One of my first blogs on this site dealt with immigration, an issue on which many Jews and Mormons have rather liberal leanings. I won’t repeat here what I have already written, but I would like to draw upon my prior diplomatic experience in Mexico to contribute a perspective that is often lacking in the emotional debates on immigration that take place daily in our media and living rooms.
To begin with, every time I hear someone say that illegal aliens chose to come here instead of waiting in line like his ancestor/relative/neighbor/friend did, I want to yell at the TV or radio. Having just obtained a green card for my lovely wife, a process that involved much waiting and many fees, I do have a renewed appreciation for the importance of following the law. My wife visited the U.S. on three occasions before our marriage, and at no time did she overstay her visa by even a day. So, having paid a bundle of money and filled out countless forms in order to get a green card, why don’t I now feel very strongly that illegals should be tarred and feathered? Because most of them don’t have the same option that my wife did to enter this country. In other words, there literally is no line for them to jump.
Let’s take Mexico, a country I know very well. If you’re an average working-age Mexican, it’s unbelievably difficult to get even a tourist visa, let alone a work visa. On some days our visa denial rate at the consulate in Guadalajara was 90%. The truth is that most Mexicans can’t qualify for American visas. However, judging from the comments of callers to certain radio programs, you’d think that most Mexicans have the option of getting a visa and flying to the U.S., yet for some reason choose to make illegal and risky border crossings in order to live in the shadows here. Every week in Guadalajara I would hear rejected visa applicants tell me that they had tried the legal way, and would now have to do what they had to do in order to cross the border. While it’s true that many legal tourists overstay their visas every year, we must remember that for most illegal Mexican immigrants, and for illegals from many other countries, there simply is no legal line for them to stand in.
Another argument that riles me is the apples-to-oranges comparison often made by a caller or commentator whose great-grandfather came here from Italy legally, never looked back, and became fully integrated into American society. Having learned the languages of the four foreign countries in which I have lived, I am a firm believer in assimilation into one’s host culture as much as possible, and applaud those who do so. That said, if you’re going to make this comparison, then please make the circumstances as identical as possible.
First of all, if it had been as hard for your great-grandfather to get an American visa as it is for most Mexicans today, you’d probably be living in Canada right now. My great-grandmother, of blessed memory, came to the U.S. from Slovenia at a time when we welcomed immigrants with open arms. Secondly, geographical proximity makes a big difference. My great-grandmother never looked back once she got off the ship in New York because she didn’t have a choice. There were no airlines, no Skype, no affordable international phone calls, etc. It was either assimilate into American society or be miserable forever.
What if, at the time of her one-way trip to America, there had been 110 million Slovenians living just south of the U.S., where millions of their former compatriots were living? Would it have been as easy for her to assimilate? What if she had been denied a visa? Can I be 100% sure that she wouldn’t have made a run for the border in order to be with her fiancé? Nothing that I have said here diminishes the respect and, yes, reverence that I have for the sacrifices and heroism of many of our immigrant ancestors. I do feel, however, that their experiences from a different time and place shouldn’t be used to demonize contemporary illegal immigrants, who are often making choices under vastly different constraints and circumstances.
Of course, one can always argue convincingly that illegal aliens can make the choice to stay in their native countries instead of coming here. Every American I have discussed this with who makes this argument about Mexicans has only been to, say, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Mexico City, and other large, popular cities, if they’ve been to Mexico at all. Once you’ve visited small towns in the interior like Yahualica and Atotonilco, this argument, though true, becomes somewhat less convincing.
I’m certainly not an immigration expert, but I hope and pray that whatever immigration package is passed by Congress ultimately lessens the demonization of illegal aliens, most of whom came to this country in search of a better life for themselves and their families. It would be especially nice if the new laws finally gave them a legal line to stand in.