I am a proud, naturalized American citizen who believes firmly that immigration reform needs to begin from a positive starting point, not a negative one rooted in criminalization and stripping immigrants of basic civil rights. I arrived in California as a refugee when I was five years old and gained my citizenship as a teenager. This process was spurred on by my mother, who had heard rumors that the US would be deporting all non-citizen immigrants including those with legal status. My family couldn’t afford to all apply for citizenship at once so my mother and father, being the typical self-sacrificing immigrant parents, started my paperwork first, even with the false specter of deportation over their own heads.
Though the deportation rumor was not true, the fear was real. My parents may not have been able to understand the nuances of immigration, but the one thing they did understand was the feeling of fear. The plausibility of the rumor was aided by the lack of social outreach to immigrant communities during the increasingly hostile environment towards them in the nineties. There was Proposition 187 in California, which wanted to deny undocumented children and families access to education and medical care. And then the draconian changes to national immigration law in 1996 which have continued, to this day, to adversely affect such a wide range of our population from legal permanent residents and their children to GLBTQ families.
Many immigrants, including my own family, come from countries where you cannot trust the word of government. My parents were used to uncertainty and actions without sense, rhyme, or reason, so the prospect of wholesale deportation despite legal status was very real and possible to them. Do we really want to foster that sort of relationship with our immigrant communities of today? Looking around at what is happening nationally in states like Arizona and then at efforts in our own state to use flawed programs like E-verify and jury disqualification lists to create databases of undocumented persons, I’m feeling a sad sense of déjà vu from the late nineties.
Systematic de-humanization is not reform. Our current immigration system all too often denies immigrants (including U.S. citizens) due process, resulting in questions about the suspect methods used to select deportees and in erroneous deportations. The measure of a country is how we treat our most vulnerable citizens, and we currently have a system so lacking in safeguards that it is letting developmentally disabled U.S. citizens be dispatched to other countries. Due to physical or mental issues, these individuals lacked the capability to explain their citizenship status or effectively defend themselves against claims of illegal status
Hopeful measures such as the DREAM Act provided a legal pathway to citizenship and, without them, the fear and uncertainty in immigrant communities hardens and misinformation is spread. If America is to continue on our path to recovery and betterment, we will need to ensure the fair treatment of our immigrant communities. Only then will we have an effective base from which to really ethically start addressing related issues like labor shortages, border crossings, and better pathways to legal citizenship.