Breathe Free, Huddled Masses

A personal take on illegal immigration


Immigration is a hot topic in America these days. An immigration reform bill is stalled in Congress; pro-immigration demonstrators, many of them illegal immigrants, are filling city streets. One side argues that regaining control of our borders is a vital national security issue; the other says that extending a welcome to all who want to live peacefully and work in our midst is a fundamental American value.

This debate touches many Americans in a personal way as children and descendants of immigrants. It is doubly personal for me: I came to the United States with my family in 1980, at the age of 17, from what was then the Soviet Union.

Time and time again, we have had calls for decisive action to halt illegal immigration. So far, no tough new laws or policies have succeeded in stemming the flood. Anti-immigration conservatives lament that this is due to a fundamental lack of will to really do something about the problem. Many are outraged by proposals to offer amnesty and legalization to illegal aliens, a move that they claim rewards people for breaking the law.

But most Americans are deeply conflicted. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found three-quarters of Americans think the government is doing too little to prevent illegal immigration. Yet three out of five, across party lines, are in favor of allowing illegal immigrants who have lived here for years to gain legal status and eventually become citizens. Only one in five endorsed the House bill that would make it a felony to live in this country illegally.

So why don't more people nod in agreement when right-wing talk show hosts thunder, "But they broke the law!"?

Maybe because they instinctively understand the peculiar nature of the law in this case.

Recently, a guest on the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends jeered at the pro-immigrant rallies by announcing that he and some friends were having a rally in support of "illegal murders." This dumb joke highlights something important: There is no such thing as legal murder. Murder is illegal by definition, while immigration is not. The same act—entering the United States—is legal for some people and illegal for others, sometimes depending on something as arbitrary as a lottery. Law, in this case, may be more a technicality than justice.

Indeed, how many of the same conservatives who are enraged by the idea of amnesty for illegal residents would be in favor of jailing—or even putting out of business—a woman who had run an unlicensed home-based daycare center, providing safe and excellent care?

Present-day descendants of immigrants who pride themselves on the fact that their ancestors came here legally should remember that the immigrants of that time faced far fewer hurdles.

When my family and I came here, we automatically received refugee status on the grounds that we were fleeing oppression. While I am immensely grateful for this, I am also well aware that I got a special break due to Cold War politics, and that a lot of people around the world who had as good a claim to escaping oppression or persecution did not get the same break. So my reaction is not, "I came here legally and that makes me better," but more like, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Yes, we need more effective border control, particularly in the age when terrorism is a real concern. But it should also be a concern that anti-immigrant panic has been all too often responsible for ungenerous and sometimes downright inhumane policies unworthy of America.

After the "immigration reform" of 1996, people who were brought to this country as children and never went through the process of getting citizenship were suddenly subject to deportation to native countries they barely remembered because of a minor brush with the law—such as a barroom fight at the age of 20—that suddenly made them "deportable." People adjudged by immigration agents to be attempting to enter the country illegally, often because of a glitch in the paperwork, have been barred from reapplying to enter this country for the next five years—even if they are married to an American.

To me, that is far more outrageous and far more damaging to America than extending forgiveness to people who came here illegally and are earning an honest living. At the risk of sounding very corny: The Statue of Liberty should not turn its back on the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.