Monday, November 07, 2011

Not illegals, but people

I went to a forum on immigration policy yesterday. Here's the biggest thing I learned: there's not a big distinction to be made between legal and illegal immigrants--make that documented and undocumented immigrants. A person, we were told, can not be illegal. Only actions are illegal. It's kind of like the distinction I learned to make and then to insist on when my daughter was young: she was a child with Down syndrome, not a Down syndrome child. People who are in the U. S. without official immigration papers are first and foremost people, each with a story of how he or she came to be here, each with hopes and plans, each facing an uncertain future. The document/undocumented, legal/illegal status distinctions are not very useful even in public policy decisions, because of the sheer number of undocumented immigrants in the U. S. and because there aren't a lot of good alternatives to finding a way to allow people to stay here as permanent, legal residents.

What was also striking was how mean and selfish and small-minded people in the U. S. can be toward immigrants, and how this hurts all of us. Fear of being asked for papers, or even of others being asked to produce papers, can keep people from calling the police when their homes are burgled. One of the functions of immigrants in our bad economic times is to be scapegoats, someone to blame, someone to feel superior to--like poor whites in the antebellum south siding with the rich plantation owners, because that at least made them better than African-American slaves.

What was also striking was one of the speakers citing a study (or something) that found that people who didn't know any immigrants were the ones who had a poor opinion of them. People who knew immigrants thought well of them. Kind of like the gay thing. People knowing gay people has made society in general more tolerant of gays.

So we're left not so much with the dilemma of justifying amnesty and a path to citizenship, but with the challenge of changing people's minds about other people, about learning to open our hearts and being generous with what we have. If we started with those values, what could we accomplish?

No comments: