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Saturday, May 01, 2010

Americans as Illegal Immigrants

American US military dependents living in the Philippines sometimes felt like illegal immigrants. At least, I sometimes felt illegal because, as a nurse, I was unable to work in the Philippines even though Filipino nurses routinely found jobs in the US. My skills and education were on par with those of the Filipino nurses, yet they could work in my home country while I was prohibited from working in the Philippines.

Don't get me wrong, I never sought a job as a nurse in the Philippines. Third World health care, like that provided in the Philippines, did not support desirable places for anybody to work in, Filipino or otherwise. My point being, I was prohibited from applying for work, even though I might have been better trained than the nationals.

Remember the 1961 diary "Black Like Me", by white man John Howard Griffin? He described his experiences on a bus, as though he were a black man, while travelling around the US segregated South. Griffin's story is a classic observation in race relations and US civil rights history. My point being, Griffin's black man experiences became real to readers who put themselves on the side of those who bore the harsh burdens associated with "back of the bus" 1960's brand racial discrimination.

Americans today don't really know discrimination based upon race, ethnicity or immigration status. We can learn from associated experiences or read a book, but we don't know what it's like. My point being, the current political debate about immigration fueled by the recently signed Arizona state law is simply filled with hypocrisy. We Americans are the descendants of illegal immigrants who are now judging the fate of others, based upon race. In other words, I simply cannot imagine an Arizona sheriff stopping a bus of white Canadian tourists to check their immigration status. I hope TV's 60-minutes will witness this, if the situation ever happens.

American immigration history is filled with hope inspired by the American Revolution and the concept of manifest destiny. Ironically, both events were the result of our own immigration history. American colonials were illegal immigrants in a country we didn't govern when we won the Revolutionary War against Great Britain. American settlers were obviously unwanted illegal immigrants when we claimed land we were not authorized to own from Native American tribes while settling the American west. Still, we have no right to force our norms and values on other immigrant groups simply because we can.

Arizona's law allows police to stop people and ask for proof they are in the United States legally if there is any "reasonable suspicion" to the contrary. Opponents like me see it as a recipe for racism. Forced documentation of one singular group of people, i.e., Mexicans, is shameful and no way for Americans to show the value of living in a Democracy.

Moreover, random "suspicion checks" must be unconstitutional unless everyone, including Americans and Canadians, must also demonstrate citizenship. US jails don't have enough room to house child molesters, never mind those who happen to be illegal without their "papers".

My education about immigration was enlightened about 8 years ago when I happened to visit a cultural gift shop located on a street corner in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. While touring the shop, the proprietor introduced me to a magnificent shrine he created out of paper flowers and votive candles to honor President Ronald Reagan. Of course, I was stunned to see a shrine, typically reserved for the adoration of saints, dedicated to America's icon of conservatism - i.e., a euphemism for "hold the line on immigration - these people are not like us". However, the proprietor enlightened me. "President Reagan allowed my mother to become an American citizen," he said. Indeed, President Reagan allowed for amnesty when he tried and failed in the 1980s to stop waves of illegal immigrants entering the US from Mexico.

Today, I think of this Phoenix experience as my micro "black like me" moment. This grateful proprietor, who honored his mother alongside President Reagan, helped me to understand what it must have been like to live in fear as an illegal immigrant in America. Thanks to President Reagan, all future generations of this man's family would, henceforth, be proud to show sheriffs their papers, rather than live in fear of deportation.

All Americans should be proud of our immigrant heritage. May 1st is a good day to "Celebrate Immigration Day". Maybe, we can even design a multi-colored ribbon to apply to this occasion.

Like the proprietor in Phoenix, I'm proud to say my heritage is linked to immigration because both of my parents were the children of immigrants.

My point being, reflecting on my experience in the Philippines, it's not fair, ethical, right or constitutional to discriminate based upon citizenship alone. In my opinion, Americans who advocate for random immigrant paper checks are just downright hypocritical.

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