During my first year in college, in 2006, I walked across campus one day and found hundreds of white crosses staked on the main green. An immigration activist group had created a mock graveyard to honor people who had died crossing the border. As I passed the demonstration, though, I felt uncomfortable.
As a Latina with U.S. citizenship, I didn’t know how to identify with the undocumented-immigration battle, which is again raging after hard-line immigration proposals from the White House prompted outrage from Democrats. Earlier that year, I watched on television as millions of people marched in cities across the country to protest immigration legislation, in what they were calling “A Day Without an Immigrant.” I saw families that looked just like mine, dressed in white and waving American flags. I felt so connected to their culture, yet so distant from their cause. My parents, born in Mexico and Ecuador, immigrated legally to this country; the activism of those who hadn’t didn’t feel relevant to me.
While my college roommate, who was also a Latina of Mexican heritage, headed out to immigration activism meetings on campus and took bus trips to Washington for protests, I stayed home. It wasn’t that I lacked compassion toward undocumented immigrants, but I didn’t like how it had become the single issue defining the Latino community. I would often cite a Pew Research study that found most Latinos care far more about education, health care and economic issues than immigration.
I resented that conversations about Latinos were dominated by those who broke the rules when our country couldn’t agree on how to help the ones who didn’t. Perhaps it was an issue of prioritizing: We couldn’t possibly approach the complex issue of immigration before first ensuring basic rights for Latino U.S. citizens.
It’s hard to admit all that, because it could not be further from what I believe now. But I had grown up hearing the myths about undocumented people that all Americans hear, even if I received them a little more skeptically: They’re stealing jobs. They’re criminals. They take advantage of free government services. I viewed my own parents’ legal immigration story far too self-righteously, as do many legal immigrants.
On “A Day Without an Immigrant,” a number of Hispanic American groups held a news conference to counter the protests; CNN quoted one Latino war veteran as saying: “The difference is that we and millions of others like us did it legally. We’re all here today to tell all those illegal protesters, ‘You do not speak for me.’ “ Whether it’s first-generation Chinese Americans protesting sanctuary laws in Maryland or Mexican Americans vehemently opposed to amnesty, there are plenty of immigrants turned citizens who think people should wait their turn.
I wasn’t explicitly cognizant of it, but I believed that this distinction was important: legal Latinos first, undocumented Latinos second. In the Latino community, I often see us buying into this hierarchy. On top are the legal citizens (who are often also well-educated and the ones with the fairest skin). Below them are the rest.
My perspective began to change when I took time to travel and live abroad. I would meet locals and naively invite them to “come visit me” in the United States, unaware that for so many people, this was impossible. Often these people — from countries in Latin America and Africa — had to wait years after applying to visit America, much less live there. “Don’t you know what it takes for a non-U.S. citizen to enter your country?” these friends would ask me, shocked by my ignorance. They’d explain the complicated visa restrictions for tourists.
If they wanted to actually immigrate, they had to submit to the lottery systems, prove financial independence and pay huge fees, just for the chance to be considered. Meanwhile, I was free to roam the world, simply because I had a U.S. passport. I realized that it’s far easier to argue for following the rules when so many of those rules don’t apply to you.
I was also surprised to discover that many of the Westerners I met abroad had disregarded local immigration rules without punishment. Many had overstayed their visas and worked “under the table” as bartenders and waiters in France, South Africa, Peru, Germany. They did this not out of desperation but to indulge a personal interest—surfing, skiing, living as an artist. Few would call them criminals.
During my time abroad, I also heard plenty of firsthand stories about how U.S. foreign interventions had caused violence, started civil wars, empowered dictatorships and fueled drug cartels across Latin America. Often, U.S. policies had caused the instability that forced Latin Americans to flee their countries in the first place. In many ways, our country’s actions create desperation. Then, we blame those who act in response to it.
I was 24 when I spoke about undocumented immigration for the first time with someone actually living the issue. A friend of mine “came out” about his immigration status while we were having drinks. He said he had crossed the border with his family as a baby, and now, he joked, he couldn’t speak fluent Spanish. If he were deported back to Mexico, he wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone in his native country.
Like my friend and other undocumented children, I had no choice in the place I was born and raised. And yet the American citizenship I did not earn still gave me opportunities and privileges that led to my academic and professional success — opportunities that undocumented students don’t have.
Gradually the absurdity of our immigration policy became clear to me. Through research I hadn’t bothered to do before, I learned that undocumented immigrants don’t steal jobs, they’re less likely to commit crimes than are citizens, and, far from taking government services, they contribute an estimated $11.6 billion in taxes a year. It felt easier to not prioritize the issue when it seemed too complicated. But now, it was far more straightforward.
I saw I had put value on “playing by the rules” without realizing how immigration rules are arbitrary at best and discriminatory at worst. Historically, U.S. immigration policies often gave preference to immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, while excluding people from certain countries. Who qualifies as a refugee has also varied widely over the years. Cuban immigrants counted when fleeing communism under the Castro regime. Yet in 2016, when El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world for a country not at war, the majority of families who requested asylum were denied.
Now, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a showdown over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program for young immigrants who were brought here as children through no fault of their own, and who tend to appear in news stories as valedictorians and model citizens. Some House Democrats threatened this past week to withhold critical votes on spending bills to protect these “dreamers,” and that is admirable. But why only fight for dreamers, when so many other undocumented people deserve our compassion, too?
In general, immigration policy changes so often that no American can necessarily say whether their family could have immigrated today as easily as they did in the past. The United States essentially did not federally regulate immigration until the late 1800s, didn’t enforce immigration laws until the 1900s and didn’t place numerical limits on arrivals until the 1920s. My father admitted that when applying for a green card in 1963, though there were many requirements, he didn’t find the process as difficult as he sees it now. Unlike green cards today, his didn’t have an expiration date, and it lasted him until he became a citizen in the 1990s.
Yet many legal immigrants continue to stubbornly cling to the legality of their own stories. Pew research shows that support in the Latino community for undocumented immigrants is far from uniform, particularly among second-generation Latinos and the college-educated.
Some of my extended family members still complain that undocumented people are “ruining” our schools and communities. Too often, people hold on tightly to broken systems because they see them as some kind of trophy: I survived it, why can’t you? We feel the need to defend our citizenship as if it were something we earned. In my case, I still believed that the system and the rules made some kind of sense, that they held value and merit.
Meanwhile, Melania Trump was able to break immigration law by working as a model in the United States in 1996, with no damage done today to her husband’s hard-line reputation on immigration. When privileged people break the rules, we see it as a minor technicality. When less-privileged people do the same, we call them criminals.
Now that I see how the rules are arbitrary, I don’t want my family’s story used as the example of what all immigrants should have done. Why does it matter who followed whom into this country?