On illegal immigration, we've gone to 'don't ask, don't tell'

The rancorous responses to  Arizona’s attempt to grapple with its immigration policy in some substantive way continues a destructive habit. At the highest levels of government in this country, leaders pretend we don’t really have an immigration problem. And at the most local levels of government, we act as if we don’t really have an immigration problem.

As a newly minted teacher fresh from a master’s program, I had one final task to complete to receive my certification and degree – student teaching. Although this was at least six years ago, I remember being specifically instructed by my education professors never to ask a student any type of question that would cause them to reveal their citizenship status. If we didn’t ask, they couldn’t tell. If they didn’t tell, we didn’t have to report it. We don’t really have a problem, so we don’t really have to do anything about it. Teachers in the public schools are government employees and are on front lines of the immigration debate and this was our mandate for dealing with one of the most difficult situations facing our country – don’t ask so you won’t have to tell.

Some fundamental misunderstandings occur as a result of the failure of our government to grapple with this issue. Those who favor amnesty are viewed as the open-hearted, anti-discriminatory saviors welcoming the teeming huddled masses to our shores for the hope of a new life in a new land. Those who don’t are labeled racist bigots who would slam shut the borders of our land behind bars, walls, and armed border patrols. As a teacher, I would be responsible for the deportation of an innocent child and depriving her/him of a chance at a future free from poverty and oppression if I discovered and reported the illegal residency status of one of my students. I would be a racist bigot is basically the message I heard from the school administration and my university professors.   

Strangely, I have found the most ardent supporters of immigration reform to be my own foreign-born community college students. Every semester my students must select a research topic for an argumentative essay assignment. Every semester a large number of students choose to write about illegal immigration. Every semester my foreign-born students persuade me that the real tragedy of our country’s failure to reform immigration are the millions of people around the world unable to reach our shores by crossing a border or overstaying a visa.  

The system is most unfair to those who do abide by and follow the rules, those who languish for years in refugee camps waiting for their number to be selected from a visa lottery, those who pay porters their life savings to carry them across borders escaping dictators and terrorists for a better chance at reaching a safe country.  

I don’t see how providing actual documentation of citizenship in this country can be such an offensive proposition to so many.  Recently enrolling my children in our public school system, I was required to provide a copy of our mortgage, a recent bill (utility, cable, phone), certified birth certificate, driver’s license, social security card, state immunization card, and state vision and hearing screening certification.  Yet all that is required to establish that I am legally entitled to these services is a check mark in the box asking if I am legal citizen of the United State.  This is asinine.  It is more important to the government that I prove that I live in the district than prove that I am actually a legal citizen.  

It is too easy to characterize illegal immigrants to this country as free riders trying to game a vast and inefficient government so that they can get a free education for their children, free health care and government assistance when their nation of origin does not provide them. So let’s dispel both myths that immigration reformers are all necessarily discriminatory bigots and that illegal immigrants are all opportunists and criminals.

If my foreign-born students have taught me one thing, it is the value of being an American citizen. Carrying another document or card to prove that I am a legal citizen hardly seems too much of an inconvenience. American citizenship is a precious asset.  A system to offer it fairly to those that need or want it is the only way to protect its value.

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