I know all too well how some Americans feel about immigrants: I was undocumented for 25 years and I am a child of immigrants who are still undocumented. I also wrote a book about the daily life of migrants during the Trump years.
At the time, the Trump administration seemed like the worst administration imaginable for immigrants and their advocates. All the migrants I met in my report have experienced something special. They were all good people, but they were also flawed like everyone else. If you don’t know anything else about our migrants, you should know this: they have survived all that God has put before them, and then some, in the name of freedom and security, for themselves and their children.
I’ll never understand why them, why Wewere and are so hated.
President Biden promised to put the immigration system in order, but in many ways the situation remains as dire as ever. Not only has Biden failed to make meaningful reforms, but his administration has taken a Trumpian approach to the border crisis, issuing an asylum ban. He has abdicated his responsibility, leaving room for local governments to act as sheriffs. All the while, Republicans marched steadily toward authoritarianism, book ban after book ban, and voter suppression tactics after voter suppression tactics.
I was a child in Ecuador in the 1990s, a time when Latin America was reeling from decades of coups, dictatorships, and political repression. My parents have passed on to me and my brother their full-blooded hatred of authoritarianism and those who fuel it – weak-willed people who prioritize their own careers over their country’s constitution, the aloof and indifferent populace.
White conservative men, the mainstay of the voting bloc who feel themselves invisible and left behind, whose genius goes unnoticed and courage untested, now have the opportunity to be the protagonists that they believe is their birthright. But they need to know in their hearts that it is not the brown, black, and non-binary children who threaten America’s position in the world; rather, it’s men like them, all turned on by military cosplay.
Take Texas Governor Greg Abbott and his anti-immigrant border project, Operation Lone Star, which, among other things, while Title 42 basically used state trespass laws to arrest migrants when they cross private land. Each week it bled $2.5 million from taxpayers as members of the National Guard were employed at will to stop some border crossings. It is ridiculous. But it sure made him sound like a cowboy.
On Wednesday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation requiring hospitals to collect immigration information from all patients and prohibiting local governments from issuing any form of identification to undocumented migrants. The new law will have a chilling effect that could make Floridians reluctant to direct undocumented migrants to a soup kitchen, give them a ride to a doctor or encourage them to get an education. It destroys valid driver’s licenses issued by other states to “illegal aliens”. It criminalizes anyone who hires an undocumented worker. It is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money and counter-terrorism resources. And it’s un-American.
Immigrants believe in the American story of freedom and self-government. In fact, no one believes harder than we do. The migrants at the border right now are there because they acted on the belief that we were all born with a God-given right to self-determination. They were willing to risk everything for their belief in freedom, for their belief in the kind of freedom you fight for. People who have known freedom all their lives cannot fully appreciate it – just as fish cannot really appreciate water.
It’s a cruel twist that the land we fled to can sometimes remind us of the places we’ve left, but the irony is what matters. In an effort to keep nonwhite immigrants out of the United States, many Republican lawmakers have turned against the crown jewel of the United States: democracy.
The good news is that immigrants can be our secret weapon in the fight against authoritarianism. Immigrants love America the way America must be loved if it is to survive.
Our political disillusionment has not led to apathy, but the opposite: we have turned it into a desire in the form of the American dream. If love is the choice to keep something precious at the risk of loss and without needing to be loved in return, what else do we call the code of honor by which millions of undocumented people pay taxes and social security contributions every year, knowing that they will never see a dime? If belief is belief in something miraculous without having to see proof of its existence, how else can we explain the Dreamers’ 22-year struggle for a path to citizenship?
The problem is that we have treated immigrants very, very badly.
Most Americans favor meaningful and humane immigration reform that includes a way for the immigrants already here to gain legal status, but our elected representatives don’t pretend to care about anything other than reelection. Solving this immigration mess involves unsexy issues like expanding eligibility for temporary status, expanding humanitarian parole, and hiring more staff at US Citizenship and Immigration Services. To achieve this solution, we need bipartisan collaboration. But not everyone can lead, not everyone is willing to work hard and not everyone is brave.
Even in the United States, political corruption, economic collapse, and extrajudicial punishments can happen at any time. Perhaps that is an unbearable thought and by portraying immigrants as fundamentally different from us, bearers of an otherworldly suffering, we can pretend that they are not like us and that their fate is not intertwined with ours.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is the author of ‘The Undocumented Americans’.