Wednesday, April 05, 2006

5. Si, se puede.

It is no secret that my law practice serves hundreds of Spanish-speaking clients, many of whom are undocumented individuals. I say undocumented because to call them “illegals” or “aliens” goes a long ways to blur the issues that confront our country about what to do about illegal immigration and does very little to describe the people being talked about. Some of my clients crossed the border without permission. Some came here on legal visas, and overstayed. Some are in the process of becoming residents, and many more are in a questionable netherworld of immigration status which only their immigration attorney, if they can afford one, could describe, and probably not in one sentence.

My clients are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Some are here living in difficult conditions and sending almost all of their money back to family in their country of origin. Some have made a life here with their families—many of which have citizens, legal residents, and undocumented family members all mixed together. Obviously, it is difficult and unwise to characterize over 11 million people (the number of undocumented immigrants said to be living in the United States) one way or another. I bristle at conservative talk show hosts who characterize all of them as criminals and law-breakers. And how many have they actually met? Very few, if any. I have met hundreds of families, yet I do not think I am qualified to say much at all about all 11 million. I am only qualified to describe those I have met: Most are hardworking, kind, generous, devoted to family, and entrepreneurial. Many are deeply religious. Some I have met are bad apples—hell, I’m a traffic and criminal defense attorney. It comes with the territory. But unlike robbers, burglars and thieves, to which I have heard undocumented immigrants compared on the radio, almost all of my clients at least came here to work without any desire to do harm to anyone—certainly not to domestic workers, taxpayers or American society. Many risked their lives to come and work simply out of love and devotion to their family.

By referring to an entire group of people as illegal, law-breakers, and criminals, we are engaging in group justice. Rather than being judged individually on their own actions and by the strength of their own character, we are lumping everyone together and doing our best to forget their humanity. That makes it easier to support policies that are otherwise immoral and contrary to our Faith. However, this debate is about far more than political correctness in how we label people.

A few weeks ago, massive demonstrations took place across the country to protest a proposed law which had passed the U.S. House of Representatives—HR 4437—and was then being considered in the U.S. Senate. Anti-immigrant commentators liked to say that these were all illegal immigrants demanding that they not be deported, or demanding that there be an open border with absolutely no restrictions. (How dare they! What arrogance to come here illegally, and then demand that we change our laws to suit them!)

Of course, there were more than just undocumented individuals there. I was there, and I saw plenty of U.S. Citizen clients. Although everyone agrees that current immigration law is broken and needs to be changed, the protests were not against the status quo, but against HR 4437 and proposals like it. The law as proposed would have made any undocumented presence in the United States a federal felony—a crime that is punishable by a year or more in prison. (Currently, undocumented presence is a civil offense—deportable, but not really criminal) HR 4437 would have made “harboring” (i.e. living with) an undocumented immigrant a felony as well. HR 4437 would have made “transporting” (i.e. giving a ride to) an undocumented immigrant a felony, and employing them a felony, and otherwise assisting them to stay here a felony. Theoretically, my job could have been interpreted as a felony under this statute. Moreover, the proposed law would have removed the right to an attorney for those who were detained by immigration--meaning even legal immigrants or even citizens could conceivably be deported without full due process. THAT is why people turned out en masse and said—“enough.”

So, I have been asked many times, what do I actually think should be done then?

Well, I do not support open borders, but building a giant wall along the Mexican border seems like (a) a waste of taxpayer money and (b) a very ugly testament to history about who we are as Americans. We didn’t like the Berlin Wall or the Iron Curtain. We didn’t like the Jews being walled off into a ghetto in Poland by the Nazis. We only like the Great Wall of China as a tourist attraction. We don’t even really like the Israeli “security barrier” going up around Jerusalem and the West Bank, but nobody seems to know what to do about the Middle East anyway. We didn’t like the barriers built between white and blacks in apartheid South Africa. Border security is fine, but mammoth walls just don’t seem very American.

Everybody understands that if an undocumented person who is already here is taken into custody by Immigration, they will be deported. Ironically, one could use the argument used by the NRA when it opposed gun-congrol laws--instead of passing more laws making more things illegal, why not just enforce the laws we have now? Being in America without documents is not by itself felony-level behavior, and doesn't deserve felony-level punishment. America already has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Incarcerating 11 million undocumented individuals—and anyone living with them or giving them a ride to work—would require a massive tax investment to build dozens more federal prisons.

And what do we get for our tax dollars? Each incarcerated individual now becomes a ward of the state. If you’re worried that undocumented immigrants are draining public resources while they are living free and working—many paying taxes, buying consumer goods and services, investing in homes and businesses—just imagine the drain of having to house and feed and care for more than 11 million new prisoners. As it is, each incarcerated individual represents in some way a failure of our society. That person usually deserves to be punished for his or her actions, but criminal behavior is all too often a symptom of poverty and racial and economic segregation. And for each father and parent that is taken out of the home, we will have more children—including many U.S. Citizen children—growing up in single-family homes (or now needing adoption, if both parents are jailed). Studies show that they will be at a greater risk of living in poverty, engaging in criminal behavior, and being the perpetrators or victims of domestic violence. The inability to become legal is already a burden on so many families. HR 4437 would cost taxpayers and society and would break apart more families than the most “ultra-liberal policy” could ever hope to do.

People who are otherwise just raising their family and going about their lives should be given some pathway to become legal and eventually citizens. Such a pathway doesn’t have to be an amnesty, but should also not be so burdensome that it breaks up families or otherwise is too horrible to be a realistic option.

Beyond the clichés of “we are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of the rule of law” we need to have a vision of what we want America to be, and what is the best way to get there. Moreover, once you get to know someone--their hopes and dreams and their ambitions--and realize that they are pretty much just like your hopes and dreams, there is no way you can look them in the face, adhere to the tenants of the Christian faith, and still support immigration policies like the ones in HR 4437. Yes, we need to enforce our laws, but our laws must also be fair, rational and just. Of course, this essay cannot possibly be my definitive statement on all the issues that face my clients, but it is at least a start.

On April 10, 2006, we are again being called to a Day of Action for Immigration Reform. I plan to be involved and I would invite anyone else with similar values to participate. I believe our protests are making a difference and that as long as we continue to debate rationally and counter xenophobic or racially motivated talking points, our country will come out with better laws. Si, se puede. Yes, we can.


At 9:17 PM, Blogger Dannyboy said...

I really enjoyed that post! Very thoughtfully written.

At 8:40 PM, Blogger Snazzykat said...

As always, we look for individuals to see beyond themselves, to see life from someone elses perspective. This happens far too infrequently. Wonder what the world would be like if they did? I do.

How have you been? It's time for our 5 year catch up again!

At 6:31 PM, Blogger Kethryvis said...

Talk about being able to find anyone on the internet...

Hey Dude, it's your old old OLD friend Christine (Chrissy) from Kindergarden in Beloit!! How the HECK are you?! You should drop me an email and we can catch up... I can't even think of the last time we talked... gosh, five six years ago when I was hoping to hit KC for a show that never materialized. Gah! Anyways, drop a note, I'd love to hear from you!!!

At 5:59 PM, Blogger Erika Jurado-Graham said...

I came accross your blog while trying to stay awake during my insurance law class. This is an awesome post and I really enjoyed reading it. I hope you keep this site updated.

Eres un ejemplo a seguir y un ejemplo de dedicacion a la comunidad Hispana. Gracias por tu apoyo a los temas que nos interesan como Hispanos. Si se puede y muy pronto la frase sera Si se pudo !!!


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