Opponents of President Obama’s recent action on immigration — and of any kind of legalization policy for undocumented workers — often argue that these initiatives are not fair to America’s legal immigrants. These people, it is said, played by the rules, followed the law, paid their taxes and are horrified to see people rewarded who did the opposite. I’m sure some legal immigrants feel this way, but not many. A poll released this week shows that 89 percent of registered Hispanic voters approve of Obama’s action.
Why is this? I can only speak for myself. As a legal immigrant, I don’t harbor any ill will toward those who came into this country illegally. To be clear, I don’t approve of breaking the law. I think the stream of border crossings should be slowed to a trickle, and I favor immigration reform that would secure the borders, substantially reduce the numbers who come in via “family unification,” substantially increase the quotas for skilled workers and allow a small guest worker program. My views on immigration are in the middle of the political spectrum. But I don’t view illegal immigrants with any hostility.
My path to citizenship was long and complex. I first knew that I wanted to become an American in 1984, when I was a sophomore in college. But the only way to realize this dream was to stay on my existing legal track, which was a student visa, and then work toward the next one. I went through two student visas and a “practical training” permit, which allowed me to work for 18 months. Then I needed sponsorship for a work visa, something my employer had never undertaken and was wary of. I offered to pay the legal fees myself, a fifth of my annual salary. That got me an H-1B visa, and after a few years, I could apply for a green card. After five years on a green card, and with no legal problems, all taxes paid and having passed a civics test, I applied for citizenship. I was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in June 2001 — 17 years after I began thinking about it.
And yet, I don’t mind that some people who crossed the Mexican border one night a few years ago might get legal status soon. I was playing by the rules because I knew the rules, understood how they worked, figured out what I could do to advance my cause within them and waited patiently through that process. I was fortunate enough to have had a good education, strong English-language skills and other tools that made it easy for me to navigate the maze that is legal immigration. Most of the people who come to the country illegally are much less fortunate, have fewer options and lack the knowledge or the capacity to slot themselves into the system.
They know one thing: They want to get to the United States. They try to come here on pain of death, sometimes attempting to cross the border several times before they finally get in. Once here, they work long hours, picking fruit in 100-degree weather, building homes, cleaning hotel rooms or taking care of infants. They are usually taken advantage of by employers who know they have no legal recourse. They avoid getting into trouble with police because they know that would mean deportation. They save money and send it back home to their families. I look at these people and think they should not have broken the law. But the society that allowed them to stay for years, employed them and used them is also somewhat complicit in their status.
As we watch the advanced industrial countries around the world get older, slower and less inventive, it seems clear that the toughest problem for the rich world is how to infuse their already-prosperous societies with drive and determination. The United States gains enormously from its millions of young immigrants who were desperate to come here and determined to find their American dream. They were willing to take huge risks and work furiously with the hope that they could make a life in this new land. These people should be considered natural Americans. And one day, they will be.
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