturalized U.S. citizens.

As for undocumented immigrants only, Pew Hispanic Center estimates, there were 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States in March 2010, statistically unchanged from the March 2009 estimate of 11.1 million. Composition shows this: Mexicans make up the majority of the unauthorized immigrant population, 58 percent, or 6.5 million. Other nations in Latin America account for 23 percent of unauthorized immigrants, or 2.6 million. Asia accounts for 11 percent or about 1.3 million, and Europe and Canada account for 4 percent, or 500,000. African countries and other nations represent about 3 percent, or 400,000.

It's Families, Like Yours, On the Other Side of the Glass Wall

Passel says that 47 percent of undocumented immigrants are families, according to 2008 data. "More than half of the adult men are in families, are married, or have a partner," he says. "And most of them, 80 percent of that half, have children here. The women represent about 40 percent of the adults, and almost all of them are not here by themselves." Part of this is due to difference of ages in the sample. The undocumented families are younger, and therefore more likely to have children. Nonetheless, the data is indicative of people who have come here to raise a family. And they've been here a long time -- 2010 Pew data shows 63 percent of unauthorized adults had been in the country 10 years or more.

Did you know that? Did it surprise you?

Part of the Glass Wall is Rainbow Too

And among those 11 million folks, more than a quarter million, 267,000, are LGBT. This is in addition to the thousands of same-sex binational couples and families who have been spared separation and deportation when section 3 of DOMA, Defense of Marriage Act, was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on June 26, 2013. That's how my family got what we needed, both of us living on the same side of the glass wall. My wife was able to get her green card when the Supreme Court knocked down Section 3 of DOMA.

Help Shatter the Glass Wall!

Next time you go to the store, eat out, walk in the park, go to work, look around. The glass divide is at work. People that look like you, shop like you, eat like you and play like you are there -- but they are on the other side of that glass wall. They carry on their daily routines, hoping and praying for immigration reform that will bring them safety and security and a path to citizenship. They are here. They are Americans. They don't have their papers. They need to get their papers. We can all help. Congress didn't act before taking its August break. The pressure for reform is only greater now. You can help by contacting your federal representatives and urging their action for the assistance millions of Americans need now.

The glass wall has to go -- just as Section 3 of DOMA went. America will be a better and stronger country when that happens. People are healthier when they no longer live in the shadows. And, it affects us all.