First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
What Is This "Crime," Really?
A fifteen-year-old boy -- let's call him David -- has been yearning for his driver's license for a long time.
But today all thoughts of waiting for his license are out the window, because his little sister cut herself and he can't stop the bleeding. His family's phone service was cut off long ago. His parents aren't home. They live far from any neighbors. But they do have one uninsured car that David's been tinkering with. It runs.
So David puts his sister in the car and, holding a towel on the wound to apply pressure, he drives the car one-handed out onto the road and goes as fast as the car can go, heading for the nearest medical emergency center.
The trouble is, a state trooper sees him driving too fast and pulls him over. David tries to explain that he's only driving illegally in order to save his sister's life, but the trooper doesn't listen.
He drags David out of the car and handcuffs him and yells at him that he has no business driving a car without a license, besides which he was speeding and the car is not insured. "You will never get a license, we will confiscate this illegal car. Driving is a privilege, not a right, and you have forfeited that privilege by taking it prematurely."
David can't think about any of this. So he screams, "My sister is bleeding to death! Let me get her to the hospital!"
But it's as if the trooper is deaf to anything David has to say. "Don't scream it me, you miserable pipsqueak! Until you have a license you don't even have a right to be heard on these highways!"
I'm sick at heart about the number of Americans, including friends of mine who should know better, who are proud of being exactly like that state trooper, when it comes to the question of illegal immigrants.
"They have no right to be here in the first place. If we give these people amnesty and let them stay and apply for citizenship, we only encourage more illegal immigration in the future. Besides, they use up our welfare and add to our school costs without paying taxes!"
In vain do the immigrants try to explain that their families were desperately poor, doomed to continue to live on the edge of starvation, and the only hope was America ... which wouldn't let them in.
Why can't we look at what these people are actually doing? Why can't we see the bleeding child in the passenger seat, and realize that most of these illegal immigrants are doing precisely what you or I would do in the same circumstances?
No. All we can think to say is, "You broke the law to get here. Therefore I don't have to regard you as a human being or consider what your need was or look at what you have done since you got here. Since you are here illegally, nothing you do or say makes any difference. I want you out of here."
So what is this vile crime of "illegal immigration" that requires us to throw out hard-working people who do jobs that no American was willing to do (not at those wages, anyway, not while living in that housing)?
It consists of crossing over an arbitrary line that somebody drew in the dirt a century and a half ago. On one side of the line, poverty, hopelessness, a social system that keeps you living as a peasant, keeps your children uneducated and doomed to the same miserable life you have -- or worse.
On the other side of the line, plenty of jobs that are going begging because nobody who lives on that side is desperate enough to work all day for a wage so low. But the wage is enormous to you. It would save your family's lives, give you hope for your children. Even if you go there alone and send money home, it would be a blessing. And if you could get your wife and kids across that line, their lives would be miraculously transformed.
Wouldn't you take any risk to get across that line?
Let's use another analogy. There's just been a disaster. No aid is getting into your area. You can't get out. Your family is desperate for drinking water and something to eat.
The local convenience store has food on its shelves and water in its refrigerator cases. But the owner stands in the doorway and says, "We're closed. We're closed to anyone but regular customers."
You try to explain: You'll pay. You'll become a regular customer. But your family needs water to drink.
"Nope," he says. "I know who my regular customers are and you aren't one of them. Go away."
But as you leave, you see that his back door is standing open! Now, you have been taught never to steal. And you never would steal except ... he's being completely unreasonable; he's letting other people in; you'd be glad to buy if he'd only let you.
In those circumstances, what would be morally worse: To sneak in and take the water and a bit of food -- which is stealing -- or to let the family you're responsible for go without food and water, and quite possibly die? Which action is more to be condemned?
But he's a looter! you might explain.
Well, there are looters in such times, and looting is a crime. But we're talking about stealing food and water for family members who have no other recourse, not breaking in and taking fancy tv sets. Isn't there a difference of degree? Can't we consider mitigating circumstances?
We Americans, what exactly did we do to earn our prosperity, our freedom? Well, for most of us, what we did was: be born.
Yeah, we work for our living and pay our taxes and all that, but you know what? I haven't seen many native-born American citizens who work as hard as the Mexican-born people I see working in minimum-wage jobs in laundries and yard services and intermittent subcontracting projects and other semi-skilled and unskilled positions.
I have no idea which (if any) of the people I see doing this work are legals and which are illegals -- but that's my point. Latin American immigrants, as a group, are hard-working, family-centered, God-fearing people who contribute mightily to our economy.
"Yes, but the illegal ones pay no taxes! They're freeloading on our system, putting a burden on our schools," yadda yadda. And why do I say yadda yadda?
Because at the wages they're earning, even if they were citizens they wouldn't pay income taxes. We don't ask people making that little money to pay income tax in this country.
As for the other taxes, they pay them exactly as any other poor people in America pay taxes. At the store, they pay the same sales tax as the rest of us. When they buy gas, they pay gas taxes. When they pay rent to their landlords, some of that goes to paying the property taxes the landlord is required to pay -- just like every other renter.
Most of them are, in fact, paying exactly as much in taxes as they would pay if they were legal immigrants.
"But they come here and commit crimes and live off of our welfare system!"
Wait a minute. Who is "they"? All of the illegal immigrants?
Only a certain percentage of them. But when we round up illegal immigrants, do we make the slightest effort to distinguish between those who commit crimes here, those who scam the system to get welfare, and those who are working hard and living by all the rules?
No. We send them all home. There is, under present law, no special treatment for illegal immigrants who, during their time in the U.S., work hard and don't take anything from anybody without paying for it. No special consideration for those who live in shockingly desperate poverty here in the United States so they can send most of their pitifully low earnings home to their families in Mexico.
And yet most of the illegal immigrants commit no crimes, but instead live frugally and work hard. In fact, I dare say that many illegal immigrants work harder and obey our social rules more faithfully than a good many citizens whose right to live within our borders is unquestioned.
And if all you can say to that is, "It doesn't matter, send them all home, give them no hope of citizenship because we don't want to reward people for breaking the law to enter our country," then here's my answer to you:
Let's apply that standard across the board. No mercy. No extenuating circumstances. No sense of punishment that is proportionate to the crime. Let's handle traffic court that way.
The penalty for breaking any traffic law, from now on, is: revocation of your license and confiscation of your car. Period. DWI? Well, we already do that (though usually for something like the nineteenth offense). But now let's punish speeders the same way. Driving 50 in a school zone -- lose your license and your car! Driving 70 in a 65 zone on the freeway? No license, no car. Not coming to a full stop at an intersection? No license, no car.
No mercy, no exceptions, no consideration for the differences between traffic offenders.
Oh, you don't want to live under those rules? Well, you can't deny that people would take the driving laws much more seriously, right?
"But it wouldn't be fair!" you reply.
That's right. It wouldn't be fair. Yet that's exactly the same level of fairness that I hear an awful lot of Americans demanding in order to curtail the problem of illegal immigration.
And here's the question that really needs to be asked:
This isn't like drug laws, where despite the claims of some, we know that these illegal drugs are life-wrecking, family-destroying substances that would continue to create an enormous drain on our economy and immeasurable damage to American lives even if we made them all legal.
The only thing that makes illegal immigration a problem is that it's illegal. If we simply opened our southern border the way all our borders were open in the 1800s, then would there be any continuing burden?
Most of these immigrants would still work hard, only now they would have their families with them and the money would not drain away to Mexico. Those who prospered would pay income taxes. So economically, there would be an improvement.
Some would freeload off the system; some would become criminals. But do we have any evidence that Mexican or Latin American immigrants turn to crime or freeloading in greater numbers than any previous group of immigrants? Hasn't every immigrant community in our history had its criminal element?
(Hint: There is no major immigrant group that has not spawned its criminals. Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Russian Jews -- no group, with the exception of some groups of religious immigrants, was so righteous that criminals weren't able to operate within their social boundaries in the U.S.)
And yet we would have regarded it as a great injustice to throw out all the immigrants from each of these groups, just because some of them committed crimes. In this country, we have a long tradition of punishing only the individual who does wrong, not his entire ethnic group. (Though, come to think of it, there are a lot of people who would like to change that -- but that's another argument.)
So what, exactly, would be the cost to us of an open-door immigration policy? What evidence do we have that the immigrants who would flood across our boundaries would be any worse than the waves of Irish, German, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Russian, Polish, Japanese, or British immigrants?
The voice of bigotry speaks: "But they're dirty, they don't speak the language, they live in such awful conditions."
Hey, buddy! They're dirty because they're poor and exhausted and they work with their hands and they sweat from their labor! They don't speak the language because they weren't born here and in case you've never tried it yourself, learning another language is hard. And they live in awful conditions because they're doing lousy, low-paying jobs and sending the money home.
How clean, fluent, and well-housed would you be if you moved to Turkey, took the lowest paying jobs in Turkish society, were struggling to learn Turkish during the few moments you were awake and not laboring, and had to support your family back in the home country on whatever you didn't spend to stay alive in Istanbul?
Of course, these complaints are often disguised ways of saying, "We don't want them here because they're brown and most of them look like Indians." Only we know better than to admit that's our motive, even to ourselves. So we find other words to cover the same territory.
Just remember this. Each new wave of immigrants from a particular country looked different from those who had come before. But after two or three generations, with or without intermarriage, we got used to seeing them among us. Their skin and bone structure and hair type and color became just another way of looking American.
Of course, Mexicans and Indians have been here all along. If they look strange to you, it's just because you haven't lived in a part of the country where it is common to see people whose ancestors lived here long before those of European ancestry showed up.
And a lot of those who get mad at seeing "all these illegal immigrants" may not even have seen any. Because a lot of people in our country who look Mexican or Indian are actually sixth- and seventh-generation Americans whose ancestors were citizens long before yours were.
"But they displayed the Mexican flag!"
Yeah, well, that's because they're still Mexicans. If we opened the door to their legal immigration, maybe they'd become citizens and then they would feel differently about the stars and stripes.
Then again, maybe they'd continue to be proud of their ethnic heritage and continue to display the Mexican flag from time to time. Kind of like the wearin' o' the green, don't you think?
Here's a little history. When the nation of Mexico declared its independence from Spain, it contained within its boundaries the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, much of Colorado, and bits of a few other states.
But immigrants from the United States came into Texas and California, not asking permission, not making any effort to become good Mexicans, but instead began to plot to throw the Mexican government out of its own territory and replace it with the government of the United States.
And they succeeded. Those Americans in Texas revolted against the Mexican government and succeeded in establishing an independent republic that was absolutely ruled by the white immigrant minority, which immediately began to oppress the legal Mexican citizens.
Then the Texans claimed the Rio Grande as their boundary, contrary to the original treaty, and this time when the Mexican government tried to protect its boundaries, the United States weighed in on the side of Texas and when it won the resulting war, it not only established the Rio Grande as the boundary of Texas, the U.S. seized all those other states as well!
Oh, yeah, we "paid for them." And we did buy that Gadsden Purchase portion of Arizona. Like they had a choice about selling them to us.
That's the nightmare story of illegal immigration. If Americans start moving into your territory, be afraid! Be very afraid!
By one perfectly rational reading of history, the whole southwestern quarter of the United States actually consists of unjustly conquered territory in which the native inhabitants -- the legal citizens -- were torn apart from their fellow citizens to the south, and our immigration policy consists of denying Mexicans the right to access lands that were historically theirs, and where former Mexican citizens who were involuntarily annexed to the U.S. were long oppressed and discriminated against.
And let's not even get into the whole issue of Native Americans. But even with that, take a look at how many of these illegal immigrants are obviously primarily Indian in their ancestry, with almost no hint of any Spanish or European blood of any kind. And these are the people we say have no right to cross that arbitrary line in the dirt that our forebears put there by brute force?
There is no historical basis for any American to claim the moral high ground when talking about Mexican immigration to the United States. Sure, those wars happened long ago. But how different do you think the history of Mexico might have been if all that Texas oil and all that California gold had stayed within the boundaries of Mexico, as by right they should have?
So it's best if we don't bring morality into the discussion. We aren't exactly on the squeaky clean side.
As for those who get all frantic about how America will become a Spanish-speaking nation, all you're doing is revealing your complete ignorance of the history of immigration in the United States. To put it bluntly: You don't know what you're talking about.
All large groups of immigrants from non-English-speaking countries have gone through a period of time -- sometimes many generations -- where large numbers of them lived together and spoke the language of the mother country. We had many neighborhoods and even towns and cities where the only language spoken was German or Yiddish or Swedish or Chinese.
But these people weren't stupid. They caught on to the fact that people whose children spoke English without an accent got better jobs, advanced more quickly and rose higher through the educational system, and had a better chance of getting political and economic power.
Mexican immigrants know this. The overwhelming majority want their kids to be fluent in English. This is not even a problem.
But in the meantime, which is better, to have public documents printed in the languages people who live here actually speak, or shut out large sections of the populace because we want to punish them for not having been born in America?
Efforts to "protect English" are the exact equivalent of those signs saying "No Irish Need Apply" or the rules limiting the number of Jews who could be admitted to prestigious universities or the laws telling black people where they could and could not sit in buses and trains. English doesn't need protection. People need protection from those who would hurt them because they weren't born to English-speaking parents.
Today, what is President Bush actually proposing? Not amnesty -- that would mean declaring all the current illegal immigrants to be legal, no questions asked.
Instead, he's giving them a way to earn the right to become citizens and become compliant with the law, without having to go back to Mexico first. So they could keep their jobs, keep supporting their families, continue to contribute to our economy and our tax base as they already do.
Since the only crime most of these people are committing is simply being here without permission, we would give them a reasonable way to get that permission without losing everything else in order to get it.
And then we'd provide a way for Mexicans to enter our country as guest workers, which would help both Mexico and the United States.
Along with this, as a political sop to those who think that illegal immigration is somehow picking their pockets (when in fact it's more likely to be mowing their lawns or harvesting their food), he is offering better border enforcement.
Meanwhile, the terrorists who actually threaten this country keep getting in by air or sea or over the Canadian border, and doing it, as often as not, with legal documents.
Ah well. Just as the "problem" of these "awful immigrants" has always been with us, so also have we always had the grandchildren of immigrants trying to slam the door in the faces of others who want to do nothing worse than become part of our vast American experiment just as our ancestors did.
Why in the world do we regard that as a crime?
Copyright © 2006 by Orson Scott Card.
Response from a Reader
Hey Scott. I don't always completely agree with you, especially politically. (Of course.) But I have said everything you said here, except less lyrically.
Did you see the article comparing illegals to home invaders? They move into your home without your knowledge or permission, but you have to allow them to stay because they keep the yard nice?
I was so incensed, I think I made some enemies. My point was yours. Who says it's "your" home? So your great great great grandfather fought the Indians for it? Okay. Would it be okay, then, for the Mexican family to just shoot you and your children, and THEN move in? Isn't that how the current owner got there?
I realize you're not the president and probably can't make anything happen -- but it was still a wonderful thing to read that I am not the only person alive who looks on the border hysteria as medieval racism and the terrorist scare tactics as ridiculously transparent.
I have lived in Southern California and Central Arizona for most of my adult life. These families are not "low lifes." Their kids work as hard as their parents, think nothing of working two or three jobs and saving the entire paycheck from at least one, for long term family goals, regardless of the rigorous self-denial it entails. The second generation emigres in my kids' schools were often the class presidents and scholarship recipients -- not because they were genetically superior, but because they were not afraid of hard work, and they had, in many cases, the joyful, affectionate personality that we sometimes associate with Latin people.
I made your argument, that the "crime" is stepping over an imaginary line in the sand. Everything else is just us, inventing ways to express our prejudice and superiority complex. As you have pointed out, it is now an embarrasing case of "might makes right."
What about the golden rule? How "right" would it be if Canada became powerful enough to invade us and take all the resources we need to thrive, then tell us we are not allowed to come back without paying their price? I'm no historian, but it probably goes without saying that a lot of Mexicans died trying to defend their property when we invaded their land.
Are we such bullies that we can't imagine how that would feel?
I completely agree with you that, until our borders are open, we can never consider ourselves enlightened humans. Where do we get off "owning" a section of the earth? Are we really afraid that our economy will fail if we don't "keep out the riff-raff"? And I hope that sounds as offensive to you as it does to me. I have lived and worked with these folks. I would be a much finer person if I could adopt their work ethic and their love and loyalty for their families and friends. Why are we so afraid? Projection?
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