Imagine that you are driving to your good job when you are pulled over by men in a black Suburban. The ICE agents take you to court, where you are sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for entering the country illegally, then deported to the most crime ridden part of Cuidad Juarez.
Well, he shouldn’t have broken the law, you say, and technically you’d be right. The trouble is that he came to this country 35 years ago, when he was 4 years old. Now, he will never again see his two young daughters who are American citizens, and is forced to live in a place where the police are street thugs and where the people speak a language he doesn’t know. Somehow, that’s not right.
I suspect we were all inspired by the story about the recent naturalization ceremony at West Aurora High School, where 184 people became American citizens. What impressed me was their stories, the stories of hard work, of decades of patient struggle, and of years wading through the mind-boggling bureaucracy.
Those stories of people who desperately seek freedom, and who appreciate the chance to become Americans so much that they can’t wait to vote and serve on a jury, have to get through to you. Diversity strengthens our communities precisely because immigrants bring that kind of courage and perseverance with them.
But we should remember that the immigrants who don’t get to stay have stories, too. We sometimes act as though they all have but one story, and that it involves swimming the Rio Grande or sneaking across the Arizona desert.
There’s the story of the girl who was brought here with her parents on a visitors visa because her grandfather was desperately ill. They hadn’t meant to overstay their visa, but they did. The girl doesn’t know why because she was only 1 year old then, and has lived her whole life like an American. Unfortunately, she isn’t eligible for a stay under the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals program because she once visited her grandmother in Mexico.
Then there’s the girl whose mother had come to the U.S. illegally, found a husband, and had another child. When the girl’s grandfather started abusing her, she fled north, intending to be reunited with her mother, who wants her. She was apprehended and is now in a shelter where she will probably stay until she is deported back to her grandfather.
So there are a lot of different stories, and each is as varied as the ones we heard at that naturalization ceremony. The people are just as courageous, just as determined to find freedom and a better life, and just as valuable as future citizens. Their stories are just as compelling, but of course they end differently.
The stories used to be about families seeking new opportunities. Then they were about desperate men trying to find work so they could send money back to their starving families. Now, the stories are mostly about sex trafficking or children running for their very lives.
No, we can’t take them all in and, yes, the countries they’re running from really need to solve their crime and corruption problems. But those who listen to these unsuccessful immigrants’ stories quickly realize that they too possess the redeeming qualities of patriotic idealism and civic responsibility that many of our natural-born citizens seem to have lost.
Those qualities are the foundation of this country. Once, we embraced such immigrants, which is why we had the Statue of Liberty, the “Mother of Exiles,” lifting her lamp to welcome the tired, the poor, and the homeless. Well, I realize times change, but if we no longer mean what it says on that plaque we should probably tear that statue down.Tags: immigration