Imagine if you would waking up like you have every day for the past thirty years going to your place of work only to be arrested, along with all your co-workers. This was the nightmarish scene at the Southeastern Provision meat packing facility located in Grainger County Tennessee. Some 97 workers were taken away by ICE authorities sending waves through the local area for immigrants and natives alike. So impactful was this event that some 550 children were reported absent from school the next day. This was the story told by the keynote speaker Stephanie Teatro at the Gerard A. Vanderhaar Symposium held at Christian Brother’s University. The topic of the speech and of the panel discussion held after was “Who Gets to Be American: Immigration Policy and Our Multicultural Democracy” a question which, depending on the answer greatly effects the state of our democracy. I would posit that our narrow and arbitrary definition of “citizen” in conjunction with our official immigration policy harms the standing of our democracy and erodes away the principles we supposedly stand for.
Let’s start with how one becomes a U.S. citizen. Taken directly from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services website , you are either born within U.S. jurisdiction or born to at least one parent who had citizenship prior to your birth. In order to acquire citizenship after birth you need either derived citizenship or naturalization. Derived allows a child under the age of 18 to use their parents citizenship status to acquire it themselves. Naturalization is the typical process which unfortunately can take longer than 30 years. Now why is this important? According to the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition at least one of the immigrants arrested by ICE at the aforementioned meat packing facility had been working at the plant for the last 3 decades. Paying taxes, raising families, proud to be American, indistinguishable from any other American except they aren’t American by our definition. Why? What more do we honestly want from a member of our community, our nation if not this? Why do I, by mere dent of birth get to be American? It’s not because natural born Americas are necessarily better citizens of their birthplace. Studies found that illegal and legal immigrants were less likely to be incarcerated, 44% and 69% less likely respectively, then natural born citizens. Is it because natural born citizens are more loyal and/or patriotic? Well first we’d have to ask how one could even measure that, maybe military service? Well according to the Department of Defense (DoD) some 65,000 plus immigrants were serving on active duty in the United States Armed services as of Feb. 2008. Is it a matter of paying taxes then? Well it’s worth noting that when able immigrants pay taxes just like anyone else. Payroll tax, sale tax, property taxes, vehicle registration, these are all difficult if not impossible to avoid and when they are avoid it is usually because of a natural U.S. citizen aiding them in such for their own benefit as was the case of the meat-packing facilities owners in the Grainger County ICE raid. The owner James Brantley had being paying the arrested immigrants under the table in cash and was under investigation for cheating the IRS out of $2.5 million in taxes. Yet he is more of a citizen then the immigrants he employed by our laws
Historically America’s immigration policies and criteria for being a U.S. citizen has been rooted in racism. The quota’s currently in place, policies put in place in the 1980s according to TIRRC, were decided based on the idea of keeping the portion of the population that is white the same, yet whites are projected to be outnumber in this country by non-whites as soon as 2040. And I suspect this fear motivates our current policies as well. ICE arrest have gone up 33% according to the panel at the Gerard A. Vanderhaar Symposium with ICE no longer just going after immigrants who are criminals but instead targeting any they can unlike previous administrations that created a priority list that would ignore the people like those at the meat packing plant.
The fact is these people want to be American citizens. They work hard and contribute to this country in all the ways natural citizens do. They are by any reasonable metric American yet our laws mired in racism and fear of the other make it a nearly impossible for these people to become citizens. It is not a matter of some personal or innate defect that they fail to become American but is a function of our broken system. A good democracy does not relegate large portions of its’ population to non-citizens because of some arbitrary criteria. It doesn’t silence their voices in its government while simultaneously exploiting and benefiting from their toil.