Time for a New Type of Immigration Discourse

I’ve been thinking about whether love, mercy and compassion are values worth embracing in today’s political discourse and public policy-making. The question may seem a no-brainer, but when it comes to immigrants and immigration policy, there is so much anger. There is so much fear. There are hardly any serious attempts to understand why we are here as immigrants or what we really do and contribute to this nation. Statistics and the most logical arguments are not making a difference. All there seems to be is a desire to punish and blame immigrants for just about everything that has gone wrong in the United States.

I’ve been thinking about whether love, mercy and compassion are values worth embracing in today’s political discourse and public policy-making. The question may seem a no-brainer, but when it comes to immigrants and immigration policy, there is so much anger. There is so much fear. There are hardly any serious attempts to understand why we are here as immigrants or what we really do and contribute to this nation. Statistics and the most logical arguments are not making a difference. All there seems to be is a desire to punish and blame immigrants for just about everything that has gone wrong in the United States.

I’ve grown weary of explaining as logically as possible that human beings cannot possibly be “illegal,” as only actions and things can be labeled as such. I’ve grown tired of explaining as rationally as possible that the law we are accused of breaking is morally bankrupt and woefully out of sync with today’s reality of an interconnected world; that it is the law itself that is causing the problem, not the people.

But alas, the insults continue just the same: “illegal!” Worse yet, we are called “alien”, as though we’d been born on another planet.

The whole “illegal” framework has made it virtually impossible to have rational conversations about what to do with the human beings in our midst, much less contemplate the future of migration flows. The “illegal” framework has so desensitized people that most are not even aware of how dehumanizing it is and therefore are not able to connect with immigrants’ humanity let alone their suffering as they take on perilous journeys for a shot at a better life; or as they accept low-paying jobs where they are exploited and abused; or as they are marginalized in society for the way they look or speak; or as they are caught in the claws of immigration and police officers who detain, chain, imprison and deport them.

And with all of that suffering, still the cry that rises highest and loudest is “no reward for illegal behavior!” Even well-meaning folks will shrug their shoulders in apparent impotence and say “what can you do? They broke the law!”

Yes. A law, a very bad law, was broken. Now what? We are here. We have been here, picking your fruits and vegetables, packing your meat, cleaning your offices and homes, landscaping your gardens, cooking and serving your food at restaurants, cleaning your hotel rooms. We are here. We have built lives for ourselves. We have brought back to life dying neighborhoods with our small businesses. We are raising families. We have families back home that depend on us.

So, yes; a law, a very bad law, was broken. Now what?

Will those who cry “no amnesty for law-breakers” feel better about themselves and about the nation if we are rounded up and deported at tax-payers’ cost? Will they feel more secure? Will they then get the stable, high-paying with benefits jobs they want? Or will they take the jobs we have done for so long as janitors, farmworkers, nannies, landscapers and cooks? Will deporting us ensure that they then have the economic security they long for so they can send their children to college and have a comfortable retirement?

If deporting us is not as feasible or as palatable, yet “rewarding illegal behavior” is still not an option, what do they gain by continuing the status quo and denying us a path towards full integration into the society we are already contributing to with our work, our values and our culture?

I understand the anger and the fear. Right now, economic conditions in the United States are tough! People have every right to be angry and anxious. The economic system has failed. But this real economic insecurity will not go away if we deport immigrants or deny them a path to citizenship.

So, I’ve been thinking about mercy, love and compassion. I’ve been thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for a revolution of values and his dream of a beloved community. I’ve been thinking that if we were to embrace his call and dream, we would have an entirely different set of economic policies that would truly lift up working people in the United States and alleviate their economic insecurity.

I’ve been thinking that if we were to embrace Dr. King’s call and dream, we would look upon immigrants with mercy, love, compassion and even gratitude for the work they have performed in the shadows. We would never again call them “illegal” and we would grant them a place at the table. 

Elena Letona, former director of organizational learning and research at TSNE, currently serves as associate director at the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities. She recently posted this article to her facebook page as a call to reframe the language and thinking surrounding immigration policy.

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