Monday, July 17, 2006

U.S. Immigration Reform: Open Door or Closed Door Policy?

Sixty years ago, my father went to an American consulate in Naples, Italy to put his name on a waiting list to come to America. He was a Yugoslav “displaced person” in an Allied Refugee camp in post-World War II Italy. He didn’t make it to America, much to the disappointment of his cousins in Minnesota who wrote numerous letters to Eleanor Roosevelt about my Dad. Instead, my father was eventually given passage to Wales to work in the coal mines as the equivalent of a “guest worker” until he was able to settle in Canada.

I didn’t come to America 12 years ago because I was fleeing persecution, or because there were no employment opportunities in Canada. Canada is not known for abusing the human rights of its citizens (unless maybe they don’t appreciate hockey or beer). And the last time I checked, Canada was actually higher on the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index (measuring literacy, life expectancy and economic growth) than the U.S.

So why would a highly-educated Canadian leave such a “nice country” as my Indian cabby driver in Philadelphia inquired as he drove me to my naturalization test two weeks ago?

I came to America because I believed in the American ideal/dream, and still do. Part of that ideal, is the opportunity to be whatever you want to be if you work hard enough. But the other part is respect for the rule of law. Some of my confidence in that ideal has been shattered recently, not only with regard to some of the foreign policy blunders of the current administration, but even more so with the Senate proposal to give amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Maybe that’s why I find myself in a somewhat awkward position these days. As a (legal) immigrant myself and as someone who studies and teaches human rights, I understand why people come to the United States illegally. Many are fleeing persecution – political and economic. For those who are fleeing political or religious persecution, there is a legal way to apply for political asylum for themselves and their families, based on the United States ratifying the Refugee Convention. But for those who are fleeing dire economic conditions and do not fit the classification of “refugee” some of the doors to immigration have been shut to them.

Increasing the possibility of legal immigration through diversity lotteries, work visas and a guest worker program enabling workers to become future citizens are all good and necessary ideas: granting amnesty to those who have jumped the line is not. Amnesty for illegal immigrants does not fix the problem – it just worsens it -- encouraging even more illegal immigrants to settle in the United States. Our borders will always be porous, no matter how many National Guard, Minutemen or homeland security officers you place on the Northern or Southern border of the United States – people will always be able to come here illegally – and they will want to stay –as will their children.

It is a dangerous precedent that the Senate is trying to establish for political gain. But even more serious, it’s simply un-American to let those who have cheated the system be rewarded with citizenship. I, like many other legal immigrants, spent a lot of time and money as did my employer in legal fees, filling out forms, taking health tests, background checks, and waiting in lines. By the time I finished the whole process, it was very clear that I really wanted to become an American citizen – it wasn’t easy – nor should it be. By granting amnesty to illegal immigrants, we are cheapening citizenship.

Even though my father qualified as a “refugee” 60 years ago, he was at the bottom of the list. I’m proud of the fact that he didn’t attempt to jump the line and come to America illegally. It took one more generation, but I settled here in his place.

My father has since passed away, but I’m sure that he was proud of me last week when I took the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, with liberty and justice for all.

I've also linked an excellent article putting into perspective the debate on immigration reform in the U.S. Couldn't have written it better myself, that's why I'm attaching it to this blog.