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Why We Wrote Living "Illegal"

Posted: 12/08/11 06:01 AM ET

Jessica Colotl was a typical hardworking college student. She graduated from high school in Dekalb County, Georgia with a 3.8 GPA and was accepted to Kennesaw State University, where she was majoring in Political Science with hopes to go on to law school. To pay her way through school, she worked at night helping her mom clean office buildings in Atlanta. Somehow, she found time to found a Latina sorority at KSU and to volunteer in the local community.

On the morning of March 29, 2010, Jessica's life was forever changed. Stopped by campus police for a minor traffic violation, she was unable to produce a valid driver's license and was turned over to the Cobb Co. Sherriff's Department, which has a 287(g) agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to enforce federal immigration law. Jessica was held, verified as unauthorized, and quickly transferred to an ICE detention center in Alabama. Jessica's parents had brought her to this country from Mexico when she ten years old without legal status.

Upon learning of Jessica's detention, a number people and organizations rallied in her support, including her sorority sisters and the President of KSU. After 37 days in detention, ICE released her, deciding to defer action on deportation for a year so as to allow her to finish her degree at KSU. But her ordeal was far from over. In the firestorm of media coverage that followed her case, Jessica was the target of vicious attacks by groups arguing that immigrants like her should not be allowed to attend state schools and should be deported immediately. Although the federal government has attempted several times to defer her deportation, local judges and law enforcement agents, bowing to public pressure, have put up obstacles at every turn--even charging her with a felony in an attempt to avoid clemency. The controversy surround Jessica's case demonstrates not only how divided the country remains on issues of immigration, but also how pervasive myths and misinformation about unauthorized immigration drive such controversy.

After eight years of conducting research (funded by a series of grants from the Ford Foundation) on Mexican, Guatemalan, and Brazilian immigrants in Florida and Georgia, we decided to write this book to share the stories of unauthorized immigrants like Jessica and to challenge many of the myths associated with "illegal" immigration in the United States. Although our research was specifically focused on issues related to religion and inter-ethnic relations, the overwhelming issue that arose in the communities, churches, and homes we visited was immigration status. From local conflicts over day-labor to churches struggling with how to integrate new immigrants into their congregations, we were consistently confronted with misconceptions and misinformation about unauthorized immigration. At the same time, we gained direct insights into the harmful impact of ramped up detention and deportation policies such as 287g and Secure Communities.

Confronted with the negative images that circulate in the media and daily discourse of immigrants as dangerous criminals, intent upon gaining access to social services and competing with U.S. citizens for jobs, we felt it was important to put a human face on the issue of unauthorized immigration. Our research revealed a much different picture of unauthorized immigrants. We found that most immigrants embraced a strong work ethic and a commitment to family and community, values that most Americans cherish. By putting today's immigration in historical context, telling the stories of communities finding positive approaches to immigrant integration, and suggesting ethical principles for framing immigration policy, our hope is that the book will contribute to a more informed, humane, and rational discussion of the issues surrounding immigration.

Throughout the course of our research we learned that although migration may bring benefits to individuals and their families and communities of origin, it often comes at a high cost and risk on both sides of the border: families are separated, children are left vulnerable, communities are torn apart by new economic divisions, and the journey may involve physical injury, rape, and even death. But the forces driving migration continue unabated, and are directly related to larger U.S. economic and strategic policy interests.

Once immigrants arrive in the U.S., "living illegal" means living with fear as a constant companion. Living without formal immigration status translates into a life of constant apprehensiveness and difficult decisions for unauthorized individuals. The things that most of us take for granted: driving our children to school, walking through an airport to greet relatives, or qualifying for a job are major hurdles for those who cannot produce a valid form of personal identification. In simple terms, legal status represents the largest impediment to successful integration for nearly a third of our nation's immigrants.

Living Illegal also tackles the myth that immigrants are taking jobs away from American workers. In the 1990s and early 2000s, we had a severe shortage of native-born workers in the segments of the economy that unauthorized immigrants tended to fill. These immigrants were filling jobs that the native born simply did not want - and they still are. States like Georgia and Alabama are now learning this lesson the hard way. A month after passing its restrictive immigration legislation, the Governor of Georgia announced a shortage of 11,080 workers in the agriculture industry. The fruit literally rotted on the vine. Alabama followed suit with even more restrictive legislation and is currently suffering the same fate.

One of the most fulfilling parts of researching and writing Living Illegal was that we learned first-hand about positive solutions devised by real people in local areas grappling with unauthorized immigration and rapid demographic change. For example, Jupiter Florida, local government and non-profits came to create a neighborhood resource center (El Sol) where day laborers and employers could meet in a regulated, well ordered environment, and where immigrants could learn English, learn about how to access banks and work with law enforcement officers, basically contributing to their local community and, in turn, becoming part of it. Jupiter reminds us that there is a better way for local government to face problems associated with immigration, one that builds community rather than tearing it down.

In an atmosphere of fear, with local communities across the U.S. seeking to drive immigrants deeper into the shadows, El Sol provides a beacon of hope. Relationship by relationship, person by person, community by community, there is an alternative. That alternative demands that we understand unauthorized immigration as a human process, that we build the trust necessary to integrate immigrants, and that we promote rational discussion of immigration policy at the national level.

About the authors: Marie Friedmann Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University's Candler School of Theology and Timothy J. Steigenga is Chair of the Social Sciences and Humanities at the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University. Their book (co-authored with Philip J. Williams and Manuel A. Vásquez) is available from the New Press: Living "Illegal" The Human Face of Unauthorized Immigration.