When Immigration Reform Punishes the Innocent


Not only will the sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants become culpable on their 18th birthdays, Georgia's new law is written to make their continued presence in the U.S. impossible, deClaissé-Walford says.
Natalia Elzaurdia – Nati to her friends – is 19, pregnant and scared. She is not scared because she is pregnant, however. She is scared because she is in jail and about to be deported from the only country she has ever really known – the United States of America.

Nati's situation puts a human face on the collateral damage caused by the legislative response to the alleged "immigration crisis."

To those who say "What is it you don't get about illegal immigration?" I answer that the issue is not as clear and simple as we would like it to be; at least, not if the average American has any understanding of moral rectitude.

You see, not every illegal immigrant in the United States has willingly or intentionally broken immigration law. There are very many who were brought here when they were children, having no say in – or even an understanding of – what was happening.

When Nati came to the U.S., she was just 7. As with many others, Nati's parents, legally admitted with temporary work visas, did not leave the country when their visas expired.

Since federal law asserts a child's right to education regardless of their immigration status and since Georgia state law upholds that right, Nati proceeded through America's public education system. For a long time, she believed she was as American as the next child in the classroom.

Why wouldn't she?

And here's the odd thing: The premise for Georgia's compliance with the right-to-education ruling is that children are not responsible for their parents' decision to enter the country illegally; therefore, they should not be punished for it by having their education withheld.

The problem for people like Nati arises when they turn 18. Overnight, they become adults and suddenly become personally responsible for their parents' earlier wrong decision. Overnight, they go from being carefree teenagers to people haunted by the ever-present specter of arrest and deportation.

What is a young person in this situation supposed to do? Do they "out" themselves with the likely consequence of forced repatriation to a culture they know little or nothing about, a country that speaks a language with which they may be totally unfamiliar?

Or do they keep the secret, in constant fear of being discovered, living ever after in the shadow of the threat that the very fabric of their lives may be destroyed through one false move?

 

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Nati lived under that threat, and the threat became a reality when she was stopped one evening because a headlight of the car she was driving was out.

She gave a false name, hoping to conceal her status. The next thing she knew, she was in jail.

Then, she was interviewed by immigration authorities – a direct result of the Immigration and Nationality Act Section 287(g) – and then told she would be deported.

So long as Nati's parents keep a low profile and remain "invisible" to the immigration authorities, they will get to remain in the U.S.

She, however, soon will be separated from them and from the father of her unborn child. She will be sent to a country she has no real memory of.

Legally educated in American society and socially acculturated to American values, she will be forced into a world that is foreign to her.

In terms of immigration status, she is the innocent one, and yet she inherits the consequences of her parents' bad decision.

HB 87 will make this situation worse. Not only will the sons and daughters of illegal immigrants become culpable on their 18th birthdays, the entire law is written to make their continued presence in the U.S. impossible.

History has seen what happens when laws bypass moral standards for political ends. Nazi Germany passed laws making it legal to persecute Jews; South Africa legalized apartheid; and the Southern states passed Jim Crow laws.

Yes, we need immigration laws, but they need to be carefully crafted and subsequently enforced in a way that what is legally right is not bought at the cost of a moral wrong.

Repatriating Nati is legally right but surely morally wrong. It is also cruel, if not, unfortunately, unusual. She did not commit the crime of illegal entry; neither she nor her unborn child nor the child's father should be punished for it.

Steve deClaissé-Walford is a pastor and adjunct professor of philosophy and religion at Mercer and Shorter universities in Georgia. This column previously appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is used here by permission. 

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