Illegal Immigration: Just a Legal Issue?

By | May 2, 2010

As an Hispanic child growing up in Northern New Mexico in the 1940s I recall being surprised one day on hearing my Aunt Josefina say to my grandparents that, contrary to what they thought, we were “Americanos” too, just like the ‘gringos’ and ‘gabachos’ in and around our little village. “¡También somos Americanos!” (We’re also Americans!), I shouted my brother. We had believed all along that the “Americanos” were those big, well-to-do white people who spoke a strange language; but now we were those guys too. What a revelation! Now, why would identification as American sound surprising to people who had lived for multiple generations in that part of the country?

I thought about this as the news about Arizona’s tough immigration law was breaking, inspiring action and reaction around the country. New Mexico is not Arizona, but a next-door neighbor with a different history; but coincidentally, Arizona, like New Mexico, was not admitted into the union until 1912.

I do not have a solution for our difficult illegal immigration problem, and I seriously doubt that anyone else has the answer. A complete sealing of the border is not a practical possibility, and draconian laws against anyone likely to be undocumented (like Arizona has proposed) will also likely fail and produce unacceptable consequences. Immigration is a problem for the federal government; eventually Congress will get around to passing legislation which hopefully will at least be a partial solution to the problem, maybe something similar to legislation of the 1980s which granted a path to legal residency and eventually allowed naturalization to millions of undocumented people already in the country.

But the problem of mass migration of people, with or without proper documentation, is an historical problem and a worldwide problem. Surely it is not one special to the United States. Consider the immigration problems that Western European countries also face. As long as certain regions are poverty-stricken and offer few prospects for a decent standard of life and other regions offer better opportunities for desperate people, there will be migrations of peoples.

But let me return briefly to my family’s situation in New Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century. Why would my grandparents, my brother and I be surprised to hear that we were Americans too? After all, we were not new comers to New Mexico, far from it as our family lines went back to the time of Oñate’s original entry into the region back in 1598. My guess is that part of the answer is historical and part is linguistic. My grandparents were born in the territory of New Mexico before it officially became a state (47th in the union ) in 1912. Citizenship supposedly came for the residents with statehood. But my grandparents were descendants of people who had lived in the area for several centuries and who had been vanquished by the invading U.S. Army in 1846. For these people the “Americanos” were the invaders and the foreigners. It took a major change in perspective to see themselves as “Americanos.” Furthermore, my grandparents’ people spoke Spanish; the Americanos spoke English. Even the name “Americano” was not typically understood as designating a citizen of the United States, but more as designating those outsiders who conquered us and took over. My grandfather participated in his community as a Justice of the Peace and voted in U.S. elections; but he did not see himself as an “Americano.” Our family, except for a younger son who joined the military, spoke Spanish primarily and exclusively. We were dark skinned, poor working class, Spanish-speaking people. We would have been primary targets or for Arizona-Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio’s deputies, out searching for those who do not look “American.”

So what does this have to do with illegal immigration and smuggling across the border with Mexico today? Don’t the United States and individual States on the border have not only the right but the obligation to protect the border and enforce immigration laws? Don’t all countries, including Mexico, do this? Doesn’t Arizona, over-run by illegal immigrants and drug smugglers, and having to deal directly with the violence and social cost of all this, have the right to legislate relevant laws and take steps to protect its citizens?

The answers to the last three questions is “yes,” the U.S. and individual States do the right and obligation to take legal steps to deal with illegal immigration and other violations of the national border. But when we acknowledge this we should not oversimplify the problem and think that legislation and tough enforcement will solve the problem. It won’t; and even defining the “social problem” is problematic. Contrary to what our ‘super-patriots’ contend, the problem is not simply one of legality and enforcement of the law.

But, what does the situation of my ancestors and grandparents in New Mexico have to do with the problem of illegal immigration today?

Historically, the immigration problem in the Southwestern U.S. must be understood in the context of three-to-four centuries of interaction between the peoples of that region of the world, original pre-Columbian Americans (the real “Americans”); the invaders from Europe, Spaniards, English, French, and other European colonial nations. From these came the people of mixed-ethnicities and races, people who became the Central Americans and Mexicans, residing for centuries in Central America, Mexico and even in North America (those parts later conquered by the United States). During this period there were always invasions by superior military powers, redefining of borders, mass migrations and mass re-definitions for peoples. For much of this period national borders might have defined where the territory of one nation ended and that of another started; but they did not prevent people from their natural and historical migrations and travels.

After the U.S. invasion and conquering of Texas and the southwest, Spanish-speaking people in those areas (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, California, etc.) consisted of long-time natives (like my grandparents) whose families can be traced back to the 1700s and later immigrants to the area, who attained legal residency and eventually were naturalized as citizens; and finally the later immigrants who migrated to the U.S. without the legal documentation. Many of these assimilated to the North American culture, adopted English as their primary language (in some cases, as their only language) and became full-fledged U.S. citizens. Others retained many aspects of their Hispanic culture (in California and New Mexico, for example) or Mexican culture, speaking Spanish as their primary language. The attitudes toward illegal immigration and undocumented immigrants coming across the border with Mexico of these people vary, with some agreeing with the establishment classes that tougher enforcement of immigration laws are needed, especially when the criminal problem of drug smuggling is considered. But among these people (as among other groups) there are those who tend to have more feeling for the human element of the problem. This is more noticeably the case among those who have been recent immigrants themselves or have closely associated with the struggles of the poverty-stricken immigrating from south of the border.

When we take into consideration the human element, we’re likely to emphasize that undocumented immigrants are mostly just human beings trying to improve their lives and that of their families, humans who have reluctantly left their homes, families, and friends to migrate to a different part of the world (which may not welcome them) in order to survive and hopefully flourish, something that all humans desire. When we take the human element into consideration we’re likely to emphasize the difference between honest, hard-working people just looking for better prospects in life and the criminals who exploit and prey on the weak in all societies, including the societies of immigrants themselves. When we take the human element into account we’re likely to oppose draconian laws which turn all poor, unfortunate, undocumented individuals into criminals to be treated the same as the drug smugglers, violent felons, and cheaters among the immigrant population.

When we take into account the human element we’re likely to focus on questions of moral justice and dignity of the individual, and not just the question of violation of immigration law. Recognition of the narrow legality involved and the need for nations to enforce their immigration laws does not tell us anything about broader questions of universal justice and morality. For someone conscientious about the philosophical and moral questions, what justification is there for policies that give preferential treatment to some segments of humanity and exclude others from the comfort and rewards of a more organized, prosperous society? We are likely to say to the law-and-order person: “All right, so you’re straight about the legality of the problem, but what about the morality? In other words, the problem of illegal immigration is not simply one about ‘justice’ in a legal sense, but ‘justice’ in a moral sense. Draconian laws like those instituted in Arizona don’t help at all in this matter.

Our law-and-order citizens may insist that the only relevant question concerns the fact that so many immigrants are “illegales” (i.e., persons do not have proper documentation for legal entry). So the only relevant issue concerns legality, not morality? We can imagine the same proposition advanced by someone defending the state laws at the time of legal slavery in the South: all that counts is the fact that this Negro is the property of the slave owner; i.e., all that counts is the legality of the situation, not the morality. At a later period of Europe’s history, we could imagine a citizen of the Third Reich in Germany arguing that the only relevant issue when confronted with Jewish people being shipped to the “work” camps was the legal issue: German laws had been passed requiring this relocation of Jewish people. The question of the justice and human dignity was set aside as a secondary question. Does a similar situation apply to our illegal immigrants today?

Historically, we can ask how the policies of the U.S. government in relation to poor countries in our hemisphere have affected the economic status of those countries, and affected the living conditions that afflict the majority of people in those countries. It would be comforting to believe that our country has always done well in this respect, contributing positively, not only to economic growth, but also to rising living standards in those countries. But studies of the problem might lead us to contrary conclusions, and might lead us to conclude the policies of our government and our international corporations have contributed to the bad economic and social conditions that compel people to migrate to richer nations, whether they have legal admission or not. Furthermore, we should not overlook the periods in our history when immigration from Mexico and Central America has been encouraged by employers, both farming and non-farming employers, eager to have a good supply of cheap labor.

It is true that the federal government should reform immigration laws and do a better job of controlling our borders (not just the one with Mexico). The United States has to do a better job of controlling illegal immigration and a better job of reducing the entry and presence of criminals, drug smugglers, and terrorists. But doing this should not require that we treat others who simply seek work and a better life as sub-humans, unworthy of the ordinary values of human dignity and fair play.

3 thoughts on “Illegal Immigration: Just a Legal Issue?

  1. john mize

    As usual, Juan, you raise some good and interesting points. You also recognize the complexity of the issue. I encourage you to propose some concrete ideas about what should be done. Imagine yourself as a law maker. What do you propose specifically?

    1. jbernal Post author

      Hello John. Thanks for the kind words. You surely over-estimate my capabilities if you think I can propose specific ways of resolving the issue of illegal immigration. My posting did little more than ask that people avoid over-simplifying the problem. I have no specific proposals. As I said, the best I can do is argue that Congress and the Administration take up the issue and gain some control over the criminal activity at the borders and somehow manage the influx of undocumented immigrants, and do the latter in humane ways.

  2. Virginia

    The problem needs a more global perspective, otherwise most measures are only temporary band-aid fixes. The real fix would be to reduce the economic and population pressures pushing migrations to the wealthier nations. Any cause, whatever your cause, is a lost cause without family planning. In countries where women have access to
    * health care for their children so they have a higher likelyhood of survival
    * health care for themselves including family planning
    * and access to gainful employment,
    it comes as a matter or course that population growth is slowed down and the economy improves. Then countries are able to better keep up with education of the young. Then the environment is not downgraded and resources depleted. I see women and family planning as the source of greatest hope to eventually reduce illegal immigration across borders, reduce poverty and reduce destruction of the global environment.


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