In 1976, my parents moved from Mexico to Los Angeles. They each applied for and easily received a Green Card, which is a U.S. Visa for permanent residency. Considered legal permanent residents by the U.S. government, they had the same employment rights as an American citizen. Furthermore, they were eligible to become naturalized citizens. By the time I was ten years old, they were U.S. citizens, they had bought their first home, they had full-time jobs with benefits, and they were sending my brother and me to private school. It is not that easy for all immigrants who come into the United States.
In May of 2001, the most dangerous and deadliest border crossing since 1987 occurred in the southern Arizona desert. Twenty-six men traveled for five days into the United States on a path commonly referred to as the Devils Highway because of its extremely harsh terrain and conditions. Desert land shows no mercy; it is blindingly hot during the day without any shade, and there is no water. Only twelve of those men survived. Of those who did survive, some suffered permanent kidney damage.
This is only one account of the deaths that occur as immigrants cross the border in hopes of a better life in the United States. Sometimes, women and children join the men on these journeys. For women and children, the trek is much more dangerous because they are usually not as strong. They are crossing with little or no money and a small ration of food and water if they are lucky. It is too risky to carry any more possessions than that. They not only face the danger of dehydration and heat stroke, but they also face the danger of crime and violence in a land where even the U.S. Border Patrol is afraid to travel through.
"It's one of the most terrible deaths that can occur to a human being," according to Johnny Williams, Western regional director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He said that by the end, the victims can become disoriented and delusional, often removing their clothes and walking in circles. These migrants are smuggled in by coyotes who are often quite young and ignorant of the conditions in the desert. Coyotes take on these jobs because it is an easy way to make money. If they dont end up abandoning their group, they wind up dying along the journey, too.
To solve the problem of dangerous crossings, both the United States and Mexico governments are working together to increase security along the border. They are using surveillance helicopters and increasing the number of border patrol agents. But this is not really helping. Instead, the migrants are finding more secret, remote, and dangerous routes because they are afraid of being captured. Director of the San Diego office of the American Friends Service Committees Border Program, Roberto Martinez, describes this approach: "Its like the U.S. Forest Service setting fires in an area, then sending rescuers in to save some of the people whose lives are endangered by the fire and calling themselves heroes."
The population of the United States has a rich history of immigration. After all, every Thanksgiving, we celebrate the tradition of the pilgrims sharing dinner with the Native Americans. The pilgrims, when they arrived on the Mayflower, were also immigrants. However, back then, there was no complicated government structure or economy to outlaw them as illegals. Ever since the landing on Plymouth Rock, there have been other waves of immigrationthe most famous is Ellis Island during the late part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Most of the immigrants then were coming from Europe, but there were also immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It does not matter whether my parents emigrated from Mexico or my neighbors great-great-great grandparents emigrated from Ireland. We are all in the same boat. The only thing makes us different is how many generations we are removed from those who immigrated before us.
Currently, immigration is a very controversial issue. On one side, people argue that immigrants are a drain on our system. They claim that immigrants are stealing our jobs and not paying taxes, creating a subculture that refuses to learn English, using up our health and social welfare resource, and sending all their income back to their homelands instead of reinvesting it in the United States economy. Some may even fear that immigrants are going to take over our country and replace American culture with theirs.
On the other side, people argue that immigrants are only taking away the low-paying and/or menial paying jobs that the natives would not otherwise take. If they are working for less than minimum wage, its only because there are employers who are not willingor simply cannot affordto pay fair wages. These jobs only exist because there is a demand for cheap labor. Coming from a life of poverty, immigrants are more than willing to supply the demand, even if it means risking their lives to get here.
Another counter-argument is that many immigrants from developing countries find it in their best interest to learn English because it is one of the ways they can get ahead. Also, many illegal immigrants do pay taxes through special identification numbers distributed by the Internal Revenue Service. In 2005, the IRS issued an estimated 1.2 million identification numbers, up from about 800,000 or so issued the year before. The irony is that without a valid social security number, these immigrants cannot participate in any social welfare programs. By paying taxes and learning English, immigrants feel they might be able to prove themselves in hopes of becoming citizens.
Defenders of immigration also argue that they do contribute to the U.S. economy because they still have to pay for goods, housing, and services, just like any other citizen. Even though they do send a portion of their income to their families back home, they can only do so by wiring remittances through American companies such as Western Union. For each remittance sent, Western Union earn fifteen dollars.
Recently, there were rallies all across the United States to increase awareness of immigration issues and push for justice. In addition to tightening security along the border, an immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. House in December of 2006 contains a provision that makes illegal immigration a felony. Organizations such as the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) are asking our policy makers to reconsider the bill and include provisions that would address current working conditions and the issue of unsafe border crossings.
FIRM and other similar organizations believe that immigrants will make the long and deadly trek across the border regardless of the laws put in place. They are asking policy makers to see immigrants as humans and not aliens. When it comes down to basic human justice, they are simply asking that immigrantswhether they are arriving from Mexico, Colombia, China, or France be given the same rights our parents, our grandparents, and our forefathers had.
When I attended one of these rallies in Austin, Texas, I had expected to see people dressed in red and green, waving Mexican flags. While some were in fact expressing their Mexican nationalism, a majority of the people at the rally were waving American flags. And the people were young and old, students and blue-collar workers, alone, together with their children, dark-skinned and light-skinned, legal and illegal. The differences did not matter. What mattered was that they were all waving a common flag, the American flag.
Before taking a side, it is important to carefully research both sides of the issue. It is not a black and white matter. There many complicated economic, social, and political factors influencing the issue. At the heart of the matter, however, we should consider why anyone would want to enter the United States by putting his or her life on the line. We should think about where they came from and what they are hoping to accomplish here. If anything, we should remember Ellis Island, the Mayflower, and even Christopher Columbus. Whether they crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the treacherous Arizona desert, immigrants are simply hoping for a better life.