Don’t Call Us Illegal

10 Oct

I care about a lot of issues and communities, but nothing moves me like immigrant rights. I believe that people who endure horrific conditions to provide for their families should be admired. I believe that people who enjoy certain privileges don’t have the right to take those privileges away from others just because they are poor and brown. I believe that tearing families apart under the false pretense of national security earns you a special place in hell. I strongly believe in the 14th Amendment and that those born in the United States are citizens. And I believe in these things, not because I’m a raving liberal, but because I actually believe in American ideals of hard work, equality, and opportunity.

I’m utterly disheartened to recently learn that Costa Mesa (where I live) declared itself a “Rule of Law” city. The city council voted unanimously to approve a resolution to make it clear that immigration laws will be enforced within its borders and that people in the country illegally are not welcome. This is in direct opposition to “sanctuary” cities like Oakland. “Sanctuary” means that immigrants can come forward to report crimes and access needed services without having to show documentation and, therefore, without fear of being deported. Following the law might seem to make sense until you look more closely at how challenging it has become to come here legally (and even those who are here legally are still subject to threats and harassment).

When the first colonizers from Europe began arriving in the United States, to the detriment of millions of Native Americans, there were no immigration laws. They came, killed, and spread disease without repercussion. Ellis Island opened in 1892 and over 12 million people passed through immigration, most of them on the same day they arrived. Moving for better opportunities was considered a reasonable thing to do and the U.S. welcomed its new residents. We look back on laws that restricted immigration based on race, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and consider them deplorable parts of our history. We used to have “Immigration & Naturalization Services” before being replaced with “Immigration & Customs Enforcement“. Goods can move countries, companies can move countries, and people should be allowed to as well.

What’s left in the wake of harsh laws being passed around the country are children without mothers, bright students who can’t go to college, and families without basic services like water. Why can’t the people of Costa Mesa see that there is no higher good in adhering to laws that are inhumane? Immigration can be a process, like it used to be, rather than a legal barrier. I get even more puzzled when I look at the city’s demographics. 29% of the city’s population is foreign-born and 38% speak a language at home other than English. People of Asian or Latino origin total 39% and about 20% of businesses in the city are owned by Asians or Latinos. The numbers are similar for Oakland. This means that one-third of the city is immigrants, even more are family members of immigrants, and even more live and work alongside us.

When I tell Americans that I went to China on a student visa, worked illegally as an English teacher, and was almost deported, no one calls me a criminal. And when I share that the visa process was really confusing, that the government employees weren’t helpful, and that many people employed me despite the fact that I couldn’t work legally, I get a lot of empathy for my deportation fight. Where’s the empathy for undocumented immigrants here?

My grandfather used false papers to immigrate. My grandmother followed him hidden on a boat. Their bravery saved my family from destitution and starvation. They are my heroes.


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