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Undocumented Immigrants: Rights and Responsibilities of Belonging

October 2006
Undocumented Immigrants: Rights and Responsibilities of Belonging

Massive doses of incredulity and frustration lace both sides of one of the most pressing issues faced by this country: illegal immigration. Both sides can't fathom how irresponsible and off base the other is.

On the one side is the camp whose attitude can be summed up by the exasperated remark, "What part of ‘ILLEGAL' don't you understand?" To them, giving any concessions to, let alone legalizing the millions of undocumented immigrants is just plain wrong! The arguments commonly put forth by this camp are:

?The undocumented immigrants have broken the law of the land; they must be punished, not rewarded.

?They have not sworn allegiance to the country and so are an anathema to the ideas of American nationalism and patriotism.

?They are a huge drain on our tax dollars and social services.

?Legalizing them would amount to a mockery of law and order in the U.S.

?It would encourage rather than discourage future waves of undocumented immigrants.

These definitely seem like valid arguments. Does it mean their position of denying legitimacy to this group is valid?

Over the last couple of decades, it is America that has not only condoned this illegal behavior but practically encouraged it. The lawmakers as well as we, the people, have been only too complacent, if not eager, in looking the other way while this very group (that is now being so vilified in certain circles) has played a vital role in our economy. Seduced by their cheap labor, America has implicitly laid out the welcome mat for them. Now that the phenomenon has ballooned to a scale that makes us uncomfortable, to cry foul is not only hypocritical but also ungrateful. Now to crack down on them is nothing short of entrapment.

In hindsight, we had succumbed to short term expediencies over long term considerations. Over the years, few seemed to have given any thought to the inherent wrongness of the phenomenon: What would be the long term consequences of encouraging a massive illegal movement like this one? What would be the results of creating a huge class of non-citizens who would have no civic investment in their communities? Now, when the problem is forced upon us through the sheer mass of it, we wake up from our stupor and have the audacity to ask rhetorical questions belittling those on whose sweat we enjoyed our standard of living.

Yes, by all means, we can and certainly should take the strongest measures to stop this continuous onslaught of those who wish to migrate to the country illegally. But as to the ones who are already here, it is the nation's moral responsibility to formally accept them and confer a legal status upon them.

On the flip side of the debate is the increasing number of massive rallies across the nation that demand the "rights" of the undocumented migrants. What is lost in the sanctimonious demanding by these undocumented immigrants is an appreciation of the fact that they are, collectively speaking, an equal partner in an underhanded arrangement of mutual convenience.

Thanks to the precedents set over a couple of decades, undocumented immigrants may now be within their rights to seek a transition into being counted as formal citizens of the country. However the paradox is that this very act is also a voluminous mockery of the letter of the law. It smirks at and taunts the millions of immigrants who painstakingly spent time, money, and anguish, and waited for years in many cases to finally arrive here. It ridicules and belittles the personal sacrifices made by millions to follow the legal route to the country. It tramples on the millions who had dreamt of coming to America but were turned down, not the least because quotas of visas allowed competed with the number of illegal immigrants in the country.

A simple cognizance and appreciation of this paradox would have them tread gently in their American journey. A sense of respect rather than entitlement would help them aim for something bigger than simply their rights. Then, they would be able to articulate and share a vision of their duties towards America as well. It could begin with not robotically opposing every piece of legislation that attempts to stop this runaway train of massive ongoing illegal immigration. There could be dialogue about the transition from an underground community to a tax-paying civically engaged one, and the transition from an insular community to an engaged, involved, and integrated one. Like other immigrant groups, there would be an attempt to learn the language that the rest of America speaks, while continuing to take pride in their own.

Rights and responsibilities? it's a two-way street.

- Parthiv N. Parekh

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