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A Plea for Immigration Reform

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Mr. J came to this country from Jamaica while still a young man. Like many aspiring immigrants, he was searching for a better life. An herbalist, he set up his own business here. He wished to do everything possible to comply with American law, so he began by applying for a Social Security card. He inquired how to accomplish this, and acted on the information he was given.

He pursued his business and he paid his taxes. He seemed on track to apply for citizenship. Then one day a letter arrived. It was from the Social Security Administration, notifying him that his tax payments were not acceptable. This “no-match letter” informed Mr. J that his name corresponded to no valid Social Security number and that he was therefore ineligible to work in the United States.

To his horror Mr. J realized he had been defrauded. He had been steered to a phony source and given a Social Security number already registered to someone else. The stress of this realization was so sudden and severe that he went into a state of shock. When he awoke the next morning, blood was streaming from his eyes. He did not know that the blood vessels in his eyes were already weakened by diabetes. The jolt from the news he received triggered a rapid blood sugar spike, and the vessels ruptured.

Totally blind now, he stumbled and broke his leg. Unable to care for himself, he entered a long-term care skilled nursing facility. During his time incapacitated in that facility his temporary visa expired.

Mr. J has now lived in the facility for twenty years. That will soon come to an end. The city has dedicated the land on which the building lies to the construction of a new university, and within the year the facility will be forced to close. Everyone residing there will have to find another place to live, be it housing in the community, another nursing facility, or a homeless shelter. Because Mr. J is undocumented, he cannot apply for housing. With no other option Mr. J may end up homeless.

His one remaining hope is the passage of the President’s immigration reform legislation. But like health care reform, whose passage was possible at a time when both houses of Congress were Democratic, this law faces stiff opposition from those who for some reason have gotten the idea that it will benefit only social parasites who want something for nothing. Much resentment has arisen towards people, as Mitt Romney put it, “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

But Mr. J does not believe he was entitled to anything. He wanted to get it the right way, and he was willing to work hard, and he did work hard for it. Similarly, significant numbers of people without any health care benefits do work hard, much harder than many who judge them. We Americans are at a decisive point in our self-definition. Income disparity has reached unprecedented levels, and has nothing to do with how hard people work. People are being thrown into the street as their homes are sold from under them, and they have no political clout because they are poor in a society where money is power. We have to decide what kind of society we will become: one that pays mere lip service to religious injunctions to care for the frail and the poor, or one that takes seriously the values of compassion and social responsibility it claims to espouse.

Not every undocumented immigrant’s case is as extreme as that of Mr. J, but many have made positive contributions to society and have earned some consideration. Immigration reform does not give people something for nothing. It does not begin with citizenship but with provisional legal status. Undocumented immigrants must first pass a criminal background check and pay fees and penalties. After having been granted this status, they must wait until all legal immigration cases are cleared before they can apply for a green card and then citizenship. At least with this provisional status, Mr. J and others in desperate circumstances will not simply be thrown out of the country or in some cases forced into homelessness. They will get a chance to have their contributions recognized.

Making judgments that separate the worthy from the lazy, the “responsible” from the “entitled,” is comforting, but it caricatures people and distorts reality. It may distress us to look closely at people we want to reject, because the distinctions we erect to keep us safely separated will begin to dissolve. And that is one affliction far too late in coming.

March 2013