“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” – US Constitution, XIV Amendment
I may have told you this story before. When I first moved up to Pennsylvania, almost 14 years ago, I was pulled over by a cop. He sat in his car, lights on, for about 20 minutes until a state trooper car pulled up behind him. Then they both came toward my car. I was a little perplexed because, from what I could gather, I was being pulled over for a traffic violation. That, or I looked like someone they were looking for. As it turns out, I was being pulled over for having an expired inspection sticker on my car. The reason for the state trooper showing up is that the cop didn’t speak any Spanish. He called for a translator before speaking to me because, well, because I’m Hispanic.
I can’t think of any other reason. There was nothing else about me but the color of my skin that said to him that I spoke Spanish. At the same time, there was nothing about me that would say to him that I didn’t speak English. Over the next ten years I lived in Waynesboro, I became keenly aware of the “immigration problem” that the United States is facing.
I wasn’t too aware of immigration being a “problem” when I lived in El Paso, Texas. There, a good 90% or more of the population spoke Spanish and looked like me. We were either immigrants or children, or grandchildren, of immigrants. Kids from Juarez — the city across the border in Mexico — crossed the border legally and illegally every day to go to school in El Paso. In my own high school, there were plenty of kids who graduated and looked to go back to Mexico since, at the time, going to college in the US was a no-go. I was one of the lucky ones who, because of complex family dynamics and migration habits, was able to get a “green card” and live, study, and work legally in the US.
After high school, I went to college in El Paso. So my view of the world didn’t change much. I was pulled over a handful of times by the police in El Paso, all for traffic violations, and never once did they request an interpreter. They either spoke English or Spanish to me, and their last names were “Peña” or “Sanchez” or “Fernandez.” That is, they were immigrants or the children of immigrants. I felt at home.
Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, brought with it a certain degree of culture shock. I had to get used to names with Germanic and English roots. I had to get used to only hearing Spanish on television and AM radio late at night (when the signals from far away are best). The closest thing I had to Mexican culture was a fake Mexican restaurant with food that was not exactly Mexican. It was just a deviation of tortillas with something in them plus rice and beans on the side, and maybe something spicy. When I started going to DC more and more, I encountered Hispanics from other countries in Latin America, but not many Mexicans. Most Hispanics in Maryland, Virginia, and DC are from Central America and Venezuela. Very few are “Mexican,” though they’re called that in a derogatory manner by anti-immigration activists.
About those activists… I became aware of a “problem” with immigration in the country by watching Fox News. (Yeah, yeah, I was bored.) The hosts on opinion shows kept emphasizing crimes committed by illegal (heretofore “undocumented”) immigrants. They kept saying that the national guards of the border states should be placed on the border, or that police in the country should be allowed to check for immigration documents as part of routine traffic stops. As we know, these ideas have been carried out to one degree or another in different jurisdictions, and, yet, there continues to be a sizable presence of undocumented immigrants in the country. And all those crimes committed by them, no higher in rate than crimes committed by other groups.
No, immigrants are not here to systematically rape American women, as some anti-immigration people have claimed. It was through experiences at the hospital in Waynesboro where I worked full-time and the hospital in DC where I worked part-time that I learned that undocumented immigrants are here to work, to raise their children, and to make a better life for themselves. When given the opportunity, they didn’t skip out on their hospital bills. They paid, even if they had to pay in installments. (A $25 acetaminophen pill? Come on!) Something wasn’t right because reality as I saw it was not matching up to what Fox News and Rush Limbaugh were telling me on television and radio.
I gave them the benefit of the doubt and though to myself that maybe the “problem” did exist in other parts of the country. But even that belief went away when I went for my master of public health degree in DC. All the evidence I learned there, and the evidence I sought out through reputable, non-biased sources said that undocumented immigrants were not the existential threat that Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs told me they were. See, not only did I care because I’m Hispanic and the child of immigrants, I care because my friends and family live in the US. Any threat to this country is a threat to the people I love.
But there’s no threat. There is a problem, but there really isn’t much of an “existential” threat. Regular law enforcement, not armies, can deal with the threat. The problem is that undocumented immigrants are that, undocumented. That lack of documentation means that they are being used and abused by employers who don’t have to pay them minimum wage. Because they’re not earning minimum wage, they’re unable to provide for their families, especially their children. They’re also not able to get health insurance, so their visits to the doctor mean visits to emergency departments and huge bills. (A $250 bag of saline? Really?) And many of those bills don’t get paid because not all healthcare providers offer installment plans, or because the immigrants move from one place to another because of their employment, or because the bills are just that overwhelmingly expensive. There’s also a matter of taxes. Undocumented immigrants pay sales taxes for the good and services that they consume. Many of them even pay payroll taxes that they’ll never get refunded (or otherwise see) since they’re using fake identification.
There is also a problem when a child grows up in this country not knowing their country or culture of origin because their parents brought them here as toddlers. Those kids, many of whom I went to school with, are unable to continue their education beyond high school. Instead of going to college, they can only hope to get a minimum wage job, or a good-paying job with fake papers. They can only go to some colleges in some states that will take them, but they don’t qualify for guaranteed, low-interest loans or any other kind of public financial aid. They are, in fact, a lost generation that will continue to work and live in the shadows until they find a way to become documented, which is not an easy task.
Now, as I went from a state of indifference about immigration to thinking that it was a problem, to “doing my own research” and learning that it is not an existential problem (but a problem nonetheless), some people around me said that I was becoming a “Liberal”. I don’t think that they meant it as a complement, not most of them, anyway. They were the kind of people that see it as a weakness to want to help those among us who don’t have a voice and can’t advocate for themselves. Or they think that people should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” and not be “leeches” to the “system”. Government assistance, to them, is anathema. And so, they tried to convince me that my views were wrong, but they didn’t provide much in the way of proof.
On the other hand, I see plenty of proof that the anti-immigration crowd has it very wrong. They can be so wrong so as to not live in the same reality that most of us inhabit. Take, for example, the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) student chapter at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). The YCT decided that it was a good idea to hold “mock immigration stings” and reward whoever caught an “illegal” with a $25 gift card. Enough people were outraged at this stunt that the YCT decided to not do it after all. This isn’t the first anti-immigrant (and anti-minority) stunt that the YCT have pulled. What is very perplexing to me is that the chairman of the UT Austin chapter of the YCT is a Mexican-American kid.
Far be it for me to say that your allegiances should be based on your race or ethnicity, or even ideology alone. That kind of thinking has gotten us into a lot of trouble in the past. But I expected a child (or grandchild, or descendant) of immigrants would understand that immigration is what it is, and that there is no amount of action that will stop it. People will continue to move from one place to another to look for a better life, to escape war and poverty, and to find new challenges and opportunities. Why the chairman of this group thinks that it would help solve the problem to hold these stunts is beyond me. I don’t want to speculate, either. But it is very, very perplexing.
Over the last three years, I’ve been going with my wife to a clinic where migrant field workers are served. These are men and women who work in the fields in Adams County, PA, picking apples (for the most part) and doing other farm jobs. Their health problems range from diabetes to injuries from repetitive movements and accidents to hypertension and infectious diseases. If you want to cut your teeth as a physician or, in my wife’s case, a physician assistant, you should volunteer at these types of clinics. All the time that I’ve been there, the patients have been nothing but grateful, with the signs of hard work and dedication on their calloused hands and worn faces. Are any of them criminals? I’m sure they are, but not in the proportion that anti-immigration groups and their members would like you to believe.
The biggest hope I have for this problem to be appropriately addressed is that, as a nation, the United States has managed to bring justice and equality to oppressed and “underground” groups time and time again. In my lifetimes, I’ve seen homosexuals gain more and more acceptance and equal rights where they used to be the undesirables and the “unclean” (especially at the onset of the HIV/AIDS pandemic). Before I was born, Jim Crowe laws were done away with. Before that, schools were integrated. That, and all the members of previous immigrant waves and their children have made the United States their home and built it to something better. That is my biggest hope, especially when those who oppose immigration of any kind see that it is just not good policy to keep millions in the dark and away from making decisions in how the laws apply to them.
Those children you are not allowing to go to school and shunning away from career advancement and other blessings of living here will have children of their own, and that next generation will, for the most part, not forget where they came from… Many of us are here already, and we will vote accordingly. Things will change, and it will be great.
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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