(originally published in The Hill on 07/25/11)
The only way to solve a problem, parents chide their children, is to tell the truth.
Earlier this summer, I shared my own truth: I’m an undocumented American. In sharing a very personal and specific story — my journey of being sent from the Philippines to America at age 12, graduating from public schools and landing jobs at news organizations such as The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, all the while without having proper papers — my aim was to illuminate a greater universal truth about our broken immigration system. Now years in the making, this broken system impacts not just millions of immigrants who live in the shadows of a country we love and call home; the dysfunction and inaction also impacts countless honest American citizens — from pastors and principals, to colleagues and coaches, all members of a growing 21st-century underground railroad — who have answered a moral calling in helping immigrants in various sectors of society. Together, undocumented immigrants like me and the citizens who aid us are increasingly telling the truth about our broken system. As it should, this puts more pressure on our country’s leaders, who have largely been ineffective and unwilling in tackling immigration reform.
Make no mistake: voters want immigration reform. But like overhauling Social Security, immigration reform has turned into a combustible third-rail issue among congressional leaders, especially Republicans. For many, talk of any kind of reform inevitably and inaccurately leads to the dreaded A-word —amnesty — even though recent Democratic-backed bills introduced in both the House and Senate ask that immigrants meet certain conditions.
Others now simply avoid any discussion of immigration reform. This hands-off, the-less-said-the-better approach has resulted in fair-minded, solution-oriented leaders — from both sides of the aisle — withdrawing support from bills they once championed. Meanwhile, anti-immigration and anti-Latino bills — they’ve been almost synonymous — have passed in states such as Arizona, Georgia and Alabama and are now being challenged in the courts. Ugly and angry rhetoric in a tough economic climate fills the void, harkening back to the days of the civil rights era.
“As your congressman on the House floor, I will do anything short of shooting them,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) recently told WHNT, an Alabamatelevision station. “Anything that is lawful, it needs to be done, because illegal aliens need to quit taking jobs from American citizens.”
In these anxious times, everyone needs someone to blame, and that someone has become “illegals” — never mind that undocumented immigrants pay taxes and that entire industries such as agriculture would suffer without our labor.
Beyond hurtful words and misguided legislation, we as a nation have been framing this issue in the wrong way. We constantly talk about immigration and reform in the context of what it means for people like me who are here without papers. We pretend that immigrants are the only people who are affected by this issue — that’s not the truth. Most Americans reap some benefit or pay some cost for the cracks in our system. We need to begin a conversation about the innumerable ways in which we all profit from our broken immigration system. We need to be honest about the low-cost labor that steadies the price of the poultry and produce we feed our families and builds and repairs the homes we raise our children in. We need to be fair to educators across the country who are tasked with teaching each student, regardless of immigration status. We need to talk with as much passion and knowledge about enforcing our laws and securing our border as we do about honoring the immigrant tradition of a country that’s been built and replenished by immigrants from all corners of the world. And we need to broaden the conversation, be it at our dinner tables or virtual water coolers.
If we want to tell the truth about immigration, then we need to begin by admitting that immigration isn’t just about us, the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. It’s about the larger us, the 310 million. It’s about all Americans and about America itself.
Our system is broken and it is time to have a serious conversation about fixing it. That conversation must begin with the truth and it must begin with each other, regardless of political ideology. We cannot wait for Washington. As James Baldwin — my literary hero — once said, “Our history is each other. That is our only guide.”
Vargas is a former reporter for The Washington Post and shared a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. He founded Define American, which seeks to elevate the conversation on immigration reform. www.defineamerican.com