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Posts Tagged ‘illegal immigration’

I read an article today in Oprah magazine by Allison Glock from February called “Hiding in Plain Sight” that made me break down and cry.  It had the most succinct and poignant summation of why people are willing to risk their lives and break our laws to live in the US:

“For immigrants, heaven is minimum wage.  Heaven is clean water.  Heaven is an end to the constant threat of violence….the heaven bar is pretty darn low, which is why so many immigrants embrace the thankless jobs most native-born Americans refuse to consider.  If you can find paradise working in a meatpacking plant or emptying bedpans, imagine what your hell must have looked like.  Now imagine raising your children there.  What would you do to escape?  What wouldn’t you do?”

Seriously.  What wouldn’t you do?

Water bottles left in the Arizon desert

That’s a picture of water bottles left by activists for those who cross the border in Arizona.  The Border Patrol empties those water bottles into the dirt when they find them.

In 2009 alone, the Border Patrol deported the members of 869 families separately, which means that parents were split up from their children.  Almost 200 teenagers and 94 children were “repatriated” after dark, which means they were dropped off alone at night, in areas where they probably knew no one.  Some of these children had been in the US for almost their entire lives and did not speak Spanish.  Between January and June of 2011, the Obama administration deported more than 46,000 parents of children who are U.S. citizens.  Some of those children were sent to foster care.

Why don’t these immigrants just fill out their forms and wait in line?  By one estimate, it would take some Mexicans 131 years to get to the front of the line.  I’ve said it before, but this bears repeating: the majority of illegal immigrant workers pay property and sales tax; they pay social security and other payroll taxes.  Studies like those done by the Pew Hispanic Research Center in 2006 have found no relationship between the employment rate of native-born Americans and the number of immigrants living among them.

So many illegal immigrants in this country hide in plain sight, going about their lives quietly despite the unrelenting worry they live with every day.  As Glock says, “To live the life of an undocumented immigrant is to master the art of compartmentalization.  You go to work, you grocery shop, you take your child to soccer. You carpool and pick up batteries and forget to buy milk.  You do exactly what every other American family is doing.  Only you do it in a fog of fear.”

I remember that fear.  Now that it’s been almost 8 months since my husband was granted a green card, sometimes I forget what it was like to live like that, and then I read something like this article and it’s like being punched in the stomach.  I remember the panic and the desperation suddenly, the tension that you hide from other people and the way it never stops.  I’d like to leave you with a visual of the lengths these people will go to in order to come to this country:

Crosses representing those who die trying to cross in the US

What did I do to deserve being born here?

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Many people have forgotten about the draconian anti-immirgrant laws in Arizon that prompted so much controversy last year.  As a nation, we should not be so quick to move on from these injustices.  It’s important that we remember them and witness their impact on the those with no voice here in the US.  Since the laws that were initially passed in Arizona, several states have passed similar measure.  Arizon’a legislation came out when my husband was still in this country illegally.

Driving to work and listening to NPR one morning, I heard a story that made me pull the car over and cry.  It was about the fear that many illegal immigrants in Arizon felt knowing that the police were required to determine their legal residency even during a routine traffic stop.  Many immigrants were packing up and leaving the state.  One woman interviewed reported that she had given away the majority of her possessions because, “If we were going to have a lot of luggage in our car, it was going to look like we were escaping from Arizona,” which would make them suspicious to police.  She took her 18 year old son, 16 year old daughter, and 6 year old son to Colorada.  The drive to Denver took 19 hours and she was afraid to stop, so she put a disposable diaper on her youngest son.

When I got to work and people asked me why I had been crying, I said my allergies were acting up.  I don’t have allergies, but it didn’t feel safe to talk about these immigration laws.  I was worried I would somehow reveal something about my husband’s immigration status by appearing too upset.  Maybe I would blurt something out in a moment of fury. The type of fear that would cause a family to get rid of most of their possessions overnight and flee a state without even stopping to take bathroom breaks should not exist in the US.  I love this country, but when I read about states like Arizona and Georgia and Virginia, I don’t even recognize this country.  It’s sad to me how quickly we’ve moved on as a nation to other issues.

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I just read the best article on immigration and the welfare state: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/02/griswold_on_imm.html.

The point that immigrants work hard and contribute to our economy absolutely resonates with the illegal immigrants that I know personally:  The typical foreign-born adult resident of the United States today is more likely to participate in the work force than the typical native-born American. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2011), the labor-force participation rate of the foreign-born in 2010 was 67.9 percent, compared to the native-born rate of 64.1 percent. The gap was especially high among men. The labor-force participation rate of foreign-born men in 2010 was 80.1 percent, a full 10 percentage points higher than the rate among native-born men.  Labor-force participation rates were highest of all among unauthorized male immigrants in the United States. According to estimates by Jeffrey Passell (2006) of the Pew Hispanic Center*, 94 percent of illegal immigrant men were in the labor force in the mid-2000s.

Also, a higher proportion of immigrants is not actually associated with larger welfare expenditures:  The 10 states with the largest percentage increase in foreign-born population between 2000 and 2009 spent far less on public assistance per capita in 2009 compared to the 10 states with the slowest-growing foreign-born populations–$35 vs. $166 (see Table 1). In the 10 states with the lowest per capita spending on public assistance, the immigrant population grew 31 percent between 2000 and 2009; in the 10 states with the highest per capita spending on public assistance, the foreign-born population grew 13 percent (U.S.
Census 2011, NASBO 2010: 33).

My husband was in the US illegally for 10 years before his status was “adjusted” and he received a green card.  In that time, he paid taxes using a tax ID number consistently.  Many people believe that illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes, but in fact if they want to have their status adjusted in the future they need to prove that they paid taxes consistently for years.  Other people believe that illegal immigrants cannot pay taxes, but the IRS will issue a tax ID number to anyone without them needing to prove legal residency. Once the person files their taxes with this number, the social security administration sends them a letter saying, “We don’t have this number on record and cannot apply the earnings that you made to your social security account….”    There is no follow-up to these letters because it is understood that the IRS has given someone without a social security number a way to pay their taxes and that this revenue is good for the government.  These social security earnings are paid by an immigrant who may never be able to claim them when they retire if their status is not adjusted, and the immigrants do it anyway on the chance that someday they may be able to live here legally.

During the years that my husband was in this country illegally, he built a business that employed several people during the economic downturn.  Not only did he provide full-time employment to other people who do contracting, but he also purchased materials and gave work to other small business that were involved in the jobs that he completed.   He mentored other young men who came to America seeking to better their fortunes.  He taught them skills so they could become contractors, walked them through the process of getting a tax ID number, and introduced them to clients.  His community has strong social ties that help keep people off of welfare and that support young people until they learn a skill and can stand on their own two feet.  His efforts to guide these young men are not unique since his culture values family and community so strongly.

The people I know that are here illegally are some of the hardest working people that I know.  They make their communities a better place to live by providing job opportunities and mentoring those who are less fortunate.  They don’t turn to welfare to get by – many of them are not even eligible to receive welfare.  They contribute to our economy and they pay taxes!

*I would love to work for the Pew Hispanic Center.  Love, love, love.

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Today, Mark Krikorian, the executive direct of the Center for Immigration Studies, had an op-ed piece* published in the New York Times in which he stated that, “Some might argue that simply asking about legal status is tantamount to barring illegal aliens from the schools, since no one will want to confess to being an illegal alien. With illegal aliens filing tax returns and lobbying Congress, such a claim is not borne out by the facts. Living in the shadows? What shadows?”

I have so many things that I want to say about illegal immigration and especially about the draconian measures that have become law in Alabama, but I’m going to start with what I bring to this discussion that is different from all of the other people shouting to be heard.  It is not my expertise in economics or foreign policy or moral reasoning; it is my voice as a privileged American who was given a taste of the fear that undocumented immigrants live with each day when they get out of bed, when they drop their children off at school, when they drive to work.

I did not grow up around people who are afraid every single day that they will be deported; I did not internalize that fear as part of quotidian life.  I came of age as a member of a racial majority from a firmly upper-middle class family.  I attended a prestigious university and checked off all of the “right” boxes to have a successful life as an American who would never experience the hardships that these families face.  And yet, I fell in love with an illegal immigrant and married into his family, and as a result I married into his fear of being arrested and forcibly removed from this country.

That fear lived with us for five years like an ominous shadow that colored the way we viewed every situation we faced as a young couple.  I asked my husband what he feared the most in that time and he said, “That they would grab me and deport me and strip from me the life and the opportunities that I have here.”  The words “grab” and “strip” give a poignant description of the violence that we feared.  My deepest fear was that one day he would just not come home.  I had heard many stories of people being deported without even a phone call (since they don’t have the right to one).  I lived every day with the knowledge that the husband that I kissed before I left for work might disappear without warning.  I prayed obsessively each morning, “Keep him safe from watchful eyes and harm.  Bring him home safely tonight.”

I remember the second time we consulted with an attorney about my husband’s situation.  I told her how afraid I was that one day my husband would not come home and I will never, ever forget what she said to me.  “They usually don’t come for families in the night.  If you make it home safely, you’re probably safe until the morning.”  I wept when she said that, and I still cry each time I tell that story.  How many Americans fear people “coming for them” like we live in Nazi Germany?  How many Americans only feel relief from unrelenting panic when their family members are safely in the house for the night?

I remember when we had a big snowstorm in 2011 and many roads closed because of car accidents and the cell phone reception was bad.  I couldn’t reach my husband on the phone and I worried that he could have a car accident and be picked up as an illegal immigrant, since I live in a state where the police can legally demand to see proof of legal residency at any routine traffic stop.  I spent that night repeating the rosary again and again with the nuns on some TV program even though I am not a Catholic because somehow the rhythm made it easier to breathe.  I did that until he arrived home after midnight, having been waylaid by a tree that fell across the road.

When I think back to our life in the shadows, I remember the time that my husband’s boss refused to pay him for 2 months of work (more than $6000) and my husband was scared to take him to court because he didn’t want his (il)legal status to come to light.  We never recovered those two months of wages.

I think about my husband’s little brother, and the year that he was six.  I see him sitting at the kitchen table with his small feet kicking his chair.  We had forgotten he was there, and he was listening to his family talk (in Spanish) about new laws that were cracking down on illegal immigration.  The women were talking about how afraid they were while the men were making reassuring noises about the likelihood that these laws would be enacted.  My small brother-in-law squeezed my hand and asked me quietly (in English) why we have to be so afraid.  I hugged him to me and told him not to be afraid.  I explained that he was born in the US and everything would be okay, while I hoped that he was too little to notice what I was not saying about his brother.  Namely, that he were not born in the US, and that he should be afraid.

I remember fearing that I would lose the security clearance that lets me work in my field because my husband was here illegally, and being told that for my career advancement, I needed to attend a conference in Arizona during the boycott.  I remember the way my protests fell on deaf ears when I explained that I felt wrong about going to any conference that took place in a state where some scholars would feel uncomfortable coming to present their research since they might be stopped and harassed for looking “like an immigrant” (read: hispanic).

More than the panic attacks when I couldn’t reach my husband on the phone, more than the injustice and feeling of impotence when employers cheated my husband, more than the creeping certainty that I was teaching the children in our family to be afraid, more than the anxiety that my husband’s status would rob me of a job, I resented the ignorant comments that people made.  I burned when they spoke of illegal immigrants who taxed our economy and unfairly jumped the line.  I raged inside every time a co-worker or a neighbor or a family member made some stupid comment about immigrants like they were engaging me in an academic debate with no faces in it, no real people.  I wanted to snap back, “You are talking about my husband!  You are talking about my family!”  I felt like I could never scream loud enough so that they would shut up and stop talking about something that they know nothing of, that they will never understand.  More than anything, I want to scream until the whole world hears the voice of these people who are nameless and faceless to the majority of Americans.

*http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/10/04/should-alabama-schools-help-catch-illegal-immigrants/defining-good-immigration-policy

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If you have ever stayed silent while someone said something prejudiced about illegal immigrants because you are afraid of drawing attention to someone you love, you are not alone.

If you have researched other countries that you could live in because it seems like you will not be permitted to stay in the country that you were born into and that you love, you are not alone.

If you have woken up early and stayed up late, slept little, visited every specialist under the sun, and paid for the privilege of being given more impossible tasks to complete while they condescend to you about how little hardship you would endure if separated from someone you love, you are not alone.

If you have risked everything including your job and the respect of people you care about to keep someone you love safe, you are not alone.

If you have ever knelt by your bed to pray that someone be safe, that someone be granted clemency, and found yourself flat on your face pleading with God for mercy, you are not alone.

If you have ever cried until you threw up because you worried that your life would never be okay again, you are not alone.

If you have put every part of yourself into a quest like this, your sweat and your blood and your flesh and your tears, you are not alone.

I was married to an illegal immigrant.  We were together for 5 years before the US government granted him legal permanent residency.  I wish that someone had told me that I was not alone.

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