In 2008, Barack Obama, as a presidential hopeful, made a campaign promise to revise and reform U.S. immigration laws. Seven years later, after much controversy and inflammatory rhetoric, there are no reforms.
I am an immigrant and I’m severely conflicted by the fierce debates about immigration. My mother and I were refugees from the Eastern front during WWII. After the war ended, we lived in refugee camps provided by the U.N. for “displaced persons.” Then in 1949, we immigrated to the United States. I believe I can empathize with others who seek a better life.
The undocumented are stigmatized for entering our country by breaking its law. Illegal immigrants are viewed as uninvited guests, “party crashers,” creating hardships to their host. Actually, the level of their criminality is a mere misdemeanor, no greater than trespassing. Designating them as “visiting worker” or similar would eliminate the stigma and reduce hostilities.
In the past, documentation of several waves of European immigrants was resolved in a similar manner. The Irish fleeing the potato famine, Italians, and many other Europeans were issued documentation at Ellis Island. All were welcomed to the “great melting pot.”
A great many immigrants, especially the undocumented, are driven by desperation brought on by poverty and unbearable living conditions. They seek a better quality of life. Political refugees are driven by an even greater desperation. My mother and I were driven by a great threat of being captured by the Russians. We would have been shipped to the Siberian gulag. We did not have a river to cross in search of a better life. I ask myself if we would have taken such a risk if it had been available. Probably yes.
Upon entering the land of their dreams, the undocumented are challenged by daunting circumstances. They are relegated to living in the shadows where their socio-economic options are limited or denied. They may fall prey to abuse and exploitation by unscrupulous employers, become victims of human traffickers, be subjected to bigotry, and be degraded by politicians. Disillusioned, with their dreams and hopes shattered, some revert to crime and some give up and go back, realizing that their American dream has become a nightmare.
Donald Trump, a presidential hopeful, fanned the flames of hatred with his outrageous, denigrating comments about Mexican undocumented immigrants. Mr. Trump demonstrated how ignorant of the facts he is when he implied that Mexico sends its undesirables to the U.S.
Mexico’s tragedy lies in both the multitude of Mexicans fleeing desperation and an inability to contain criminals who wreak havoc on both sides of the border.
Unwittingly, Trump highlighted our tragic need for both immigration reform and the need to secure our border. But he did so in an unacceptably crude, offensive manner. Fortunately, both politics and a fast-flowing stream have a capacity to cleanse themselves of pollutants. Soon Trump will be deposited in the swampy backwaters of obscurity as a lump of silt.
Our constitution proclaims a belief that all men are created equal, but our immigration policies are based on a system of preferential selection. Individuals with high skills and professional achievements are given priority on the assumption that these are the people who would benefit the country. Some nations have protested that the U.S. engages in a “brain drain.” Such a policy challenges the principle of equality and flies in the face of the Statue of Liberty with her proclamation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I lift my light beside the golden door.”
Perhaps in the future a new president and an influx of new compassionate legislators will hear Lady Liberty’s outcry and embrace it as an ideal which, if heeded, would lead to the needed reform of our immigration laws.
Fred Natkevi is an Oak Park resident and U.S. citizen.