When i posted about the teen walkout, i wanted to highlight how excited i am that students are speaking out for something that they believe, for something that they know is wrong. Embedded in my post was my disdain for HR 4437, but i did not fully articulate my own views. The comments that followed made it clear that i need to explain why i oppose HR 4437.
The status of undocumented workers in this country is very tricky. Over the years, we have looked the other way as immigrants enter our country illegally and work doing the most grueling labor that no citizen will do. We have turned a blind eye because our economy depends on that cheap labor. Some employers have taken this to a new level and slavery in this country is at an all-time high. The abuse of immigrants is atrocious. There are no labor laws to protect them, no social security, no social services. In most places where undocumented workers live and work, there is a social contract: behave, work hard, and no one will turn you in. Undocumented workers stay because, even with these atrocious work conditions, their lives are better here than where they came from; their opportunity is greater.
Our approach is not sustainable, nor is it morally just. Thus, the question emerges: what do we do about the 20 MILLION illegal aliens living in the United States? This question is both a moral and a practical question.
Many of these people have been living in the United States for decades. They no longer have homes in their country of origin. They have children who are citizens of America. They have obeyed the laws, paid taxes and worked harder than most of us can imagine. There is nothing morally just about treating these individuals as criminals and expelling them. They have done their time, they have paid their dues. And we have always treated them like the trash of the earth.
Some people argue that these people don’t deserve to stay because they did not get visas, did not follow the rules and that it is unfair to legal immigrants. Unfortunately, this argument misses the class dynamic that is critical to the story of undocumented workers. The American visa system is set up to welcome wealthy, educated individuals into white collar jobs. Take a look at how many people get visas to work on farms, in meat packing factories or as janitors. These are not the visas that we offer; most undocumented workers are not eligible for the visas we do offer.
Once an individual is in the United States illegally, it is very difficult for them to begin the process to become a citizen. You cannot apply for a green card if you are here illegally. Thus, there are people who have been here for 20 years and have not taken the steps to become citizens; they have simply worked hard to remain undetected because they do not know of a better way.
HR 4437 is not the answer. While the adjustments to penalties for child abuse and other atrocious acts are logical, what makes HR 4437 problematic is actually its adjustments to employment. By requiring mandatory employment identification, people who have been working in this country for decades will be forced out of jobs with no recourse. This section aims to starve out the population, to force law abiding undocumented workers to leave. Certainly, there will be an even darker underground and many desperate undocumented workers will be forced to turn to more dangerous work in an attempt to stay in the country. There is no doubt this will also increase gang activity and other illegal activities. Racial tensions will rise and violence will erupt, all because of desperation.
I can respect that we need to move to an above ground market, but we cannot turn our backs on those who have been working hard for years. We need to provide ways in which law abiding undocumented workers can come forward without fear of expulsion and apply for citizenship and visas. As we move towards an above-ground system, we need to temporarily forgive undocumented workers for certain crimes committed out of desperation to stay in the past (such as social security number fraud).
I am also very concerned about the sections on “gangs.” What is the legal definition of a gang? It worries me greatly that people can be deported or refused admission for presumed association with gangs. It also worries me that the Attorney General can designate any group or association as a street gang. (Why do i have a sneaking suspicion that i would be considered a gang member for my affiliation with Burning Man?) I completely understand why the government wants to deport people for illegal activities, but i worry about the guilty until proven innocent framing of this section of HR 4437. And i really worry about the guilt through association implications. Didn’t we learn anything from the McCarthy era?
People ask why it is so significant that teens walked out. These teens are legal; they are citizens. They are speaking out for a population that is silenced, a population that cannot be visible. They are doing so on school hours because that makes the most impact. Even with the knowledge that they will be fined and given detention, they walked out. Frustrated teachers argued that this is foolish, that their parents came here to give them an education and they aren’t even trying. While these teachers have the best intentions, students have a better grasp on reality. They know that their parents are at risk of being deported. They know that they are mostly not eligible for good jobs that depend on an education; they are going to do the kinds of work their parents do. They are living a working class reality and are completely alienated from it. It is the saddest aspect of our failed education system and our unacknowledged class hierarchy.
Unfortunately, this political regime is doing an amazing job of approaching world politics with brute force and xenophobia. HR 4437 is no different. No wonder the world hates us. I am glad people are thinking about how to handle undocumented workers; i just wish that folks would have more compassion and understanding of the dynamics and lives of people who have worked fucking hard to fatten our privileged asses. Most undocumented workers are not criminals and they should not be treated as such. They are good people, trying really hard to make their lives and the lives of their families better.
On a personal note, i spoke with a neighbor about this bill. She’s been here illegally for almost a decade; she has two small children that she works hard to support. When i brought it up, her eyes got wide with fear. I told her not to worry, that i am on her side; this gave her much relief. It is clear that she’s very scared. She told me she didn’t understand this bill. She pays taxes, she works hard, she obeys laws, she is trying really hard. She doesn’t know what to do. I wish i could tell her not to worry, that everything will be OK. But i have to admit that i’ve lost faith in the humanity of this country.