Friday, May 7, 2010

They're Not Illegal, They're Heroes: Why Immigrants Are Right to Chase the American Dream

We need to stop calling undocumented immigrants in the United States “illegal”. A more appropriate term is: New American Heroes.

Why are undocumented immigrants heroes?

Millions of Americans, immigrants and citizens, work incredibly hard every single day in ridiculously low paying jobs that are the life-blood of our economy but are barely life-sustaining in return. I think every person who gets up at the crack of dawn or in the middle of the night to work one or two or even three jobs so they can pay the rent and put food on the table are heroes. But as hard as it is for every low-wage worker in the United States (and increasingly, middle class folks too) undocumented immigrants face additional, greater obstacles. These undocumented immigrants are heroes, too.

I certainly don’t have what it would take to survive if I was forced to flee my home country because of economic or political insecurity, travel thousands of miles in sometimes life-threatening conditions, move to somewhere where I probably don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language, and do the most thankless and backbreaking jobs like picking vegetables in the 100 degree sun or washing pots in a restaurant — all to help my family survive. I think that is heroic.

But whether we’re talking about undocumented immigrants in low-wage jobs or middle class immigrants who overstayed their visas, as a nation we have always believed that the pursuit of the American dream is heroic. Given that the rest of the world has long paid the price for sustaining the American dream (in terms of natural resources, cheap labor, wars, etc.), it’s only fair that immigrants should in turn hope to share in that dream. Through our cultural dominance of the globe, we repeatedly hold up the American dream as an ideal to which everyone should aspire — and, we tell the world, one in which everyone is included. It’s only fair that others should want in.

Some argue that all makes sense but still, why can’t all immigrants just take the legal path to the American dream? Because, increasingly, there isn’t one. Two very important facts have changed in the last decade that significantly impact the immigration equation.

First, in 1994, NAFTA was passed. Now, true, Mexico signed it — but it was largely under the coercion of big international business interests. The result was the devastation of Mexico’s economy by larger corporations in the US that flooded their market with cheaper products. A lot of that was corn, which we subsidize with our tax dollars here — and that artificially cheap corn imported into Mexico drastically undercut local farmers. Folks who had been surviving for generations as farmers and local business people are now seriously struggling.

Second, two years later, the United States passed a harsh immigration reform law that, ostensibly, made it much harder for immigrants already here (and with proper papers) to get citizenship AND made it harder for migrants from certain countries — especially Mexico and Central America — to come here in the first place.

So you pass United States policy that intentionally smothers small farmers and shopkeepers, etc., in Mexico AND THEN you change immigration policy so that these now-much-more-desperate immigrants can’t come to the US.

Why is it our corn can cross the border to “compete” in Mexico’s economy but Mexicans can’t cross the border to compete here?

In this context, the word “illegal” in the immigration debate is not only divisive but misnomer. If anything, the United States’ political acts should be deemed “illegal”, not the acts of well-meaning immigrants left with no other choice. Moreover, throughout history, we have celebrated those who disobey unjust laws in the name of justice. Undocumented immigrants today are carrying the torch of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Sojourner Truth — great leaders who understood that sometimes we must all answer to higher laws, to a higher belief in freedom and equality for all. In the great tradition of the American Revolution, resisting unjust laws — even if doing so is technically illegal — is an act of heroism.

On May 1, 2010, hundreds of thousands of heroes marched in cities and towns across the United States demanding a workable path to citizenship that will move our entire nation forward together. Just as it would be unthinkable for President Obama and Congress to ignore the demands of military war heroes, we cannot ignore the dire situation facing these heroes of economic wars our country has wrought. Just as undocumented immigrants recognize higher good than broken immigration laws, the President and Congress must find higher guidance than what is considered politically safe.

The word hero comes from Greek meaning to protect or defend. Undocumented immigrants are protecting and defending something much more important than borders (which big business erased long ago). Undocumented immigrants are defending the very definition of America, one that has always promised opportunity for all newcomers and, with any hope, always will.

Sally Kohn, Chief Agitation Officer of the Movement Vision Lab, is a community organizer, writer and political commentator. You can read more about her work at:

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