We are on the verge of embarking down a very dangerous path to immigration reform. In order to understand some of the proposed legislation, context is necessary:
When I was fourteen years old, I landed my first job at a retail electronics store. The legal working age was (and remains) sixteen, so in order to get the job, I had to lie about my age on my application. This was the era before the internet and readily available background checks, so it wasn’t difficult to do.
I worked in the store's warehouse, with my primary responsibility being stocking newly received inventory, breaking down oversized cardboard boxes, and heaving a comparatively large, industrial sized broom here and there and back.
I was ecstatic to be paid $3.35 an hour, even if the work wasn't glamorous.
I had a modest middle class upbringing, but my parents weren't wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. They provided a comfortable lifestyle for my brother and me, but like most families, I could see the luxuries of life were just beyond their reach. At fourteen, I really wanted better clothes, "flash cash" for the newest mall arcade game, and the freedom to splurge for a burger at Orange Julius when I wanted. I didn't want to guilt my parents into giving me money they didn't have, however, so getting a job was a logical choice.
The warehouse manager was the first to find out I was under aged, but he allowed me to stay because I was reliable, punctual, committed and hard working. After a few more months, however, corporate higher-ups started asking questions and getting suspicious, so I decided to leave. A few months later, when I turned sixteen, I returned and was immediately re-hired, no questions asked. I worked there for a few years, eventually getting promoted to the showroom floor.
My name tag was something I wore like a badge of pride.
Now imaging if, after the discovery that I had lied on my application and was working illegally, I was punished by having my right to work stripped from me. Imagine I was no longer able to get a job or, at best, had to wait behind other less qualified candidates for the rest of my professional career. No amount of education, experience or ambition would allow me back into the work force with the same rights as others.
All because I was guilty at young age of being ambitious, driven, and desiring to make a better life for myself and my family.
Luckily, America doesn't punish ambition this way, but this imagined outcome is a frightening example of where the immigration reform debate is dangerously close to going.
Today, almost 11.7 million immigrants are in the US without proper authority or documentation (Pew Research – Hispanic Trend Project). These immigrants live, work and play among us. They have jobs and pay taxes, even if under alias names. In cases where they do not pay taxes, most would happily pay if given the opportunity to do so legally. They are contributing to their community by paying rent, shopping, attending church, buying groceries, and otherwise simply living and raising families. Arguably, the impact on their community is limited, but given the constant threat of arrest and deportation, and the paltry pay typically afforded them, their ability to contribute is limited.
Overall, these immigrants are proud to be law-abiding, family-oriented, and generally good, wholesome and loving people.
Some immigration reform proposals currently under consideration allow undocumented workers to remain in the country but prevent them from gaining citizenship or, at best, create barriers which effectively make it impossible to do so. If implemented, these reforms will in essence create a class of citizens who are allowed to live, work, play, pay taxes and contribute to our community and economy, without effectively having the promise and hope of ever sharing in the same rights afforded to other U.S. citizens.
It would punish many good people simply for being ambitious, driven and desiring to make a better life for themselves and their families.
It is a complicated issue to be sure, and it will require a well thought out strategy. We are a nation of and built by smart, resourceful and compassionate immigrants, so I am confident (to a degree) that we can find a way to forge policies that will work for everyone. What we must make certain not to do is create a second class of citizens who will never have the same rights as the rest of us.
We've been down that road before. Let’s not go there again.