False and distorted notions about immigrants in the United States, and about American identity itself, have set the stage for the current tumult surrounding immigration and the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.
I am a third-generation Mexican American. I believe in law and order. Only through the just application of law can we thrive as a free nation of justice and opportunity. And only through clear and honest analysis of our problems can we forge lasting and sustainable solutions.
But our conversation about immigration in America is anything but clear and honest.
Undocumented immigrants are just one part of a broadly accepted system that has long benefited the American economy, provided consumers with affordable products and services and offered immigrants a chance at economic advancement. If work were not available, people would not risk their lives to come here. Those jobs are everywhere, offered by big, medium and small business as well as individuals.
To punish only the most vulnerable in this economic arrangement is an unjust application of law. If we were to punish wrongdoers equally, we would condemn as “illegal” the businesses that hire “illegal” workers to grow, pick, butcher, cook and serve our food. We would punish these businesses as harshly as the workers they hire. And we would drastically disrupt the lives of “illegal” homeowners who hire “illegal” workers who care for their homes and children, and the sick and elderly.
But we don’t. We brand only the workers as illegal.
It’s one thing to hold people accountable for their legal transgressions. It’s quite another to dehumanize people with terms like “illegal” that invite division, bigotry and persecution. Clearly there is something going on here besides law and order.
I have directed a non-profit Mexican American cultural center in the East Bay area of San Francisco for nearly 30 years. During this time our community, like many others, has been fundamentally transformed by immigration from Mexico. The change was so dramatic that our programming became largely focused on the challenges and opportunities created by this demographic shift. As traumatic as culture clash and acculturation can be, they also create enormous social energy and possibility. But in order to focus and cultivate that energy, we must make social investments in the people most directly impacted - the workers, both native and immigrant, and their children. Of course, as a nation, we have neglected to do so.
Our organization, Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds), provides rigorous cultural arts education to young people. We connect them to the heritage that has provided resilience to Mexicans and Mexican Americans for generations. Our performing group is dedicated to exploring, expressing and sharing these cultural roots and connections. And our media productions tell stories of people in our community who built and fought for our country, but have long lived in history’s shadows.
While certain media outlets focus exclusively on negative stories about immigrants, dwelling on crimes and violence, all of the undocumented immigrants I know are just trying to live their lives. Many embody what it is to be a model American – hard-working people who take enormous risks to care for their families.
While some insist that the targeting of “illegals” is not about bigotry, many U.S.-born Mexican Americans and legal immigrants will tell you that we are also often treated as the unwelcomed “other,” even though we are as American as anyone. Many of our families have been here longer than those who demean us.
Three of my grandparents arrived from Mexico almost one hundred years ago. The fourth was born in Arizona before it was even granted statehood. I grew up in a Mexican American family with a strong work ethic, commitment to community and faith in the American dream.
Yet, recently, a drunken neighbor assaulted me in front of my own home when I came to the aid of a woman he was abusing on the sidewalk. Before he hit me, he called me an “illegal,” almost as if that gave him permission to attack. Raised to take responsibility for my community, I made sure that the man was arrested and charged. Too many Americans quietly accept the false myth that this is a white country and those who are not white are secondary. That has never been true. The best of America's legacy and promise is built not on race or ethnicity, but on the unifying values of hard work, sacrifice, vision and faith in one another.
The Dreamers that I know are regular young people doing their best to study and work. And they are all around us. Most people would not even be able to distinguish them from other Americans. This is the predicament that the demise of DACA — the Obama administration’s program to protect Dreamers from deportation — forces America to confront: Who are we?
For nearly 30 years, Los Cenzontles Academy has demonstrated that our children are as capable as any others given training, support, opportunities and raised expectations. And I know of no other youth more committed to their futures, and appreciative of their opportunities, than the children of immigrants and the Dreamers.
Because of its economic benefits, politicians on both sides of the aisle have long protected our malfunctioning system of underground immigrant labor and broken laws. Reasonable people have long called on Congress and the President to overhaul the laws to conform to reality and decency. But they have failed to do so, prolonging a situation that provides political opportunity, invites scapegoating, exacerbates social tension and prolongs uncertainty for millions of hard working people, while jeopardizing social order and public safety.
This stalemate has also unearthed historic undercurrents of bigotry, distorted notions of who contribute legitimately to American society. These notions represent the worst of America’s legacy and provide no path forward.
We have delayed honest conversations about economics, immigration and identity for much too long. Dealing justly with the Dreamers and the issue around undocumented labor provides us an opportunity to address many of our big and pressing issues. These include fair wages, class disparity, bigotry, and the unique value that an inclusive American identity provides.
The Dreamer - Jackson Browne feat. Los Cenzontles