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The Line between Legal and Illegal

July 2015

What is the line between legal and illegal when discussing immigration? Everyone who comes to live and work in the United States has a story. Everyone has faced at least some stress in their efforts to establish themselves in this country. Is there a moral hierarchy that gives those who obtained a visa legally more legitimacy than those who evaded capture to come?

I write this now because of a brief exchange I had on Twitter last night with a Filipina woman – an immigrant herself – who was angry at other immigrants who came illegally, skipping “the line” that her family had patiently waited in to get their visas.

My response: You only come illegally when no other option is available. If you are too poor to qualify for a visa, and don’t have the educational or labor skills that this country seeks, it doesn’t matter how long the line is. You will never get in. 

It is different if you are upper or middle class. You have options. It may be very frustrating to wait for a visa to become available– especially from the Philippines, which has the longest waits of any country – but generally you have the basic necessities to survive in your home country while you wait.

Immigration is a means of survival. It is a fundamental quality of being human. It has defined us for millennia. Someone in the Twitter exchange recommended that immigrants remain in their home countries and improve them. It’s a good idea. But ask yourself: Do I buy a house in a bad area with bad schools and make it my mission to improve it? Or do I migrate to a safe area with good schools where my kids will have the most opportunities? This is the type of daily migration we all do, vying for the best options for our lives.

Here in Los Angeles, “illegal” labor literally built our city. Many of my clients have labored in LA’s sewers, built our homes, fixed our plumbing, grown our vegetables, served us dinner and washed our dishes. When they get injured on the job, they suck it up. They don’t qualify for unemployment or health insurance. One client almost lost a foot in a workplace accident because he was too scared to reveal his immigration status to a hospital. He has lived here since he was a young boy and his wife and five children are U.S. citizens. What is the purpose of penalizing him and his family?

Before you blame an immigrant for being “illegal,” look at your own routine. Do you go to a nail salon that offers great deals on manicures? Do you pick up fast food? Do you dine out? Chances are “illegal” labor is subsidizing your lifestyle.

Just today I consulted with a young woman who arrived in the U.S. when she was 6 years old. Her mother works full-time as a manager of a fast food outlet for $9.25 an hour. The employer said he couldn’t raise her wages because she didn’t have a California ID. But he’s happy to employ her in a managerial position at $9.25 an hour. Think about how our economy encourages exploitation of this labor force.

Once illegal immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows we can forget the semantics of how they first got here. Immigrants who were legalized in the amnesty of the 1980s are no longer considered “the other.” They are fully integrated. We should do the same today and drop the moralistic high ground of judging people by their migration story.

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