Because of an accident of history, geography, and climate, and because of the decisions of people on both sides of my family, I was born in Juarez, Mexico. The city is the Mexican half of what used to be “El Paso del Norte” (Spanish for “The Northern Pass”). When Texas seceded from Mexico and was annexed by the United States back in the 1840’s, the city was split because the political boundary decided upon by the two countries was the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo). The river ran right down the middle of the city. The American side became “El Paso,” while the Mexican side would be named “Juarez” in the late 1800’s, a name that it keeps to this day.
Growing up there, I always saw the city as one. There was no reason for me not to. Family members lived on both sides, and I was free to go back and forth to visit them. Of course, I wasn’t fully aware that crossing the border required all sorts of legal documents, and that it required my parents to jump through many hoops. It wasn’t until I was older and had to answer many, many questions and show an ID card every time I crossed the border that I started to become more aware of what was going on. Mexicans were to stay on their side of the line, and it was a privilege for us to cross to the other side.
In fact, it wasn’t until two years ago that I became a United States citizen. However, because I had lived, studied, and worked in the US since I was ten years old, I never really considered myself a foreigner. I’ve known how to speak the language from a very young age because I watched American television broadcasts from El Paso. I remember trying to decode “The Crosby Show” and learning what some words meant when I’d see cartoons dubbed into Spanish that I had seen in English weeks before. When I moved to Pennsylvania to work, I thought that I blended in pretty well into the community.
The reality is a little different, however. It’s a little different because I see it in the local newspaper and the comments section of the newspaper’s online presence. There are plenty of people who see immigrants – legal or illegal – as a scourge on the country. Any and all evils are blamed on immigrants. From crime to unemployment, people really do think that these things would magically disappear if there were no immigrants, if a wall one hundred feet high was built around the country, and if we all had to show evidence of being Americans for anything we did (e.g. applying for work, school, and even going to the doctor).
The issue of immigration is one that makes me very uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable because I always feel that people listening to me discuss it instantaneously assume that I have a conflict of interest from being Mexican. There have been those who tell me that my opinion is always going to be pro-immigration because immigration has benefited me so much. I’m fairly successful and educated because the immigration laws allowed me to come to this country and be educated and well employed. In their minds, my own drive had nothing to do with it. Likewise, they think that immigrants have nothing to do with their own success. In their minds, immigrants are just taking advantage of the system.
My opinion on immigration at this time is actually a quite balanced one. Should the borders be wide open? No, not at all. It’s a matter of national security and national sovereignty to have a secure border and secure our coasts. All sorts of bad things could make their way into the country. Should we deport every single person who is in the US illegally? Of course not. Many of those people are actually productive citizens of their communities. They’re the children of immigrants who have only known the United States as their home. And they are the parents of American children, whether you like it or not. The people who should be deported are violent criminals, or people who have committed crimes that have injured many people (e.g. fraud). But to arrest and threaten to deport a collegiate athlete? That’s not only wrong, it’s un-American.
I also happen to believe that all the money we’ve poured into programs designed to discriminate against illegal immigrants, like the Arizona ID-check laws, could have been better spent on programs to aid poorer countries and their people get back on their feet. When that happens, their people stay home and don’t come to the US illegally. You see it time after time in communities in Mexico. As their economy gets better, their able-bodied workers stay. When the US economy took a plunge in 2008, illegal immigration slowed down and even reversed itself from some countries. I’m not talking hand-outs, either. I’m talking investments. Imagine if we imported our stuff from Mexico instead of China. How many Mexicans would want to come here instead of staying there and manufacturing products for the world? (This is happening in Brazil right now, by the way.)
The other day, as I was going through the gates at the metro station, a young Hispanic man was arguing with one of the transportation officers. He said that his ticket was not working. She was trying to explain to him that he was placing it wrong in the slot that reads the ticket. He got frustrated and called her a slur in Spanish. I told him to cool it and have more respect for the law. His reply to me was that I should be on his side because I’m Brown, like him. He cursed at me for not defending him, even after we both got on the train.
I’m sorry, but my allegiances are not determined by where I was born, the color of my skin, or what language I speak. My allegiances are determined by what is right and wrong, what is legal and what is not, and what is fair and unfair. It is only fair that people here in the US, of any national origin, be allowed to live in peace and without fear of being arrested and deported if they are here and being productive. And, by “productive,” I even mean the mothers of children who are homemakers and work hard at home to help kids do well in school. It is only fair that someone who is able to do a job well earn a living wage. And it is only fair that someone given the privilege to live in the world’s superpower and number one economy but who instead decides to turn to a life of crime be sent back to where they came and away from this society.
Know what I mean?
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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