By Square Peg
My ancestors came to America illegally. They were wanted by the English government for their fringe religious practices, but fled to Holland. After living there for a number of years, they decided that Europe was not the place for them and moved to America. They had papers granting them permission to live in New York, but settled in Massachusetts instead. Because of unexpected hardships during their move they were starving and sick by the time they arrived, so they stole a few necessities from local residents to get by during their first weeks. Eventually, after a lot of suffering and hard work, they prospered. Today we remember them as great American pioneers; the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation.
The forces that compelled the Pilgrims to cross the Atlantic almost 400 years ago are still drawing people to the United States today. Immigrants may be pushed out by religious or political persecution or by desperate poverty, or pulled forward by the hope of owning their own land or business and by the chance to make a better life for their children through hard work and a good education. In 2006, the U.S. took in more legal immigrants than all other countries in the world combined.
A quick look back at modern immigration policy is in order here. After national-origin quotas on immigration ended with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the number of first-generation immigrants in our country rose from 9.6 million in 1970 to about 38 million in 2007. In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed immigration reform that gave amnesty to 3 million illegals. Since then, Congress has passed six more amnesties for undocumented immigrants. The majority of them are coming to us from Mexico, India, the Philippines, and China.
Census data shows that close to eight million immigrants entered the United States from 2000 to 2005, more than in any other five-year period in the nation’s history. 3.7 million of these people came uninvited. Another 7 million people or so had reached our shores by 2010. Over a million people became naturalized citizens in 2008, but there are still an estimated 11 million people here illegally today.
Illegal immigrants have a staggering impact on Colorado’s economy. For example, the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform claims that about 5% of the state’s population, or 250,000 to 300,000 people, are illegal aliens. Yet they comprise roughly 20% of our jail and prison inmates, costing the state over $140 million from 1995 to 2005. However, in a recent story in the Denver Post, Allison Sherry reported that some 300,000 immigrants in Colorado, both legal and illegal, have jobs and pumped $42 billion into the state’s economy in 2011.
To manage the burgeoning numbers of illegal immigrants, both the state of Colorado and the feds are pursuing new legislation. In Washington D.C., the ‘Gang of Eight’, a bi-partisan group of four republicans and four democrats including Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett, is expected to introduce an immigration reform bill into the U.S. Senate on April 16. The text of the bill is rumored to include a ten year path to citizenship for illegals already living in the U.S. with a fast track for farm workers and kids graduating from U.S. high schools. It is intended to clear bureaucratic obstacles to getting temporary work visas for seasonal workers, beef up security along our Mexican border, and create a better verification system for businesses to check if a worker has legal documentation to seek employment.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, our state Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a proposal to give Colorado driver’s licenses to illegals. The proposal still needs to be approved by the full Senate. The bill’s sponsors claim that illegal immigrants are already on Colorado roads and everyone will be safer if they are licensed and insured. Immigrants would have to pass a driver’s license test and prove they’re paying state and federal taxes to get licensed. Opponents of the bill say it will encourage further illegal immigration to Colorado. New Mexico, Illinois and Washington already give driver’s licenses to folks in the country illegally.
This latest action comes close on the heels of the passage in March of a House bill allowing Colorado high school graduates who entered the U.S. illegally as children to pay in-state college tuition prices. Previously, illegal students had to pay the nonresident tuition rate, which can be three times higher. The students will have to sign an affidavit saying they are seeking citizenship. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 other states, including Texas and Utah, have passed laws to allow illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state rates.
Also in March, a bill was passed in the Colorado House of Representatives to repeal Colorado’s illegal immigrant reporting requirement which had required state law enforcement agencies to report suspected illegal persons who they arrest to federal immigration officials. The law has been inconsistently enforced, with Denver being one of eighty ‘sanctuary cities’ for illegal immigrants across the nation. The bill now awaits consideration in the democratic majority State Senate.
So to summarize, if pending legislation passes, illegal immigrants in Colorado will be able to get a driver’s license, pay in-state college tuition, and we won’t report them as long as they are paying taxes on the income from their illegally obtained employment. Say what? I must not understand what ‘illegal’ means. I thought that it implied a transgression with unavoidable dire consequences, a line in the sand. If illegals are making our roads unsafe, filling up our jails and schools, and taking our jobs, why not send them all packing? If people can enjoy the benefits of citizenship without having to become legal citizens, what motive do they have to become citizens at all? I think maybe we should just ban American citizenship altogether if it no longer means anything.
But then I remember the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony. My pilgrim grandmother, Elizabeth Tilley Howland, whose parents and siblings all died during the Mayflower crossing or shortly afterwards, faced the challenges of the new world alone as a young woman. She became the matriarch of a large prosperous family whose descendents today number in the thousands and include at least one U.S. president.
What if Elizabeth Howland were Isabella Hernandez? A Latina in 2013 instead of an Englishwoman in 1620? Would there be a new home waiting for her here if she slipped across the desert in the dark of night? Would she be safe? Could she find work? What future would there be for her children?
I’ve always been charmed by the ideal of the American melting pot, which views our country as a place where people seeking freedom and opportunity from around the world join together as one nation. But I have learned that our ‘melting pot’ is more of a seething cauldron than a gentle fondue. New waves of immigrants, like the Italians, the Irish, the Chinese, have often been made unwelcome. And consider the heritage of those who had no choice about being Americans, like the Native Americans who were brutally conquered by the bullet and the pen, and the African Americans whose ancestors were ripped away from their homes and forced into lives of servitude. We are all rendered together despite our grievances.
There is no easy answer to the question of how to deal justly with illegal immigrants, but when you consider them as individuals who could be your parents or your children instead of as statistics, the picture changes. If we answer the immigration question with our wallets instead of our hearts, it is easy to turn away the huddled masses. However if we follow our hearts, we end up with the burden of an unending stream of struggling humanity and all the mess that comes with it. With this latest round of pending new immigration laws being weighed in Washington D.C. and Denver, we should strive to do both and balance practical solutions with compassion.