The line we generally hear about illegal immigrants is this: they lived in grinding poverty in their home countries, so you can’t really blame them for coming to the U.S., because here, even under the horrible conditions that come with living illegally, “in the shadows,” it’s still an improvement on the inescapably awful circumstances in their home countries. It’s what Cardinal Cupich said in his defense of illegal immigration:
The vast majority of immigrants come here because they are poor and desperately need work to support their families.
It’s what Jeb Bush said in his own “act of love” comments:
the way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, they come to our country because their family’s, you know, a dad who loved their children was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table.
Pope Francis, in his comments at the US/Mexico border, seemed to conflate illegal immigration to the U.S. with the ongoing matter of refugees fleeing Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East:
We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometres through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones.
And here’s an excerpt from the official statements of the Catholic bishops on immigration:
People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. . . .
When a person cannot achieve a meaningful life in his or her own land, that person has the right to move. . . .
Though they move from language of “sustaining their lives” to finding a “meaningful life,” they are certainly again promoting the idea that immigration is a result of intolerable circumstances at home.
But yesterday’s Tribune had a set of photos of so-called “Dreamers” which certainly suggest it’s not that simple. I’d link to it but it doesn’t appear to be available online. You’ll have to take my word for it: 14 black-and-white pictures of young adults, mostly singly, some in groups, mostly looking serious, if not a bit sad, with one or two sentence biographies — where they’re from, when they came to the U.S., what they’re doing now. The individuals are mostly high-achieving, and I presume were selected for this reason (one of them works at FWD.us, so I’m going to guess that she organized the others).
There are the usual Mexican immigrants: several now students, others working at a bookstore or a restaurant.
There’s a Guatemalan woman, now age 25, who arrived at age 14 and apparently took a while to accustom herself to the U.S. as she’s only just now studying at a community college. There are two Muslim women, one an engineer from Jordan and the other a medical student from Pakistan (side comment: both of these would, in principle, be eligible to apply for H1-B visas, no?).
But then there are some other, odder, cases, revealing circumstances that don’t fit with the “parents left, children in tow, because it was they only way they could feed their families” narrative.There’s a 24 year old man from Korea. Yes, he arrived at age 8, and if his parents truly never took him to Saturday Korean school, it would be a hardship to return back to Korea. But this means that he and his parents came in 2002 — a date well past the start of Korea’s economic boom. Yes, in the late 90s, there was a financial crisis in 1997, but it seems unlikely that a family arriving in 2002 would really be a “hard case” escaping terrible poverty or persecution.
There’s a brother-sister pair from Poland. Yes, they arrived in 2001, which was 17 years ago. But Poland’s accession to the European Union was in 2004, and by 2008 the country had nearly full access to the labor markets of the EU. There was no reason the family needed to stay in the U.S. to avoid economic hardship — heck, they could have gone to the UK if they wanted to stay in a prosperous English-speaking country. And even prior to EU accession, no one was starving.
There are several individuals who had lived in Canada before coming here; of one, it specifically says that she was born in Canada, one of the few countries other than the U.S. to provide “birthright” citizenship. Perhaps, in both cases, their parents traded living illegally in Canada for living illegally in the U.S., but, at least in the case of the “born in Canada” woman, she’s under no hardship and can move to Canada whenever she chooses.
There’s a Somali man who was born in Germany, and came here at age 9. Yes, Germany does not have birthright citizenship, but it’s still a curious case. Were his parents in Germany legally, and came to the U.S. on, say, a tourist visa which they overstayed? If so, why would they choose to leave Germany to live illegally in the U.S.? Or were they living illegally in Germany, and, if so, how did they get to the U.S.? It seems a pretty tortuous path to border-cross or be smuggled in, but would the U.S. really grant a tourist visa to a Somali living illegally in Germany? Aren’t we supposed to have restrictions on such cases?
And, finally, there’s a 34-year-old Indian man who came at age 11, so he was 28 years old when DACA was implemented. He’s now working as an “asset manager and financial analysis accountant.” It’s hard to imagine that he was working under the table until DACA, then jumped at the chance to work at a professional job. Does the degree of forgery of documentation extend to such a degree that individuals are able to get professional jobs with those forged IDs?
Note, too, that Jeb Bush’s “act of love” comments were, in part, differentiating visa overstayers from border-crossers, giving the latter more moral rights to be here because of the assumption that the former, having had enough capital to purchase the necessary plane tickets from their home country (which, in the case of moving a family from India, must have been considerable).
To be clear, I’m not saying that these individuals, as children, were culpable for having come here, but instead pointing out that these brief snippets of lives point to a more complicated picture.
These stories were supposed to be sympathetic. “Look at all these worried faces!” But it suggests that illegal immigration isn’t the last hope of desperate people, but a very normalized, routine decision undertaken by all kinds of people to advance their standard of living.
(Note: updated after publication.)