House Reps: Who’s Responsible for Immigration Reform?

In a transcript of an appearance on Univision’s “Al Punto con Jorge Ramos,” House Representative Steve King claimed that, “it isn’t [his] responsibility to solve that problem,” in reference to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. This is the same Rep. King (R-IA) who has compared undocumented immigrants to dogs and asserted that he’s picked up immigrants with calves the size of cantaloupes, a remark that’s earning him the distancing of fellow House Republicans John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Raul Labrador.

But on the subject of responsibility, it raises a good point as to whose role it is to deal with the issue of immigration reform. King asserts that the full responsibility for their illegal status lies with the immigrant him or herself, because they step into the situation willingly. One could assume that the next logical assumption is that undocumented immigrants want to alleviate themselves of that responsibility, i.e. through amnesty. However, I’d be hard pressed to think of an undocumented immigrant that I know who is asking someone else to take responsibility for them. Far from it, actually, especially given how hard workers most of the undocumented immigrants I have ever known are. They are usually the ones who are taking responsibility for many others—their American citizen children, their American citizen spouses, their family and extended family members back home. Without even wanting to, millions of undocumented immigrants shoulder economic responsibility for American citizens. They pay taxes into the IRS coffers and into a Social Security system that they will never see a dime from—to the tune of $11.2 billion dollars in 2010—which, when compared to giant American corporations who pay little to nothing, makes you wonder, why the misdirected vilification?

Beyond those who have citizen or permanent resident spouses or children, it’d be difficult to name an undocumented immigrant who hasn’t contributed in some responsible way to American society by contributing to the economy, producing crops, building homes, caring for young children, preparing food, working in virtually all aspects of American industry, in some way adding their daily bread to the fabric of American society, whether seen or unseen. Denying their contributions does not make them or their contributions disappear.

The undocumented immigrant whose level of responsibility I knew best was the one who I lived with in the U.S. until 2006—my husband. We moved to his home country of Mexico in 2006 because, despite being legally married and seeking avenues for legalization for several years, I could not assume the legal responsibility of adjusting his status, although we were legally married.  Ironically, in the end, it was my husband the undocumented immigrant, who was the one who took primary financial responsibility for our family, in that he was making better income despite our disparate educational backgrounds, and allowed me to pay off my car loan, as well as my college loan, five years early.

But the panorama never looked better than bleak for obtaining legal status for my husband, despite several trips to lawyers. In 2006, I was working as a science teacher and finishing up my Masters. That same year, House Rep. James Sensenbrenner proposed laws that would have made it a felony for me to even drive in the same vehicle as my husband. One state after another passed laws that treated undocumented immigrants more and more harshly. I doubted the political will of Congress to finally live up to its country’s immigrant legacy and make good on its debt to the millions of individuals who have contributed for decades to American society, regardless of the piece of paper they did not hold.

Almost a decade after we’d married in California, I ended up in Mexico with my husband, we had a daughter, and I’d almost given up hope that I’d ever get back to the United States with him. I’d made my peace that maybe we might never go back because the political climate in Washington is as fickle as the wind that blows. But then that spark of political will stirred this past January, as we were finishing the manuscript of Amor and Exile. Those who’d been hopeless for so long suddenly were taken with optimism once again. We organized, we rallied, we lobbied, our messages were well received.

Many people didn’t want to engage in the rollercoaster ride of hope, fear, optimism, and pessimism. They’d been let down too many times before. They didn’t want to be let down again. But many felt it was different this time, that we were reaching a critical mass of support for immigration reform, and that we really had a chance at progress. Now many of us are questioning again.

It’s partially because there are some politicians who are bound and determined to make sure our hopes are ignored, that our demands go unanswered, that societal justice continues to go unserved. Another part is that we who are living this struggle on a daily basis are tired. We have lives, we can not go on fighting indefinitely. We also wonder when our fellow citizens will care enough to go to bat for us with their elected officials and help drive the support for this effort home—essentially, to bring our families home.

I may have found the way to survive, I’ve got my Plan B’s, and I might still thrive in the long run. But I have counterparts whose lifelines are much thinner. So much work has been put in by thousands of activists, lobbyists and legislators toward immigration reform.

So whereas some legislators may not see 11 million undocumented people’s fate as their responsibility, let me take a stab at a response to King’s assertion. They don’t want to be your responsibility, Rep. King. They want to be officially recognized for the responsibilities they’ve already taken on and met in a way that often exceeds the level of responsibility that many Americans will ever know.

And to go a step further, I’d assert that yes, it is the role of legislators to deal with immigration law—which is, in fact, the reason why undocumented immigrants have the illegal status that they do. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) changed the rules of the game in a drastic way in 1996, criminalizing undocumented immigration to an unprecedented extent that has had far-reaching effects not just on the lives of 11 million undocumented immigrants, but also in the fates of hundreds of thousands of their U.S. citizen family members, and members of their communities. An extent that some might say, changed the face of immigration in a country founded by immigrants.

Thankfully, many legislators still see it as their role to assume responsibility for fixing a broken immigration system that is currently causing more harm than it should. Even Speaker of the House John Boehner, who appeared wholly unsupportive of SB 744 just last month, has conceded the “need to educate members about the hundreds of issues involved in fixing our legal immigration system and the problem of those who are here in an undocumented fashion.”

I have an important reminder for House representatives. Even if you don’t see undocumented immigrants’ fate as your responsibility, surely you would agree it is your responsibility to answer to American citizen constituents. And in the very least, you should read your mail. So I very respectfully ask you to please read the piece of mail that arrived in your Washington offices last month. That was when you received a copy of my book Amor and Exile, which I coauthored with journalist Nathaniel Hoffman. It describes the stories of more than 12 different Americans like myself who have had their families split up or who’ve had to move abroad because of the fall out from laws like IIRIRA—which, being a set of laws passed by Congress, are indeed the purview of Congress. Kill a few responsibilities with one stone: read Amor and Exile.

d.c. tripMAIL
Constituent letters from supporters who sent Amor and Exile to Washington, D.C.

Leave a Reply

%d