THE BLOG

Undocumented Immigration: A Moral Test for the U.S.

11/22/2010 10:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We seem to be reaching a tipping point in our national illegal immigration saga. Buried under all the heated rhetoric is a moral test for America. In some respects, it is reminiscent of the deep divisions that marked the national discourse that led to end of slavery in the 19th century.

Every day seems to bring an action or counter-action in the national debate around undocumented immigrants. On November 18th Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeted that there will be a vote on the DREAM Act after the Thanksgiving break, a bill that was first introduced in 2001 and was recently voted down before the mid-term elections. If passed, it would put undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. as children on a path to citizenship through completion of higher education or military service.

Another example is the case of the student body president at Fresno State in California, Pedro Ramirez. He came out and admitted that he is an illegal immigrant. A former high school valedictorian, Ramirez is the type of young person who personifies the American Dream: hard working, smart and goal-oriented. However, because his parents brought him here at the age of 3 from Mexico, he is also technically a law-breaker. Reconciling his exemplary young life and his undocumented status is key to working through the moral conundrum of illegal immigration.

On November 15th, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that illegal immigrant students who have graduated from in-state high schools are eligible for lower California in-state resident tuition rates. The ruling drew a passionate response from both sides of the issue. Anti-immigrant activists criticized the Court for creating an equivalency between citizens and non-citizens especially those here illegally. Pro-immigrant groups lauded the decision as a crucial step in the right direction.

Earlier this month the Texas Observer reported in a story, "Children of the Exodus," that more than 90,000 children who range from just a few days old to 18 years have been deported to Mexican cities controlled by violent drug cartels. Once back in Mexico, the children are often lost, exploited or escape to try and re-cross the border to rejoin their families in the U.S. There was a time when the fact that the U.S. government was using its vast resources and power to deport children might have sparked moral outrage. Not today.

The general absence of outrage is troubling. These children are innocent as is Fresno State's Pedro Ramirez. Their parents brought these children here. Aside from all the debate points erected by both sides of the issue, there is a larger concern that is being brushed aside: what is the moral identity of our nation in 2010? What kind of people deport babies to an uncertain fate in a chaotic narco-state?

Whether or not the DREAM Act passes or Ramirez has to give up his Fresno State Student Body presidency, the immigration debate will rage on. We have nearly 12 million people who live here in the shadows.

12 million immigrants without papers out of 310 million Americans might seem like a small percentage compared to the 4 million slaves who were part of the 31 million people who lived in the U.S. in 1860. The undocumented immigrants may not be slaves but their lives often resemble the existence of indentured servants. We have a de facto caste system in this country. India has its Dalits and we have brown and predominantly Spanish-speaking masses living in a vulnerable legal limbo.

One very powerful strain in our American tradition has been to see the Declaration of Independence as our core founding document. Legal scholars have been arguing over this for over two centuries. For those who accept the idea that the Declaration stands before the Constitution, it is worth noting that the central tenet of that powerful declaration of human rights is equality: "all men are created equal."

Today we would say that "all people are created equal" and that principle should be guiding U.S. immigration policy especially when we look at the children who were brought here through no fault of their own. Yes, the DREAM Act should be passed but beyond one law that may affect several hundred thousand young people such as Pedro Ramirez there is the larger question of who we are as a nation.

We are at moment in our national history when we -- whether liberal, conservative or whatever -- have to recognize that our behavior around the issue of undocumented immigration is a more honest reflection of who we are than who we say we are. It's time to bring the moral equation into the picture. A nation without a moral compass is nothing more than a collection of economic and social relations without a soul. We're better than that.