The Invisible & Voiceless: The Plight of the Undocumented Immigrant in America
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity conducts an annual essay contest for undergraduate full-time Juniors or Seniors at accredited four-year colleges or universities in the United States. Students may write about any topic they wish, as long as their essay explores the theme of ethics. The Prize in Ethics Essay Contest was established by the Elie Wiesel Foundation in 1989; cash prizes are awarded for the First Prize ($5,000), Second Prize ($2,500), Third Prize ($1,500) and two Honorable Mentions ($500 each). LRN is the exclusive corporate partner of the prize. With the permission of the Foundation, Business Ethics is republishing the top five winning essays in the 2014 competition
The following essay, The Invisible & Voiceless: The Plight of the Undocumented Immigrant in America, by Jean-Claude Velasquez, was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2014 Contest. Jean-Claude was raised in Queens, New York, and studied Political Science and Philosophy in the honors program at Stony Brook University. Jean-Claude's thesis investigated ethical dilemmas in immigration politics and the history of xenophobia in the United States. Jean-Claude will be pursuing a Masters in Healthcare Management at Columbia University in the Fall of 2014.
The Invisible & Voiceless: The Plight of the Undocumented Immigrant in America
by Jean-Claude Velasquez
I write as a proudly naturalized American, but more importantly as a rational being who sees a great moral violation occurring in the country that I love and respect for its egalitarian values of equality, liberty, and justice for all. However, I must disclose that my citizenship was not a product of either jus solis or jus sanguinis; rather it was granted by an immigration relief provision of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that allows an abused spouse of a US citizen to self-petition for legal status. If it were not for VAWA, immigrants who faced the brutal circumstances of family violence at the hands of an American spouse would be left out to fend for themselves—and I probably would not have written the words you are currently reading. I was the beneficiary of a legislative act that is meant to re-dress the wrongs done to women and their children. I consider myself extremely lucky. But there is an intuition that whispers that fortune is not grounds for justice. My luck has made me particularly sensitive to the plight that so-called “illegal immigrants” face in this country. Amid the debate on immigration, many refer to these people in statistical terms and percentages, and it is in this exchange that we forget that we are talking about people and not mere quantities. Furthermore, the term “illegal immigrant” prejudges that they are criminals, which makes them a target of social stigma; therefore, the term “undocumented immigrant” is more appropriate.
Our discourse in immigration has reached a crossroad that requires action. This issue can no longer be ignored and the failure to reach a comprehensive solution to the problem only adds fuel to a fire that burns deep in our nation’s soul. Immigration, however, is not simply a discussion about immigration but it is also a discussion of national sovereignty and security and our national identity. It is my intention in this essay to examine one of the greatest dilemmas the United States has ever faced: how can we exercise the power of exclusion and deal justly, and in accordance with the political morality that guides our institutions, with the millions of undocumented who are currently living within our borders?
II. Exclusion and Inclusion
A country’s power to exclude is of paramount importance amid the globalization of our epoch. Borders are constructed boundaries that determine who is part of a polity and who is not. This concept, however, is evolving as the world becomes smaller—a product of economic interdependence and industrialization. The United States has always been a “land of immigrants” since its establishment, which implies that it welcomes all. Yet, this self-congratulatory story is full of mythology and self-delusion. The brutal displacement of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and the subordination of women marked the clear distinction of who was included in We the People and who was excluded; borders, therefore, are not mere lines drawn on maps but are also invisible and allegorical yet profoundly material boundaries that
exist within a country’s society. These borders precluded women and minorities from full political participation and equal rights for most of American history. In the present day, the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are part of our country but at the same time are not. But how can a population be part of a polity and not be part of it simultaneously? The answer is quite simple: their unauthorized presence negates their political existence. The undocumented are in a subclass below those at the bottom of the social pyramid because they do not possess citizenship. Without citizenship, life in the United States is extremely limited and bleak.
The privileges that come with citizenship are often taken for granted by those who were born on native soil. The fact that a piece of paper determines a person’s starting point in life is worthy of moral examination. Let us consider the following hypothetical: X baby was born in Texas and acquired citizenship trough jus solis just ten minutes after her Mexican mother successfully crossed the border. On the other hand, Y baby was born on Mexico just ten yards from the US-Mexican border just hours before his mother successfully crossed the border. The life of these two babies will be radically different despite their similar circumstances. In light of this hypothetical, it will be intellectually slothful and morally meretricious to simply accept the traditional concept of jus solis without proper scrutiny. The reality, however, is that there are over “1 million undocumented immigrants under the age of 18 and 4.5 million U.S.-born children whose parents are undocumented living in the United States.” Therefore, our hypothetical is not so fictitious after all. But who is an immigrant and who is an undocumented immigrant? Can we draw a portrait of the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States?
III. A Portrait of the Undocumented Immigrants
In 2011, the total immigrant population living in the United States reached a record of 40.4 million  and undocumented immigrants comprised 11.7 million in 2013 . Approximately half of the undocumented crossed the border without documents and the other half overstayed their valid visas . Although these numbers provide us with a quantitative value, it fails to provide an accurate depiction of these people. The “illegals” in reality are the family living next door; they are part of religious communities that engage in weekly services; many send their kids to school every morning; a large number picked the oranges that made the juice we drink in the morning; and others garden our lawns and construct new homes. Furthermore, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, “most unauthorized immigrant adults reside with immediate family members—spouses and children.”  Most children of undocumented immigrants, approximately 73% in 2008, are U.S. citizens by birth.  Therefore, many of the undocumented households are of mixed legal status. In light of these facts, the doxa that the typical illegal is a prima facie criminal who deserves to be persecuted and deported for his law breaking becomes moot. Nevertheless, there are politicians who advocate policies of fierce exclusion but mask them with euphemisms. A worthy example is “attrition through enforcement,” a policy that equates to making life so miserable and atrocious for the undocumented that they will eventually self- deport. If morality is in the eyes of the law, we cannot allow ourselves to be blinded by hateful xenophobic rhetoric, which materializes into draconian laws. Thus we are left with the following questions: since when is the United States in the enterprise of splitting up families on her own soil? What happens to the American children of undocumented parents when the prospect of deportation becomes a reality? And how can we demand these American children to love their country when their politicians advocate the expulsion of their parents?
IV. The Political, Economic, and Moral Issues of Mass Deportation
Mass deportation of undocumented immigrants only instills terror in the immigrant community and it is an expensive, impractical, and inefficient policy. Nevertheless, numerous politicians advocate for such sweeping exclusionary measures. Deportation should only be limited to serious criminal offenders; hardworking individuals must not be subjected to such harsh consequences for merely pursuing a better life for themselves and for their children. As a nation of justice and fairness, what do we have to say to the millions of children who have to worry every day about the fact that their parents might not come home? And what do we have to say to the parents who face the prospect of being torn from their children? As long as the United States is a free and prosperous nation, immigrants will venture to pursue the American Dream, even if the cost is political non-existence or, as Jorge Ramos says, “they become invisibles” for the sake of a better life.
A sweeping study conducted by The Center for American Progress revealed compelling evidence of the extraordinary costs of mass deportation. The cost to apprehend the millions of undocumented will require Gestapo-style raids at workplaces and homes ultimately costing $158 billion . Housing these undocumented at detention centers will cost $29 billion and an extra $7 billion will be accrued through legal proceeding costs .The transportation cost of all the undocumented to their native country has a price tag of $6 billion . Furthermore, the cost of continuing-enforcement over a five-year period will be over $85 billion . In other words, the “total cost over five years: $285 billion, would mean new taxes of $922 for every man, woman, and child in our country.” These calculations were conducted for the fiscal year of 2008; therefore, the present day cost will be significantly higher due to inflation.
The monetary costs of mass deportation are mind boggling, but what should strike concern in the heart of the citizen is how his or her tax dollars will be used: the persecution of every undocumented child, woman, and man, rallied up like cattle to ultimately meet their fate of deportation. The world would watch in awe as the greatest exemplar of freedom treats a portion of her population as some kind of unwanted pest and as human rights violations occur. The most terrifying aspect of mass deportation is the modus operandi: imagine immigration officers armed to the teeth raiding meat packing factories, homes of the wealthy, and farms, all common workplaces for the undocumented. The butcher, nanny, and grape picker would be punished for the sole reason of working and being in the country illegally.
The next place to look would be their dwellings; families awakened in the middle of the night by the cacophony of screaming agents and children would watch their parents get treated as the most abhorrent of criminals. The state would assume responsibility of these new orphans as it continues its crusade to crack down these “criminals” and sentiments of displacement, anger, resentment, and anxiety will permanently scar these children. In a modern democracy, it is inexcusable for this to happen. Have we not learned from history? The Jewish population in Germany was subjected to an extreme process of de-naturalization, of the elimination of their citizenship rights, and severe laws were used to render them non-persons. Their political, civic, and human rights were progressively suspended as sentiments of hate and anger boiled in the hearts of the German people. Those who are different from the majority wear a bull’s eye on their backs and are often easy scapegoats to bear the blame for the issues society faces. The Jews were victims of this in pre-war Germany and the undocumented are victims of it today; the Jewish people were victims of anti-Semitism, and the undocumented immigrants are victims of racist xenophobia. We must find sensible solutions for our broken immigration system and shun the hateful rhetoric of some politicians since it does nothing but instill anger and breed fear.
V. The American Dream & Sensible Solutions
Since the beginning America has been a dream for people—from the first pilgrims in the Mayflower to the Spanish missionaries in the Southwest to the Irish and Polish of the 19th century. The truth is that unless we are direct descendants from Native Americans, our ancestors traveled long distances to settle here. Every generation has had its wave of immigrants and ours comes from Latin America and Asia. The promise of the American Dream to breathe freely, achieve a better life through hard work, and live a life free of political and religious oppression is the greatest inheritance from our ancestors. Paradoxically, this promise can never be achieved but rather it is a work in progress; it is an ideal that we strive for and we have not lived up to it since the beginning. Slavery, nativism, and continuing racial discrimination have tarnished this elusive promise; but simultaneously the courageous mavericks that have resisted oppression and fought for equality have raised that same promise as a contestation against our sins. In every generation, the American Dream has been threatened and ours is not an exception. In fact, we must be held at a higher standard of responsibility for safeguarding this promise because there is a long historical record to teach us that we should know better. The 11.7 million undocumented who live in the shadows can no longer be kept in the dark. Many of them embarked on journeys that very few of us can relate to; some have crossed deserts in scorching heat with little water; others have been packed like sardines in freight trains and shipping containers; some women have handed their life savings to “coyotes” who often take advantage of their vulnerability and violate their bodily integrity; and many have died trying to cross the border, all in the name of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As I write these words, I can hear the contrarian argument in my head: “They assume the risks for breaking our laws. We should not feel pity for these lawbreakers and if they do not want to suffer, then they should ‘get in line’ and come here legally like our ancestors did. It’s their
fault for acting like criminals.” These arguments are grounded on poor moral reasoning and a lack of understanding of our visa policies; the legal hurdles that a person has to go through to immigrate to the United States can take anywhere from ten to twenty-five years and it is a very expensive process. In pondering this subject, I wonder how many people who are critical of the undocumented have actually spoken to an undocumented. It is easy to criticize the voiceless but it takes courage and morality to be sensitive to their struggle. The promise of a better life is a central tenant to our American identity and as time passes, our political inaction on immigration reform continues to yield more and more injustices, precipitating the erosion of that promise more rapidly every day.
It is not the time to remain politely silent about a controversial issue that will define the future of America. I advocate for the legalization of the undocumented, especially those who were brought here as children. Many have been raised in the United States for most of their lives and they have roots in our communities and our society. In other words, they are American, just not legally. These youths’ dreams to go to college and obtain a degree that will lead them to live a better life than their parents is impossible without legal status. Our government officials have turned a blind eye to the problem for decades because they are aware that there is a demand for low-wage labor that these undocumented came to fill. But these people cannot live in the shadows any longer just to satisfy an economic need while the rest of us benefit from their cheap labor. A logical solution to our immigration crisis is a plan that enforces border security and a comprehensive program that enables the undocumented to come forward without the fear of reprisal. A pathway to legal status must be part of the solution for the millions who have been living here for years; a pathway to citizenship should be granted to those who have no criminal
records and who are willing to pay a reasonable fine for the laws they have broken. Furthermore, the visa system must be “fixed to be fair and flexible so it can adjust to the needs of the U.S. economy and families.” Every country has the right to exclude and it will be unreasonable to extend a “red carpet” to welcome every person who breaks the law. Upholding our laws is crucial in guaranteeing their legitimacy, but the ethical dilemma we face on how to deal fairly with the undocumented immigrants who are part of our society demands a tolerable solution.
VI. My Experience as an Invisible & The Making of an American
I was born on the mountains of Bogotá, Colombia. This vibrant city sits on a savannah and is home to over six million people. Although it was my birthplace, most of my memories there are pure mirages. I do, however, remember vividly the “last goodbye” which was the day my family and I departed to the United States of America. The tears of my grandparents as they waved goodbye to their daughter and grandchildren is something that still arouses a wave of emotions in my heart to this day. It has been seventeen years since that goodbye. At the age of four, it was impossible for me to understand the radical changes that were on the horizon. All I knew was that we were traveling to the “land of the free,” a place where the streets are paved with gold and opportunity. My mother’s family supported our cause and the synthesis of passing all the legal hurdles and saving money for years culminated with a visa and a one-way plane ticket with the destination, “J.F.K AIRPORT—NEW YORK, U.S.A.” But this was not just a mere ticket. It symbolized a promise to a better life. That new life began in Queens, New York.
The reality of pursuing that promise required backbreaking labor, exploitation at the hands of employers, and most importantly silence and invisibility. This silence and invisibility demanded that we remain indoors most of the time; looking the other way when a police officer passed us in the street and not murmuring a word in Spanish because it might raise suspicion; following strict instructions from my mother to call the American neighbor in the event of a fire or emergency in our tiny apartment; and to always avoid uniformed men. It was a constant draining and devastating standoff between them and us. For in the end, in such situations, who is to be trusted, and who are your friends?
In elementary school, however, the atmosphere was safe and I felt free. My teachers accepted me and taught me how to write and speak English. I progressively became an American, at least socially. I am deeply thankful that they modeled utmost respect to their commitment to teach anyone, and everyone, without prejudice, without reservation. I stood with
pride as I placed my hand over my heart to sing the Pledge of Allegiance in our homeroom every morning and my teacher always reminded our class that “we were all American” and that “we should be proud of our flag.” In reminiscing about these days, I realize that most of the students in my classroom were immigrants and perhaps many were illegal, just like myself. Despite this truth, our teacher reaffirmed that we were all American and this benevolence and acceptance is something that I look back upon with profound appreciation.
In September 11th, 2001, I felt the searing pain of all Americans as I watched the World Trade Center burn from my classroom. My school was only several miles from Ground Zero. The memory of confusion, fear, and panic as my teacher escorted us out of the building is something I remember to this day. The most scarring images, however, were the ones aired in the news of the husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters, who jumped to their death from the top floors of the towers. As I watched these images with my mother and I wiped my tears on her blouse and demanded an explanation to why people do “bad things,” she answered that “I will understand the evil that exists in this world one day.” As an adult, her words make more sense now. I was angry with the ones responsible for these terrorist acts and this event played a pivotal role in shaping my identity as an American.
In my teenager years I wrestled with the bizarre concept of being an American, just not legally. My mother paid taxes since our arrival through the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number; my sister and I went to school every day and were both assiduous students and never had a brush with law. We spoke and wrote English fluently, and we were willing to defend this country in a time of crisis, yet our status made us voiceless. Although we were loyal beyond most average citizens’ sense of loyalty, to the pursuit of the American Dream, and to the
promises that made us venture across an ocean. It was during this time that my mother married a man who promised her the world, but the reality tells a different story. Her gentleman in a suit became a violent beast blinded by the irrational passions of his soul as he abused her. As I noted at the beginning, under the special immigration relief of the Violence Against Women Act, my mother was able to self-petition to obtain permanent residency and we ultimately became American citizens. Every day I ponder the fact that a Congressional act paved a road to political membership to immigrants like myself who were victims of family violence perpetuated at the hands of a US citizen spouse.
My citizenship was granted by certain politicians whom I never met but who one day sat down to draft a piece of legislation that would rescue some of the most vulnerable people in our society from fending for themselves. It was morality and the voice of justice that guided their deliberations and whispered to them that it would be unacceptable to turn our backs on a population that suffered the evils of family violence at the hands of one of our citizens. I finally had a voice and I was no longer living in the shadows, voiceless and faceless. My naturalization ceremony was perhaps one of the most emotional days in my life because it was the climax of a struggle that spanned nearly twenty years. My family and I earned our citizenship that I revere with profound gratitude with the Oath of Allegiance that I made in the presence of God.
I now realize that citizenship by birth is a lottery. While we cannot choose where we are born, some of us have the privilege to choose where to live. I was one of those lucky individuals, and my brave mother chose the greatest country in the world. But when I close my eyes and think of the 11.7 million undocumented who are living in fear and the many children who are in the same position that I was once in, I cannot remain silent in the face of injustice. Thus I decided to write this essay as a voice for the millions who wish to be part of our polity. Our nation was founded and built by immigrants and we cannot continue to turn our backs on them. We are writing our own history and the fairness on how we deal with the undocumented is a test for our generation that will define the next America. We have grown morally as a society since 1776 and We The People is more inclusive than ever before, but as the United States, we can and will do better.
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1.2 Fitz, Marshall, Gebe Martinez, and Madura Wijewardena. "The Cost of Mass Deportation."
13. Fitz, Marshall, Gebe Martinez, and Madura Wijewardena. "The Cost of Mass Deportation."
Hing, Bill Ong. "The Racism of Gatekeeper and Police Power." In Defining America through
Immigration Policy, 200. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.
"A Nation of Immigrants." Pew Hispanic Center, Washington, D.C. January 29, 2013. Accessed
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Passel, Jeffrey S., D'Vera Cohn, and Anna G. Gonzalez-Barrera. "Population Decline of Unauthorized Immigrants Stalls, May Have Reversed." Pew Hispanic Center, Washington, D.C. September 23, 2013. Accessed December 05, 2013. http://www.pewhispanic.org/2013/09/23/population-decline-of-unauthorized-immigrants- stalls-may-have-reversed/.
Ramos, Jorge, and Ezra E. Fitz. A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2010.