The immigration debate has been front and center in my life for almost all of it. There are many people in my extended family who came to the United States illegally, or they came legally and overstayed their visas. They build lives here, living under the radar or with fake documents, and their children are Americans who do not enjoy the full and equal protection of the law because of their parents’ actions.
When my parents realized what kind of future waited for me in Mexico, they started the process to bring me to the United States to go to school. This was in third grade of elementary school. I had a “border crosser” card to get over the border and stay within 25 miles of it at all times. If I wanted to go deeper into the US, I would have needed a visa. But that card was good enough for me (and hundreds, perhaps thousands of other children) to take advantage of the superior education in El Paso as compared to Juarez.
Back then, in the 1980s, people in the United States argued that children from Mexico should not be allowed to go to school in the US because the parents of those children were not paying school taxes. The Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe ruled that children should attend K-12 because the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution included them as “persons” and should be protected (i.e. not discriminated against). The way that the local school boards got around that ruling was by requiring that children be residents of the districts where they were attending school. In order to establish residency, they needed to have a home. To prove that they had a home, the several districts in El Paso asked for a utility bill of any kind.
In order to get around that whole residency thing, my parents were helped by my aunt. She enrolled me into the school and used her proof of residency so that I could attend. These many years later, I still cannot thank her enough for that. If it were not for her, I would be in a whole different situation, and perhaps not a very good one. Then, a couple of years later, I was granted permanent residency, and a couple of decades after that, I became a US citizen.
This story is an example of how laws can be immoral, unconstitutional, and easily circumvented, and it doesn’t matter the intent of those who promulgated those laws. Yes, I can totally see where the school districts in El Paso would be overburdened by the influx of hundreds or thousands of children from Juarez, especially if the parents of those children are not paying school or property taxes. Yes, I see the need for fairness and for having those parents pay the money to contribute to the education of all the children. But I can also see where, as the Court stated, discriminatory policies with regard to education can lead to a sub-class of uneducated people and the problems that would come with that.
So I think that the compromise that resulted was pretty good. You show that you’re a resident of the school district, renting a house or apartment, and you get to have your children in the school system of that district. This opens up avenues for abuse within the renter vs. owner scheme of things, but that’s for another post at a later time. Even if this law was circumvented by having a relative declare that they are housing you (as my aunt did in both declaring and actually housing me), someone did pay for my schooling… And, again, I am infinitely grateful.
So what about other laws?
In the current political climate, where President Trump has given green light for the deportation of illegal aliens, there is a lot of debate about the meaning of the word “illegal.” Liberal news outlets refuse to use the phrase “illegal alien,” opting for “undocumented alien” or “undocumented immigrant.” So-called conservative news outlets not only use “illegal alien,” but they also take time out of their broadcasts to make emphasis of terrible crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
“What is so hard about understanding the meaning of ‘illegal’?” someone once asked. They were referring to a case of a business owner in Maryland who was deported, leaving his wife and children here alone. In the mind of the person asking the question, there was no way to get around the fact that the man was in the country illegally. “The law is the law,” they said. Well, yeah, but…
My answer to that question has always been the examples of injustices that were seen in the United States during the Jim Crow Era. Back then, Blacks and other ethnic minorities were considered less than human, and the law did not apply nor protect them equally. There were laws designed to keep them out of many public places, or give them diminished access to those places.
These very same people get offended and lash back saying that they are not racist, and that my pointing out of their racism is not fair. My answer to that is that, yes, they are being racist, because they are complaining only (or mostly) about non-white immigrants from South America or Asia. They seem okay with the Canadians coming over and overstaying their visa, or the scores of Europeans that do the same because of lax visa laws. They are even more comfortable with an anchor baby being President because said anchor baby is white, wealthy, fat, and privileged… Like them.
I hope that you see by now that there is a wide distinction between something that is legal and something that is just. I also hope that you know by now that we have a justice system, not a laws system. Seriously, Congress can pass almost any law, and that law may even be enforced for a time, but we have these things called courts that are supposed to hand out justice. If we left it up to the elected members of a legislative body to advocate for the rights of the minority, well…
I’m not saying that there are not good people in Congress. Heck, I hope we have the best of the best there. I’m saying that minorities don’t win elections by the very nature of them being a minority. They definitely don’t win elections if the majority says that the minority can’t vote. Just look at what happened after slaves were freed. All sorts of poll taxes and tests were enacted in order to keep freed slaves and their descendants, Americans in every way, from voting. Then the courts say that those obstacles are unconstitutional and the majority finds another way to keep the minority from voting, like “voter ID” laws. Then the courts say that voter ID laws are unconstitutional, and the majority comes up with another scheme, like saying there is not enough money to run polling stations. And so on and so forth.
Fortunately, right now, people in the majority in this country still obey court decisions. Unfortunately, the majority is working on ways to either delegitimize the decisions of the courts, or to pack the courts with political appointees. Fortunately, even those political appointees see the value in having a system of government based on justice and respect for institutions. Unfortunately, we still have a child-President throwing temper tantrums when he is informed that an executive order has the force of law until adults in the courts say it isn’t. In essence, he freaks out when he is informed that an executive order is not an imperial decree.
And there are plenty of people who think like him. They want the laws that don’t affect them directly to be strictly enforced while the laws that do affect them need to be repealed and replaced immediately, preferably with something “less liberal.” They don’t want to pay taxes, but they want full access to the goods and services bought with public tax money. And they think that a small government is something feasible in a country of 320 million people, with 50 states, several territories, and a global economy.
Thankfully, there is a strong tradition of civil disobedience in this country as well. Black men and women defied Jim Crow laws, many times at great personal cost. They sat in “White Only” restaurants. They sat in the front of the bus. They broke the law in order to achieve justice.
Today, while there is no doubt that the immigration system needs to be reformed, there is also no doubt that there are plenty of undocumented/illegal aliens who are productive members of society. Not only that, but they are worthy of equal protection of the law by the very nature of being people. So should tax money be spent on deporting the father of a family who has his own business and doesn’t have a criminal record? Or should it be spent on deporting the undocumented/illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes and are not contributing to society?
For reasonable people, the answer is clear. For the unreasonable bigots, it’s “all of them.”
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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