Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Immigrants - Illegal or Otherwise

"When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." - Leviticus 19:33-34

His father and older brother had left two months prior. Now he, at the ripe old age of 4, and his mother would be leaving the hills of central Mexico on foot, hitching a ride when they could. He remembered his watching his brother tending the goat(s) from his windowless shack while his parents were off working. His father had heard that there was work in Central Washington, perhaps from a family member who had already made the trip.
At any rate, the boy and his mother eventually made their way to the border and managed to avoid eyes of the helicopters that surveyed the land at night. His shoes had worn through the soles - his feet blistered and bloodied.
He often acted out in class. When discussing his behavior with an administrator who grew up in a migrant family I was told, "You've got to realize that this building, this city is like a different world to him. This is probably the first place he's seen electricity or running water."

It was my first year of teaching. We were finishing up a story we'd written for young authors week by adding a short paragraph about each student. When DiegoR couldn't think of what to write I told him that maybe he should start with where he was born. With a look of shock, he replied, "Oh, Mr. Jedi, my mom and dad say I shouldn't talk to anyone about that."

For the last six years I've become accustomed to working with first generation Americans - both legal and illegal. They distrust the system. They often are uninvolved in their children's education - partly due to their own educational poverty. Their greatest fear is that one day the police will show up, take them from the dirt floor garage they're living in, drag them through the bitter cold of winter, and send them back to Mexico.

These are the images that America sees when they think of illegal immigrants - not the picture of Ex-Pat teaching in Italy illegally. It's the stereotype of the lazy Mexican slinking across the border to pick our apples, mooch off the system, and drink beer. And, in many cases, it's an accurate stereotype. But, not in every case.

What do we do? Do we build a concrete fence along the US/Mexico border? Start us a "witch-hunt" and "git 'dem Mexicans" out of the land of the white and the home of the rich? Or, do we open our borders with open arms, embrace every child of God and sing folk songs around a camp fire?

Obviously, neither of these options are reasonable. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that there must be rules and guidelines for any society to "work." We can't just let people come to our country because life back in the home country isn't so good. But, we can't just send people out of our country because they're too dark, too poor, too lazy, too unemployable, or too darn un-American - whatever in the red, white, and blue that means.

We have something people in other countries want. Whether it's running water, building codes of the 21st Century, reliable income, or a place to hide, we are still taking the hungry masses because the US is a great place to live. And because of that, I don't think we can just turn people away.

But I understand the concerns. They're sucking the system. They're not contributing to anything (ie, not paying taxes). They're terrorists. They're smuggling drugs. These are real concerns and need to be addressed. But rounding-up every illegal alien and sending them away will not fix these problems. It's like trying to keep water from coming through colander - you just ain't gonna do it!

I don't know what the answer is, but I have some ideas that I think will help immigrants - Illegal or otherwise.
1. Promote free and fair trade in other countries. It seems like most people are coming to the US because of the hope of some sort of economic stability. Working for minimum wage in the blistering heat and living in a shanty with 20 of your relatives in the US is better than working your tail off and hoping that the boss man has enough money at the end of the week to pay you the dollar he promised. We should, as a nation, be pressing other nations to be fiscally responsible (I know, I know, who are we to talk?)
2. Promote democratic values across the world. In a democracy, people are valued. If people are valued, then an effort to raise the quality of living for all is undertaken by the entire community.
3. Conditionally subsidize the life of new citizens for a given period of time (I thought a year or two, but I don't know). Help pay for housing, medial care, etc. But, the immigrant must be working. If the person has kids, the kids must meet some sort of attendance/academic standard. I also think that it would be good for immigrants to go through community college or some sort of on-going education that meets the needs of the person. To me, the greatest danger that the immigrants I work with face is generational poverty. This state of poverty is due to cultural differences and educational gaps.
4. Create realistic goals for immigrants and assist them in achieving these goals rather than just saying, "You're an American now. Sink or swim." Is it realistic for the first boy in the story above to go off to a four year college? Probably not. What about graduate from high school, get a steady job, and support his family so that they can go to college? Probably. But not on his own and not with the guidance/support of his family.

The gap between the first and second/third world countries is so great. It's not realistic to simply say, "Stay out!" Nor is it realistic to say, "Come on in and make yourself at home!" Like the Israelites in Egypt, our forefathers struggled mightily in their new home. And like the children of Abraham in the promised land, we must do more for the aliens in our land than that which was done for our predecessors if we are to be the beacon of hope and prosperity we strive to be.