Why So Much Vitriol Toward “Illegals”?

by Laura Danielson, a collaborator on the Green Card Stories book

The Lamp Beside the Golden Door

“Come over legally, fine.  Come over illegally and we should be able to shoot you!”

“Children born to illegals are illegal…the ‘Native’ Americans came from Asia many years ago and settled here so they are immigrants too. The Europeans came here legally and built this country up. Look what’s happening to it now because of illegals.”

“The great majority of Americans have no problem with immigrants. Many of us have a problem with ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS….This article paints a picture of those who came here legally. ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION is a whole different picture.”

These are a few of the comments that were received (among a number of supportive ones) in response to CNN’s recent article about our book, Green Card Stories. This type of response, which is pervasive on the web, makes me wonder how we have come to this point in time where people draw such easy distinctions between “illegals” and “legals”, as if there is a clear-cut line. For example, when I gave Green Card Stories to a rather conservative friend,  the first thing she said was, “Thank you.  You know I support LEGAL IMMIGRATION.  It is just the ILLEGALS that I have no time for.”

Those of us who work in the trenches know that immigration law is so nuanced and difficult that it is often only a combination of timing, luck and good counsel that lands people in the camp that holds their green cards, as many of our stories explain. A more detailed, excellent description of the complex legal twists and turns that one can face is found in immigration lawyer Helen Parsonage’s recent post about a man on the brink of deportation who was granted permanent residence only after an uphill and arduous battle.  The real reason we have so many undocumented people in the U.S. is because we do not have a workable immigration system. Quite simply, there is no easy and correct way for most people to acquire U.S. residency and there is absolutely no line that the vast majority of our necessary skilled and unskilled labor force can stand and wait in until they become legal.

The American discourse regarding “illegals” seems to be far more prevalent today than it was when I started practicing immigration law, shortly after Ronald Regan approved legislation that both granted amnesty to a large number of undocumented individuals and imposed sanctions on employers who failed to check their workers’ documentation going forward. Back then, I called what I did “happy law” because most of the time we could find immigration solutions for our clients.  The law was more favorable, the immigration officials had more discretion, and we weren’t hamstrung by the lack of solutions that exist today. The general attitude of  employers, neighbors and American family members back then was that  my clients’ immigration difficulties did not in any way detract from their overall qualities as loyal, hard-working and law abiding people.  Certainly no one referred to them as “illegals”.

Of course, there have always been loud-mouths and racists, such as Peter Brimelow, an immigrant himself who now that he has been allowed in wants to shut the door to others who do not come from similar backgrounds.  He is quoted as saying that immigration is creating a “Spanish speaking underclass parallel to the African American underclass.”  Further, he said, “These are people who are completely dysfunctional. They’re on welfare; they’re not doing any kind of work – at least not legal work – and their children are having a terrible time. They’re dropping out of school; there’s an increase in teenage pregnancy.”

Never mind that none of that is true: undocumented people do not qualify for welfare; they are doing critical work that no one else will; and their children are dropping out of school because until the Dream Act passes having an education is useless without employment authorization.  Actual facts seldom sway people who have strong emotional beliefs, however.  As my partner often reminds me, people make decisions and form opinions based more on emotion than on reason.  My bigger concern, then,  is that Mr. Brimelow was given a platform for his baseless and reprehensible views at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a few weeks ago:

How many are listening to and absorbing this vitriol? And how much of it is filtering into our mainstream discourse? It seems that it has become commonplace to demonize a large segment of our immigrant workforce along with their American-born children by classifying them as “illegals”.  My state’s Congresswoman Michele Bachmann did her part recently by stating to Bill O’Reilly that she saw no problem with dragging parents onto buses to be deported in front of their crying children.  She also said, in defiance of our U.S. Constitution,  “Well, Bill, what we have to do is end the practice of anchor babies in the United States” because that’s when “illegal aliens come in.”

Similarly, Rick Santorum, speaking at a campaign stop in Iowa, said families that include undocumented immigrants “should be broken up when the law is broken.”

Despite how painful and difficult it is right now for the immigrants among us to suffer the invective I described at the beginning of this post, I do have a sense that we are reaching a tipping point.  Good-hearted Americans just won’t allow things to reach such hysterical proportions that we routinely deny American children foodstamps, deport mentally ill people without legal representation, take custody of American children away from their undocumented parents, and deport American veterans.  They just can’t.  We just can’t.

One thing I often wonder when I notice people slamming out angry anonymous responses on the web or calling in and shouting back on shock jock shows,  is whether these are the opposite of what used to be called the “silent majority” – the “clamorous minority”.  They are getting so much attention that politicians are confused into thinking that they are reflective of the real mood in our nation.  Knowing full well that something must be done to address the urgent and pressing immigration problems we face, they cower in fear that if they speak out they will suffer a backlash from their constituencies.  Reputable studies, such as the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll have repeatedly shown, however, that the vast majority of Americans prefer to allow some or all undocumented immigrants to be able to remain in the U.S.  Only a quarter of Americans believe that we should kick everyone out no matter how long they’ve been here.

On a more personal positive note and in contrast to the ugly messages I described above,  over a three week period I have been the recipient of numerous anonymous postcards as part of a little-known campaign called Postcard Undergound, in which people from all across the country put pen to paper, lick a stamp, and send their support to someone they think has been doing good work.  In my case they are acknowledging the work that my immigration team did in helping an African kid get reunited with his newly naturalized U.S. citizen family after many years of separation.

I’m not writing this to highlight our work, which is typical of the work that ALL of my good immigration colleagues do on a regular basis without fanfare. I’m writing to say that in my mind these postcards represent the quiet 75%, the good hearted majority who still believe in the importance of caring for our neighbors.  These postcards are from people who still believe in the inscription on the Statue of Liberty and they give me hope.

Saundra Amrhein a Finalist for Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards

Congratulations to Saundra Amrhein, author of Green Card Stories, for being nominated as a finalist for the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards. Out of an initial 750 applicants, the pool was narrowed down to a long list of 53 finalists and then 23 were selected for the short list.

Hypocrisy Knows No Boundaries

by Laura Danielson, a collaborator on the Green Card Stories book

The Lamp Beside the Golden Door

“A hypocrite is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.”  Adlai E. Stevenson

Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu, is running for Congress in Arizona’s extremely conservative, newly formed 4th District. He is a vehement proponent of stricter border enforcement and has appeared repeatedly on Fox News and other channels in support of Arizona’s tough immigration law that makes the failure to carry proof of legal immigration status a crime. He can be seen here discussing the topic on CNN’s Saturday Morning show after a temporary injunction against certain of the law’s provisions was upheld by federal courts.

Sheriff Babeu appears to have led a closeted life involving a long-term relationship with a Mexican immigrant, Jose, whom he is accused of threatening with deportation if Jose ever made this fact public. Unpersuaded but intimidated, Jose sought legal protection and told his story to the Phoenix New Times (which he said he did in an effort to stay out of Babeu’s reach).

As a lawyer I always like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so there may be another perfectly plausible reason for Sheriff’s Babeu’s hand to be under Jose’s shirt in this photo.  Perhaps he was frisking him or looking for his legal papers.  The sheriff’s text messages to Jose (“and you say you loved me Papi?”) and his self-portrait in nothing but underpants on the gay dating site all probably have equally convincing explanations.

Or maybe not.  And maybe the threats that Jose said he suffered as a result of their break-up were true as well.  As my immigration colleague, Nancy-Jo Merritt, who practices in Phoenix says in the report, such threats are indicative of an “atmosphere that’s been created politically in this state, so that if you get angry at someone who is Hispanic, you immediately jump down to the level of threatening to deport him….If what [Babeu’s attorney] says is correct [about Jose’s being illegal], either the sheriff had a long relationship with someone he knew was undocumented, while all the time being Mr. Bluster about the border and using it for political gain,” or he threatened to deport someone he just broke up with.

In some ways this story flies in the face of my belief that if we just get to know the real human being behind the immigrant “alien” then we wouldn’t be so virulent in our anti-immigrant rhetoric.  There is a very sweet video about an Alabama farmer and his close friendship with his undocumented employee, Paco, that illustrates this effect in the series “Not the Kind of Alabama I Want” (which was created in response to Alabama’s oppressive immigration laws that mirror those of Arizona).  But maybe that’s the nature of being closeted and in self-denial.  In the extreme it allows a person to lash out at the community of the very same person that he or she loves.

By the way, Sheriff Babeu’s Valentine’s Day message on his campaign site was, “It’s time to send a true conservative to Washington, D.C.”  It makes me wonder about all of the openly gay mixed-nationality couples around the country who also celebrated  Valentine’s Day this past week, many of whom are now legally married under the laws of the states where they reside.  Under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, however, which even our President says is unconstitutional, these marriages are not recognized under federal immigration law and therefore are of no value in ensuring that an American citizen can live together in the U.S. with his or her spouse.   There is change in the air, however, as temporary reprieves against deportation have been granted recently to same-sex couples by favorably disposed immigration officials, with the support of the administration.

I believe that Sheriff Babeu and Jose are at a lovers’ crossroad and the solution for them is clear: kiss and make up, go to a state where they can legally marry, file for immigration relief for Jose, and campaign for Congress under a new slogan, “It’s time to send a truly honest politician to Washington, D.C.”

Postcript: Sheriff Babeu did the right thing and announced yesterday (Feb. 18) that he was in fact in a relationship with Jose, but that he never threatened him with deportation.  He also said, “This issue (of being gay) has been floated around even when I was a candidate for sheriff … by my political opponents and those throughout my life. This is 20-plus years that I’ve had numerous people that would threaten this to me, to expose me, go to my chain of command, even in the military, to report this and have done so. So it’s almost as if there is a relief today to not be threatened.”  (Emphasis added.) There’s a lesson here, about honesty, being true to one’s self, and the relief that comes from no longer living in fear.  I wonder now whether the conservatives of Pima County will continue to embrace Sheriff Babeu after his revelation and I hope that Sheriff Babeu has gained a new-found empathy for those who live in fear of discovery.

DREAM or NIGHTMARE? Why Congress Should Reject a Military-Only Version of the DREAM Act

by Stephen Yale-Loehr, a collaborator on the Green Card Stories book

Posted on Nation of Immigrators

First proposed in 2001 by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would allow certain undocumented noncitizens a chance to legalize their status by going to college or serving in the military. Since then it has been introduced regularly both as a stand-alone bill and as part of comprehensive immigration reform bills, drawing bipartisan support each time in both the House and Senate. The closest it has come to enactment was in 2010, when it passed the House but failed to get through the Senate.

Congress has watered down the DREAM Act over the last decade.The original 2001 version would have granted permanent resident status (green cards) to any undocumented child who had been in the United States for at least five years, as long as they had good moral character and were attending a college or university.

By contrast, the Senate’s 2011 version of the bill would require individuals to have entered the United States before they were 15; have graduated from a U.S. high school or received a GED from a U.S. institution;be under 35 on the date of enactment; and have lived in the United States for at least five years. Prior versions of the bill did not include an age cap. Similarly, the current version of the bill would require beneficiaries to stay in conditional resident status for six years before they could get permanent green cards. Early versions of the DREAM Act would have immediately granted green cards to individuals who met the bill’s requirements.

The current version would also make applicants subject to more grounds of inadmissibility, deportability, and other restrictions. Some want to water down the DREAM Act even more.Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich say they would support a DREAM Act — but only for young immigrants who join the military. Representative David Rivera (R-FL) has introduced a bill along similar lines.

Problems with a military-only DREAM Act range from the practical to the philosophical. For example, Representative Rivera’s bill would require people to enlist within nine months; otherwise they would lose their eligibility under the bill. The bill fails to realize, however, that people can’t start the enlistment process until they are legal and have a social security number. It can take longer than nine months to complete the enlistment process, and the military services have annual quotas that get filled quickly when the economy is bad, forcing people into the next fiscal year.

In addition, some potential enlistees may fail to qualify for medical reasons. Suppose someone gets temporary status under the Rivera bill, tries to enlist, and turns out to be colorblind. Do we tell them, “Sorry, we are deporting you because you are colorblind. No refund of the immigration fees you paid to start the DREAM Act process”?

The call for a military-only DREAM Act also poses moral problems. It effectively tells undocumented noncitizens that they are only useful for war, not for improving our economy through their hard work or inspiring the next generation by teaching in our schools. Those professions are just as noble as fighting for our country. As a new book, Green Card Stories, points out, people who legalize their status help this country in a variety of important ways.

Proponents of a military-only DREAM Act also forget the economic benefits of enacting a broader bill. For example, A 2010 study by the UCLA North American Integration and Development Center estimates that the total earnings of DREAM Act beneficiaries over the course of their working lives would be between $1.4 trillion and $3.6 trillion. Similarly, a 2008 study from Arizona State University found that an individual with a bachelor’s degree earns approximately $750,000 more over the course of his or her lifetime than an individual with only a high-school diploma. In these tough economic times, we need the earnings of everyone in this country as much as we need their military service.

Langston Hughes once wrote:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? 


Or fester like a sore and then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over, like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?”

Politicians should watch out. Trying to dilute the DREAM Act may backfire on them and cause DREAMers to explode in widespread demonstrations and cries of outrage, if necessary to enact a true DREAM Act.

Miss Minnesota 2012: A Lao-American Refugee

by Laura Danielson, a collaborator on the Green Card Stories book

The Lamp Beside the Golden Door

Ask most folks in my home state to conjure up an image of Miss Minnesota and they will most probably come up with a tall, blonde, blue-eyed beauty who looks something like this:

This year, however, Minnesotans chose a woman named Nitaya Panemalaythong, who was born in a Thai refugee camp into a large family that had fled the war in Laos.

Although she’s not the first person of non-Scandanavian origin to hold the title, Nitaya is the first Asian-American immigrant.  Living in a home she helped purchase to house nine other relatives, Nitaya reports that she entered the contest in order to get a shot at the $45,000 scholarship money that is granted to the winner, enabling her to resume the college education she was forced to put on hold. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Nitaya experienced a life familiar to so many immigrant kids – acting as the family translator and working hard to support a large brood of extended relatives. Finally, with that prize money, she says, she can “focus on myself instead of worrying about everyone else.”

Even though I’m not normally a fan of beauty pageants I find this story delightful for a couple of reasons.  First, even though  Nitaya was initially told when she tried to get a job modeling that she didn’t have “the Midwestern look”,  it shakes loose a few of the stereotypes about what a Minnesota gal headed for Miss America should be. Second, on a larger scale it reminds us that even the American heartland has evolved to become a place rich with diverse immigrant stories.  Minnesota, in particular, has a large re-settlement community, with 25%-50% of its immigrants arriving as refugees (as compared with 8% nationally). Home to one of the largest Somali and Hmong communities in the country, Minnesota has made some remarkable demographic changes in the past couple of decades.

Of course, there are still some things that never change, such as Minnesotans’ passion for ice hockey. Nitaya, as Miss Minnesota, can be seen here doing her bit for the state by pulling on her woolies and cheering on the team.  Go Minnesota!

Over 5000 “Stolen” Children?

by Laura Danielson, a collaborator on the Green Card Stories book

The Lamp Beside the Golden Door

Even though I’m daily in the trenches and not much about immigration shocks me any longer, I’m stunned by the recent ABC Nightline report that a new method of punishment for undocumented immigrants has been devised – taking away their U.S. citizen children.  See:  Stolen Babies? Immigrant Mother Loses Four Kids  Didn’t we learn anything back in the 1950’s and 1960’s when thousands of Native American children were taken away from their families under the motto: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” – causing decades of psychological trauma and necessitating the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978?

In a report released last year titled “Disappearing Parents”, Nina Rabin, an attorney with the University of Arizona’s Immigration Law and Policy Program argues that systemic failures in our federal immigration enforcement and our state child welfare systems have led to situations where parents are apprehended and placed into detention facilities and are unable to attend family court hearings to fight for custody of their children. In the Nightline case mentioned, Arizona courts terminated a mother’s parental rights to her four children, including the youngest who was separated from her mother at three months.  More than three years later the children no longer speak Spanish, are in foster homes, and are in the process of being adopted.

Ms. Rabin’s report, which draws upon dozens of interviews with caseworkers, judges and lawyers in Arizona alone, concludes that the Nightline case is not an isolated example but rather is systemic and frequently goes unreported and unnoticed because the parents are powerless to do anything. She quotes one juvenile court judge as saying,  “For me, there is just so much confusion. Nobody really understands how the [immigration] system works. No one understands it. The children certainly don’t understand it, their parents don’t understand it, their child welfare lawyers don’t understand it, we as judges really don’t have a sufficient understanding of the way the process works. . . it is such a mystery to everyone. It just seems like this big, amorphous mystery.”

Although the Immigration and Customs Enforcement folks argue that they are less likely to detain undocumented parents who have not committed any crimes, a report from last summer titled “Shattered Families”, prepared by the Applied Research Center, finds that an estimated 5100 children in 22 states  were in foster care after their parents were detained or deported.  Of those, some have been put up for adoption by American families, potentially creating heart-wrenching custody battles such as the one described here.  Although ICE says that such cases are “rare”, the ARC report concludes that at least 15,000 more children will face similar threats to reunification with their parents over the next five years.

An appellate judge in the adoption case mentioned above ruled that the mother had willfully abandoned her son and couldn’t offer him a future, and that her “lifestyle…of smuggling herself into a country illegally and committing crimes in this country is not a lifestyle that can provide stability for a child.”  Never mind that the crime in question was only immigration related and that the American adoptive father himself had pled guilty to a felony for possession of stolen property in his younger days.  Fortunately the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the decision and called the boy’s five year separation from his Guatemalan mother a “travesty of justice”, but the consequences for all concerned will be painful and enduring.

This raises the question:  how many undocumented mothers and fathers will be able to fight their way through our courts, particularly if they’ve already been deported to another country, live in poverty, and don’t have access to counsel?  And what are the long-term emotional consequences for their forceably separated children? Isn’t there another, more humane way of approaching the problem?

Of course there is.  Fifteen years ago these issues rarely arose because there were  more discretionary bases for fighting deportation.  Hard working mothers and fathers who hadn’t committed any crimes were rarely deported but rather were sponsored by employers or family members and paid a fine for their immigration overstays.  Or they were granted “suspension of deportation” by beneficent immigration judges who recognized the extreme hardships that their deportation would create.  Many such individuals moved forward to lead productive lives and become community leaders, teachers, and doctors, such as some of the individuals profiled in my book, Green Card Stories .  It is really time for us to put our heads together as a civilized society and figure out a humane and compassionate solution.  If we are sensible, bi-partisan and above all true to the basic tenets of our immigrant nation, we can fix our broken immigration system without breaking up families and destroying lives.

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