In a civilized country such as ours, with a long democratic tradition of obeying many laws or paying the consequences, the word “illegal” can arouse strong reactions, especially when assigned to a person or group. For practical reasons, however, much that violates the law is overlooked, although when violators are apprehended we can say that this proves the law is both legitimate and upheld.
It’s only when a person enters, lives and works in this country without permission, and therefore violates immigration laws, that he or she is branded “illegal.” No other lawbreaker is so labeled, no matter how serious his or her actions are. Nor is someone who obeys the law called “legal.” But the immigration situation is so old and complex that it is customary to call offenders “illegal,” irrespective of their origin or situation or the reason they came. Because the majority of immigrants are Latino—mostly Mexicans—they are a distinct racial and cultural group and as such suffer greater discrimination, exploitation, abuse and deprivation of their human rights.
The overwhelming presence of millions of undocumented immigrants has been tolerated and ignored for decades out of economic and political convenience, or, as in West Marin, out of sympathy and a wish to feel good about ourselves. The subject arises when immigration reform becomes a game between political parties, whose representatives in Washington are the furthest from those most affected by immigration policy. In practice, immigration laws are enforced only insofar as they are politically and economically convenient. There are millions of cases of legalization in process, many thousands of arrested immigrants and even more being deported. Even so, there are 11 to 13 million undocumented immigrants in the country, with no exact known total.
It is difficult to understand an undocumented immigrant’s situation, and even less its consequences. This burden includes living with the fear of deportation and the possible breakup of one’s family, the feeling of being vulnerable and stigmatized and the inability to offer one’s children the same things their peers in school have. It means driving and working without a license or permit, and therefore risking discovery, incarceration and deportation, with the resultant loss of one’s car and job; reacting negatively to the presence of police officers or other authorities; and not being able to travel and visit one’s family, sick relatives and funerals. Immigrants distrust many situations and people, resulting in endless reactions of fear and insecurity that can seem irrational and incomprehensible. They even experience discrimination by family members who were born here or have been naturalized.
When laws run contrary to practical reality, it doesn’t matter how hard the authorities try to enforce them. Take for example the traffic and consumption of illegal drugs, whose consequences and multimillion-dollar costs have increased the violence and criminality in the world. Those who consume and traffic in illicit drugs are well known, but rarely are they turned in. Locally, a similar thing occurs with the garages, second units or rooms that many people rent illegally because doing so not only helps to alleviate the housing crisis but also increases the income of landlords, some of whom need it to remain in West Marin. The only complainants in this case are the owners of the authorized B&Bs, who claim unfair competition.
Despite the presumption of legality and equality in the richest country on the planet, we in America live in a hypocritical and schizophrenic reality because the law doesn’t always jibe with real life. It is better to pretend that nothing happened than to disturb the relative equilibrium of these contradictions. At the same time, relations between countries and within them can influence this equilibrium. We all remember what happened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks or, more recently, the financial and mortgage crises, the Arab Spring and the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
Over the decades, the measures applied by American administrations and corporations all over the world have produced profits and a higher standard of living in this country, but have been at least partly responsible for poverty, war and human-rights violations in other lands. We violate elsewhere the laws we respect here. This global expediency has led to migrations from the poor countries of the south to the wealthy ones of the north—to the advantage of the latter, because the readily available cheap labor helps to keep their economies healthy and expanding.
It doesn’t seem to matter that many countries suffer corrupt or dictatorial governments propped up by the United States, with widespread unemployment and jobs that pay starvation wages, as long as their citizens can come north, risking their lives to make a clandestine trip in search of a better life working at minimum wage jobs. It doesn’t seem to matter that being “illegal” means to lack the most elemental rights and to be condemned to live a hidden, fearful life.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to the Light. The original Spanish version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.