Why Care At All?

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USAF photo, from the 121st Air Refueling Wing website

Why we should be sympathetic to (undocumented) immigrants who are already in the US? I may be preaching to the choir, but I think it will be helpful to present the thought process of someone – in this case a foreigner like myself – who is far removed from most, if not all social issues in the US. This blog post is not only an attempt to organize my thoughts, but is also an incomplete discussion of potential concerns about (undocumented) immigrants. In any debate one must understand the other sides’ values and concerns, right?

I first came across the term “undocumented” in 2011 when the Californian DREAM Act was being debated. At that time I didn’t know what is the difference between “illegal” and “undocumented”, and nor did I understand the rationale behind the distinction. The two words seemed interchangeable, as they are both referring to the lack of legal status of certain immigrants. Although I am now sympathetic to the cause of undocumented youth, in here I wish to play the devil’s advocate, and pursue a line of thought that might follow from the conflation of “illegal” and “undocumented”: should a society tolerate and harbor individuals (immigrants in this case) who do not abide by its laws?

For someone who isn’t familiar with the reality of immigration communities in the US, the question above will very likely seem absurd: there should be zero tolerance. Presumably the law is written to maintain order and justice in a society, and it should not be breached under any circumstances? Therefore, undocumented immigrants have no right to be in a country when they don’t respect its laws. An example of this mindset in literature (or film) would be the character Javert in Les Misérables, who insisted on arresting Jean Valjean no matter how much the latter has changed as a person.

But that is assuming the law itself is just and fair. Do undocumented immigrants really deserve being criminalized, detained, and eventually deported? The ones that we have met during our Alternative Spring Break Program at Occidental College are all in employment; some of them have received college education, and a few are even pursuing graduate degrees at prestigious institutions such as UCLA. In the broader society, a study by the National Immigration Forum (quoted in David Bacon’s book Illegal People) estimated that in 1994 “undocumented immigrants paid about $7 billion annually in taxes”, which included “2.7 billion to Social Security”, and “$168 million to state unemployment funds”. The point is, when undocumented immigrants become productive, contributing members of the American society, what reason is there to drive them away? Not only is it pragmatically foolish, but it would also be most unjust to do so.

Moreover, as a general principle we should show compassion to those who are less fortunate than ourselves instead of categorically branding them as ungrateful, lazy people. Immigrants – documented or not – often came to the US to seek a better life, and sometimes because they couldn’t even survive in their home countries. Whether they are Mexican farmers who lost their living due to NAFTA or Columbians fleeing from their civil war, they share the common aspiration of finding sustenance, peace and security in the US, often so that their children will not have to go through the same hardships. These are noble and humane goals, and morally speaking there is no reason to hinder the individuals from pursuing them. A few weeks ago I’ve visited an undocumented woman who is living under a church’s sanctuary. When I asked her what she would like to do in her life if she doesn’t have to “worry about immigration issues” (i.e. deportation), she said that she would like to see her daughter complete college and enter into a profession that she likes. “Dreams are for young people, and I am too old to pursue my own”, she immediately added. While I disagree about her being too old to pursue dreams, I find her selflessness very, very worthy of respect. Why would anyone in their right minds arrest, detain and eventually kick her out of the country?

I am not saying that immigrants should always be welcomed with open arms and without scrutiny. After all, a piece of land can only support a finite-sized population, and the interests of existing citizens should be considered too. Therefore, while accommodating undocumented immigrants who have already settled down in the US, there needs to be measures in place to slow down the flow of incoming immigrants. It will be a delicate balance between showing humanitarian spirit towards (undocumented) immigrants and simultaneously be considerate of existing local demands. But what other way can there be?

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