My grandfather was an illegal alien. Though he came to this country illegally in the hope of finding a better life than he could in his birth country, he married a legal resident, and eventually even received U.S. citizenship. Still, if the beliefs touted in my home state of Arizona today had been around then, the government might have declared his marriage a sham. If Arizona had had its way decades ago, with its demand to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment — which declares that any child born on U.S. soil automatically receives citizenship — my mother might not have been recognized as a citizen, and could have been deported to the country she’d never seen. I would not have existed.
It’s hard to think of yourself as never having been born. It’s equally hard to accept that others might not see you as belonging in the country you regard as a central part of your identify. I’m a proud American, an informed voter and I think I’ve made valuable contributions to our society. But the laws and beliefs of too many in my home state would have denied my family three generations of making those contributions.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m a law-abiding person. I believe a nation has a right to secure its borders, and I don’t believe people should be crossing them illegally. I’m aware that it could present a threat to our national security. But I also believe in the words on the Statute of Liberty, Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Surely that describes the poor wretches who illegally cross our borders. I also understand that immigration is a complex issue. If we didn’t create a demand for cheap labor, if we didn’t have so many low-end jobs that most Americans don’t want to do, would people keep streaming into the U.S. for that work?
I also have to wonder if it matters that my grandfather came here illegally from Ireland, not Mexico? That his skin was fair, not brown. That he spoke English from the moment he stepped illegally off the merchant vessel that docked in New York. Is that what’s at the root of the anti-immigrant fever?
Maybe, maybe not. While I’ve never felt any scorn as a result of my ethnicity, history tells us that when the Irish were streaming into this country in great numbers, they were also reviled, that postings for jobs often read, “No Irish Need Apply.” Maybe the anger we’re seeing today is simply the initiation rite we demand of every group that comes to this country, before we accept them as our own. Or maybe it’s simply that in bad economic times, we need to blame someone else for our problems.
Granted, every group reshapes our country a little. Change threatens some people, and threatened people come out fighting. But do we really want to deny ourselves the work that today’s migrants, documented and otherwise, perform, not to mention to the contributions they and their heirs might make for generations to come?
I don’t. But maybe I don’t get a vote.
Causes Kris Neri Supports
Sedona, Arizona Humane Society