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Yolanda Reid Chassiakos

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Illegal, But Not Alien

Posted: 05/19/10 07:12 PM ET

Juan Doeminguez (not his real name) is a bright, enterprising college student--with a dream. He wants to be a physician, and to work in immigrant communities where his fluency in both English and Spanish will be deeply valued. He is performing well in his studies, even in Organic Chemistry, the difficult course that has waylaid the ambitions of many other pre-meds over the years. He will be receiving his Bachelor's Degree with honors in a couple of years, and should be an excellent candidate for acceptance into medical school.

But, through no fault of his own, for Juan, that door is closed. Juan has the intelligence, dedication, skills, commitment, and caring needed. What he doesn't have is a green card.

Juan's parents carried him over the border to the US when he was an infant. He has grown up in Southern California and knows no other home. His younger siblings have all been born in the United States and are therefore American citizens. But Juan, the oldest of the children, is not. Like his parents, he is "undocumented" in this country, and barred from any profession that requires a license or certification.

Immigration reform is a delicate issue. Fears that jobs and resources in the US will be overwhelmed by waves of immigrants have led to advocacy for strict enforcement of immigration laws and deportation of those in violation. This perspective is often rationalized by a lifeboat analogy, i.e. if too many people climb aboard, the lifeboat will sink and all will perish.

But a closer look at the story of immigration undermines this simple analogy. There are many factors that have contributed and are contributing to the "illegal" immigration that has changed the demographics of this country over the past thirty years. Among them are:

  • Poor economic conditions and a lack of opportunities for work or even sustenance in the emigres countries.
  • Active or passive encouragement for emigration for social and economic reasons from these countries of birth.
  • US business interests that welcome a large supply of labor at minimum wage (or below minimum wage) to drive down costs, wages, and undermine unionization efforts.
  • Globalism trends that encourage the porousness of borders to promote the transition to an economic union among discrete countries.

Despite the economic pressures that drive individuals and families to cross the oceans or borders into the US without authorization, one can argue that, for each person, taking this action is an individual choice--with clear risks. In other words, if the law limits access to the United States and its "fruits", one can choose either not to come to the US, or to come "illegally" and live with the consequences of that choice--such as working in the low-wage "underground economy". A harsh perspective, but for those advocates of enforcing the "letter of the law", a position that can be aligned with their consciences.

Unfortunately, this point of view does not address an entire group of people for whom immigration was not a choice. The children of undocumented immigrants were brought by adults into the US without their knowledge or will. These children grow up alongside US citizens, go to school with documented classmates, and share in the cultural environment to which they have been brought. Home, for these children, is America. Some cannot even speak the language of their native country. They are, in their minds, and their hearts, Americans. Like Juan.

This dilemma has led to some legislative initiatives. For example, AB 540, the California Dream Act, provides opportunities for undocumented immigrant students who have attended a California high school for 3 years or more to apply for financial aid and attend college at in-state tuition rates. But even this small step to address the challenges faced by these teens and young adults who are eager to contribute as active members of the society in which they were raised has been under attack in the courts. And this step still would not allow students like Juan to become doctors, nurses, pharmacists, or other much-needed licensed health professionals.

Is the lifeboat really the analogy that motivates these restrictions? Or is it the desire of those fortunate to be born or naturalized citizens of the first world to limit access to the "streets of gold" and maintain a ready underclass to staff its labor force or military ranks? (Undocumented individuals who join the military can become eligible for a green card and eventual citizenship, especially posthumously.) For many of these "undocumented" young people, their parents risked their lives to come to the US. Now, they themselves may have to risk their lives to become citizens.

There are many Juans waiting in the United States, eager to serve in ways that would benefit humanity. And we need them. It is time to give them a chance, a pathway to documentation and citizenship--in the country in which they were raised. Did we not, after all, invite them?

Give me your tired, your poor... Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

-from Emma Lazarus' poem on the Statue of Liberty