“If you don’t like how we do things here, why don’t you go back to where you came from?” This is a comment I have often heard directed at illegal immigrants. Not adhering to the norms of American society, such as speaking “proper” English (what is proper?), eating “American” food (what is American?) or wearing “appropriate” clothing (what is appropriate?), is considered unacceptable behavior for minority groups who are generally assumed to be illegal aliens. In my experience, when I have asked someone who has made this assumption how he/she knew the person in question was illegal, their response has been along the lines of: “You can just tell.”
What one cannot tell, unfortunately, are the more important details. Immigrants who were practicing physicians in their native country; immigrants who just spent $40,000 on a risky and illegal method of transportation to find a safe place to bring their families, away from persecution; victims of trafficking who are being transported here against their will, under our very noses — these are the faces we deem to be up to no good because their English is broken.
Why do we feel threatened by the presence of minority groups? They are by no means all illegal, yet we dare to clump all non-Europeans into one giant behemoth of a category that strikes fear into the American public. History has shown that immigrants have generally been stigmatized by our media, politicians and personal opinions. We boast that America is the Land of Opportunity and the Melting Pot of the world. But, when economic hardship arrives, immigrants are suddenly viewed as a threat and competition for resources to which we, “American citizens,” are entitled.
First, I must make the point that there are Americans who belong to minority groups. According to the US Census Bureau, only 13 percent of the American population are foreign-born, while 35 percent belong to some racial minority group. Can we deny American citizens their rights because we assume they are “not really citizens” based on how they appear?
Second, I must argue that the process toward becoming an American citizen is incredibly difficult - a feat that the majority of our ancestors did not have to worry about. When America was first a colony, then later a nation, there were no immigration laws in place. In fact, the founding and development of America was a solution to immigration problems in Europe. There were the original American natives, who were exploited, fought with, and defamed by European colonists in the earlier part of U.S. history. Then, with the incredibly dense population of today’s less developed countries, there is nowhere left for the surplus of people to emigrate to, like America’s forefathers had.
Furthermore, one is automatically a U.S. citizen if born within America; yet, for a foreign-born individual to obtain citizenship, one must not only go through the incredibly complex and slow bureaucratic system, but also pass a citizenship test that most of us college students wouldn’t be able to pass ourselves. For example, do you know who is our current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and can you name the two longest rivers in the United States? Not to mention the difficulties one faces in affording an application for citizenship. Fun fact: it costs $1,360 just to apply for citizenship, and one must have been a permanent resident in the U.S. for a minimum of five years before even being able to apply. Where is the justice?
It takes more than just making it easier to become a citizen. The difficult process brings about a raised demand for dangerous and illegal methods of coming to the U.S. and being able to gain the permanent residency and finances that are required to apply for citizenship. Immigrants will try to cross borders, carry drugs in exchange for a secure voyage, agree to become forced labor upon arriving in the States, or be targeted for their desperation and disappear into the elusive trafficking networks.
The urgency to become a naturalized citizen is not completely understood by the majority of the American public, and it is something that needs to be addressed now. We make it difficult for outsiders to achieve equal status within our society, and this pushes outsiders to reach out to desperate means to achieve the American Dream. From these desperate means arise illegal, dangerous and criminal outcomes, both intentional and latent. These results feed a fear and prejudice against foreigners. People point and say, “See? I told you they were bad for this country!” In response, the immigration laws are further tightened, and the vicious cycle continues in a downward slope. Meanwhile, those who have successfully achieved the status of American citizen are still discriminated against, because they are associated with the deviant, criminal masses of immigrants who are still seeking that coveted Green Card.
What is the solution? Fix the citizenship process. Make it a fair, thorough, but reasonable process for immigrants to utilize. Second, be globally conscientious. Many Americans gripe that what happens outside of the United States doesn’t concern us, and that we should re-adopt a policy of non-interventionism and stay out of other countries’ businesses. But the ironic thing is that, whether or not we decide to partake in international affairs, they do affect us. So, work toward social justice, both abroad and here at home. There is still forced labor and human trafficking occurring right here in our communities. Prejudices linger and segregation is a reality. The problem does not lie in the people who, like we all do, seek the American Dream; the problem lies in the selfish indifference of current American citizens to fix an imperfect system.
By Rosie Brown
Graphic By Eva Kiviranta