In 2008, The New York Times reported the story of Hiu Lui Ng, a 34-year-old New Yorker who died while in custody of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Though the Times’ coverage of Ng’s death was largely an investigation into the conditions and medical care allotted to detained individuals, the question of why Ng was detained in the first place came into the spotlight as well.
Few issues in the United States garner the sort of controversy that the topic of immigration does, especially when referring to the question of what to do with the estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants presently living here. And with President Barack Obama headed to Las Vegas on Tuesday to relaunch his drive to overhaul immigration policy, it’ll be an issue that continues to divide Americans.
Many argue that instead of providing a pardon to these people, known as offering amnesty, for their unlawful entry to the country, the correct thing to do is to enforce stricter immigration policy and crack down on businesses that hire undocumented workers. In theory, these policies would discourage undocumented immigrants from being in the United States.
But while such a plan makes sense on paper, it overlooks one critical aspect of the immigration debacle: that many of the undocumented aliens living in the United States are Americans in all aspects but their legal status and recognize no place other than the United States as their true home.
Ng is an example: He was an undocumented immigrant who overstayed the initial visa issued to him in 1992 when visiting the United States from Hong Kong. In that time, Ng built a life — as do so many other Americans. He went to college and studied computer engineering, a degree that later found him employment at the Empire State Building in Manhattan. Ng also married a U.S. citizen and had two American-born children, whom he helped raise in a house located in suburban Queens.
Ng’s story is repeated everyday all across the country. Millions of individuals live their lives as Americans: paying American taxes, eating American food, digesting American culture. They send their American children to attend American schools where they learn about American history.
Indeed, according to a Pew research study released in 2011, most undocumented immigrants living in the United States have been doing so for more than 10 years. The stereotype of undocumented immigrants living in the United States as being mostly fresh arrivals who are unacquainted with American culture is false, and those who call to return all undocumented immigrants to their native country would be supporting a grave injustice.
Too many Americans view immigration as an “us and them” issue. This has been true throughout American history, where eventual integration follows an initially xenophobic backlash. Cultural socialization takes time and generations — something many people fail to realize.
Immigrants, legal and not, provide a great service to the American country. In addition to fueling cultural diversification, immigrants are so resolute on providing a better environment for their children and families that they that they often work as society’s underclass, working jobs unpopular with many Americans.
In his inauguration speech last week, Obama said “our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
Obama has the right idea. But more Americans need to recognize that immigrants are not forces of evil in American society. Instead, immigrants need to be recognized for what they are: people, who have just as much right to a good life as you and I.
Matthew Tinoco is a freshman majoring in international relations. His column “Mixing Colors” runs Mondays.