Nobody Should Be Reduced To An 'Illegal Immigrant'

I don't deserve citizenship more than someone who's lived here for 20 years.
09/08/2017 11:52 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2017
We are all immigrants
Robert Stribley
We are all immigrants

I became an American citizen through legal if unusual means. It wasn’t by right of birth. I was born in Perth, Western Australia. Nor was it through some significant financial investment as some do — a rather elite method of ingress I never hear folks complain about. Instead, I came into this country as an immigrant via more obscure means.

My parents immigrated to the United States in 1990 when my Aussie-born father was simply hired directly to a Baptist church in Greenville, South Carolina. This fundamentalist congregation was allowed to employ whomever they felt qualified due to a religious freedom clause in the immigration regulations. And that’s not limited to positions for ministers, but is available to anyone the church wishes to employ full-time. Technically, I was already in the United States studying for my undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism on a student visa. But I was under 21, so my parents could still petition for me to be granted a green card. And so they did shortly before my 21st birthday. Although it took some six years to process, while working as an English teacher in Pusan, Korea, I did secure my green card and officially immigrated to the United States.

So how did I become an American citizen a few years later when I was finally sworn in? Did I earn citizenship because I had lived here for a few years already? No. Did I earn it because I was more educated? No. Because I had a large sum of money to invest in United States? No. Was it because I was a refugee escaping some sort of brutality in my homeland? No. Arguably, I became a citizen because of dumb luck and a religious loophole.

Is that even fair?

Of course I wouldn’t fault my parents for taking advantage of that loophole to — in their minds — provide a better life for themselves and their children. And I’m grateful that route allowed me to become an American citizen. But it does raise an interesting question for me: Did I deserve that citizenship more than someone who’s lived here for 20 years, for example, after coming to the country illegally? Similarly, did I deserve that citizenship more than someone who came here as a two-year-old with their parents and grew up in this country essentially as an American not knowing how to feel comfortable in any other country?

For me, the answer to that question is emphatically “No.” I don’t deserve to be here anymore than those people. I simply am here because my means of entry happened to be (oddly) legal. Did I deserve to remain here more than someone who’s lived and loved and worked and paid taxes here for 20 years but is undocumented. No. And let’s face the big red roo in the room, too: It doesn’t hurt that I’m white, Anglo-Saxon and (formerly) Protestant.

Some would argue there’s just no comparison because I came here legally. Indeed, I’ve seen many other legal immigrants complain bitterly about undocumented immigrants getting granted legal status. But restricting your belief of who deserves to be here solely to those who follow regulations, well, that sounds like the textbook definition of “legalism” to me. And I don’t trust legalistic judgments to necessarily be moral or even ethical judgments. On the contrary, it seems to me that — in most cases — someone who’s lived here the bulk of their life clearly deserves the title of “American.”

Try focusing on the first word, ILLEGAL. They are criminals by definition! Why is this so hard for the freaking liberals to understand?! — comment on Facebook

But they committed a crime! What about the “illegal” in “illegal immigrant don’t you understand”?! These are typical refrains.

Aside from the fact that there are good reasons not to refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegal,” did you know that the fines and jail time for crossing the border illegally are significantly less than, say, those for heroin possession? That’ll get you a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. And a typical state charge for the sale or distribution of heroin can get you up to life in prison (more often 10–15 years) and a $100,000 fine. Crossing the border illegally? That warrants no more than 6 months in prison and a maximum $250 fine.

We overlook many other sort of crimes, too. We even commit them ourselves and justify them in various ways. Jaywalking is a crime. Cheating on your taxes is a crime.

So why do you think people believe that crossing our border illegally is such a significant transgression then? Some might complain immigrants are stealing their jobs. Or their benefits. Both of those arguments are arguably dubious claims or oversimplications, of course. Regardless, our judicial system considers many offenses far more serious crimes than crossing the border into the United States illegally.

Still, it seems a significant percentage of our citizenry don’t understand that. Probably they’d just argue that the penalties should be higher. Perhaps because they haven’t put themselves in the shoes of an immigrant and considered why they might commit this relatively small offense and traverse hot and dangerous territory to find work among strangers in a land where they may not speak the language terribly well.

So I’m not arguing that undocumented immigrants uniformly don’t do anything illegal. Nor that everyone who crosses the border can immediately stake a claim for citizenship. I’m arguing that we should also consider both their motivations for committing that isolated act and their contributions in the often many intervening years since and, on balance, recognize these human beings for who they are: Valuable, contributing Americans. Even more so, we should recognize their children who came here often at such young ages that they literally know no other home.

Let’s no longer simply reduce them as people to “illegal immigrants” — a simplistic and static description of their legal status. Let’s think of them as fellow citizens without documentation.


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