John 8:7 “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”
Let’s talk about undocumented immigration. Misinformation and ignorance of our country’s immigration system abound, even among the well-read and generally informed. And the implications of wide-spread naivete by Americans about the US immigration system are heightened as the majority of us ponder with horror the specter of the mass deportation and separation of families promised by President Trump. Understanding three main points is crucial. 1) Key sectors of our US economy depend on (undocumented) immigrants to function—most notably agriculture, but also small-town tourism, and certain industries, such as dairies and meat packing, air travel, construction, and house-cleaning. 2) A consequence of our broken immigration system (and Congress’ inability to fix it) is that the functioning of these industries depends on illegality, and we all participate in that illegality—not just undocumented immigrants. I repeat: we are all implicated in illegality. 3) Immigration laws passed in the last century, including quotas and other sorting mechanisms, have been biased against certain classes of immigrants, and are notably harsh. Therefore, the appalling mass deportations our 45th president has proposed are well within the scope of these draconian laws. Most Americans have simply not known about these laws until Trump. Some say immigrants should “get to the end of the line,” without realizing that for many there is no line—no way to participate in US immigration legally. Though I was a Hillary voter, it is important to point out that the most recent block of draconian immigration legislation was passed in 1996 under Bill Clinton (acronym “IIRAIRA”), anticipating his election later that year.
Regarding 1) and 2). I want every American who buys produce, or who eats fruits and vegetables prepared in restaurants (ie every American with a stomach) to shoulder equal responsibility for the illegality of illegal immigration. If an undocumented immigrant is breaking the law by working in the agriculture or restaurant industry—so I too am “breaking the law” by consuming food. As an American who eats and who does not wish to pay exorbitant prices for my food—I am equally participating in our system of illegality by purchasing food produced via that system. Likewise, many American businesses are participating in illegality. Thus, for every undocumented immigrant breaking the law by working in a field or restaurant, there is a host of American citizens both participating in and benefitting from that illegality by consuming the produce of their labor. To use the ugly term of the far-right, we are all “illegals.”
So why are only the immigrants called “illegals”?
The same goes for people who stay in hotels staffed by undocumented immigrants. In many parts of the country, the permanent population of small tourist towns cannot fill housekeeping jobs in hotels or cover ground-maintenance duties. Moreover, in such towns the cost of living is high, discouraging Americans from moving into those communities to work. This creates a vacuum filled by undocumented immigrants willing to accept a lower quality of life in exchange for a job.
Have you stayed at a hotel where immigrants work? Have you enjoyed the relatively affordable cost of your stay? Then I would like to hear you take responsibility for your participation in the illegality of our system. I surely have stayed in such hotels. I take responsibility. If the workers in those establishments are participating in and benefitting from illegality—so am I. The great spiritual traditions ask us to lead lives guided by love, mercy, and honesty. Therefore, we must confess: We too are responsible. If anyone is “illegal,” so we all are who participate in a system of illegality.
I have heard conservatives I know say, “But they broke the law! They have to pay the consequences!” And I would ask: How many fruits and vegetables have you consumed this week? How many times have you eaten out this week, this month? I won’t even get into air travel, or the use of buildings built with undocumented labor. I won’t bring in the voluminous amount of social security tax paid by undocumented immigrants—taxes from which American citizens will solely benefit. The point is: it is time we all fess up to our participation in this system and bear equal responsibility.
Regarding 3). One of the facets of the massive immigration package passed into law in 1996 included “the ban” (sound familiar?). Under many circumstances, immigrants breaking parts of US immigration law incur 3-year, 10-year, and permanent “bans.” The “permanent ban” is the most onerous. It says, among other things, that any immigrant who entered the country illegally, then left and entered the country illegally again, is permanently banned from US immigration. Under no circumstances, according to the law, can they legally immigrate. Therefore, if, say, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who has lived in the country ten years has a family crisis back home (ie the death or serious illness of a close relative), prompting a return trip to Mexico, they will upon return be permanently banned from any form of legal immigration to the United States.
This stipulation affects many longtime undocumented residents of the United States. In difficult circumstances, they are forced to choose between potentially seeing a child, sibling, or parent for the last time—and preserving their prospects as potential legal immigrants. Most of us would agree this is a no-win situation. Compassion and responsibility necessitate that we put ourselves in the immigrant’s shoes, imagining what decision we would make were we the immigrant.
How can we who share equal responsibility for participating in all manner of illegality within our broken immigration system also share the inhumane burden the undocumented are now being forced to bear?
I wish I knew the answer.
To learn more about US immigration: see http://www.tolerance.org/immigration-myths