Are you a criminal? Let me be specific: have you committed the civil offense of working in the United States without papers? Have you thwarted our nation of laws through heinous acts of unauthorized fruit picking? How about using your degree from UC Berkeley to perform renegade statistical analysis? Are you one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States?
Welcome to America! Please, perform back breaking labor in jobs Americans abhor and pay for our social services through a special tax code written just for you. Just don't try to drive your citizen children to school—we'll incarcerate and deport you for that.
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I don't need to convince you that the undocumented deserve a path to citizenship. A majority of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, already agree on that.
Bipartisan leaders of Congress proposed a long-awaited immigration reform bill last week that offers undocumented folks the opportunity to take a thirteen-year journey to citizenship, provided they pay $2000 plus back taxes, pass multiple background checks, and learn English. Polls by Fox News, the Associated Press, ABC, NBC and the Wall Street Journal , and Hart Research Associates in the past year all found that a majority Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support a way for undocumented people to become citizens. A CNN poll taken last week reported that 78 percent of Republicans support citizenship for undocumented people. The list of Republican leaders who publicly support citizenship for the undocumented more or less mirrors the list of people whose names I have muttered under my breath as a curse word: George W Bush, John McCain, Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Sean Hannity. Ronald Reagan even invented the concept of 'amnesty' in 1986 when his immigration bill—the last major change in American immigration law—allowed 2 million undocumented immigrants to naturalize.
Unfortunately, save Mr. Ryan, none of those leaders are in the House of Representatives, whose Republican members have promised to kill any immigration reform that includes a way for undocumented people to eventually gain the same rights as citizens. You see, House Republicans are voted in based on gerrymandered districts that buffer them from working class and minority voters. It seems no matter where undocumented people turn, there are more imaginary lines built specifically to exclude them from democratic representation.
The current debate over immigration reform is typical—a primer in the United States' archaic immigration system is a lesson in bitter irony.Half of all American agricultural jobs are currently performed by undocumented laborers, yet there are only 5,000 permanent work visas for 'low-skilled' laborers given out annually. Undocumented laborers contribute 10 percent of the Social Security Trust Fund, roughly $8.5 billion in taxes to social programs a year, yet they are portrayed as leeches. America's native birth rate is dropping so dramatically that new immigrants and their children will account for 82 percent of the growth of America's working age population over the next 50 years, yet President Obama increased the deportation rate of the parents of these new, necessary citizens to unprecedented heights.
It's ironic that America boasts the world's top university system, begs students to earn advanced degrees in math and science, and then provides little to no legal way for foreign-born graduates with those degrees to use them in our country. It's ironic that a culture which places 'hard work' at the top of our value pyramid disenfranchises those who perform the hard work of both moving to a new country, learning a new language, and working round-the-clock. It's ironic that our border with Mexico—a line redrawn in the 1840s so that Americans could keep slaves in Texas—defines which manual laborers receive voting rights.
Finally, it's ironic that we label as "illegal" people who are often driven to the US because of questionably legal actions of our own government and citizens. Maybe you're here in the US because the CIA aided in the death of your democratically elected leader and replaced him with a dictator. Or because your home country has become dangerous for your family due to a combination of American narcotic appetites, unregulated gun industry and insistence on free trade policies.
Whatever your reasons, hang in there, criminal! If this reform bill passes and you pay $2000 plus back taxes, learn English and continue working nonstop for thirteen years, you'll finally get the chance to vote. Just don't expect to be included in our healthcare system.
Photo: Members of the Northwest Immigration Youth Alliance at a 2011 protest to stop the deportation of a 19-year-old (credit: Sarah Mirk).