Close to Home: Don’t ignore working-class immigrants

Why are we selectively standing up for the few Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals participants who have recently been put through deportation proceedings but continue to ignore the thousands of working-class families that are torn apart every year by our broken immigration system?

More than 11 million undocumented immigrants from all over the world reside in the United States. Undocumented immigrants represent diverse cultures, religions and professions. While some have achieved traditionally defined success by winning the Pulitzer Prize or graduating from prestigious medical and law schools, many are working low-wage and physically demanding jobs.

During the Obama administration, more than 400,000 undocumented persons were deported per year. Those who had criminal backgrounds were largely targeted, although more innocuous actions such as driving without a license put many otherwise innocent people on that list. Under the Trump administration, the definition of “criminal” has expanded to include actions that are often necessary for survival - any undocumented immigrant who has lied on a government form and used public benefits such as food stamps or Special Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children is now considered a criminal. In other words, low-income undocumented immigrants are disproportionately targeted and labeled as unlawful even though they contribute more than $11 billion to the economy annually and are deeply rooted in communities all over the country.

As a formerly undocumented immigrant myself, I have become emotionally exhausted by news outlets detailing Trump's deportation plans and wrongfully blaming undocumented immigrants for our economy's problems.

Although federal policies have been unwelcoming, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who have stood up to defend undocumented immigrants with their wallets or through action and advocacy. Stories of “successful” immigrants continuously flood my Facebook newsfeed, listing specific contributions to science or highlighting individuals who aspire to pursue higher education. While I understand the desire to change the undocumented immigrant narrative, I worry that we are creating a divide by highlighting only the successes of those immigrants who are educated and economically successful.

Why aren't we defending gardeners, housekeepers and farmworkers who are breaking their backs performing the manual labor and day-to-day maintenance jobs that prop up the whole system? These are individuals who are risking their lives every day just so their children can have the same opportunities as U.S.-born children.

Although now both permanent residents, my parents lived undocumented in Sonoma for more than 10 years. They took a dangerous journey and worked long hours with little pay to create a better life for my four brothers and me. My parents sacrificed their comfort and endured difficult jobs to ensure that I didn't have to. They forfeited their opportunity to learn fluent English to guarantee that they worked enough hours to provide for us. Yet their narrative is not included in the immigration discussion.

This isn't an attempt to cast blame but to urge individuals to reflect on the unintended consequences of solely advocating for those who are college educated. We are sending the message that someone who goes to college has fully assimilated into U.S. culture, and is projected to have significant financial gain, deserves to stay in the United States while those who don't learn English, live paycheck to paycheck or rely on federal- and state-funded programs to make ends meet deserve to be deported. This mindset lacks understanding of the systems of oppression and racism that have prevented many from achieving the American Dream.

Especially during this tremulous period, we need to be critical about how we engage in conversations to defend the immigrant narrative. We need to move away from labeling all immigrants as bad people until they somehow earn their right to be treated as humans. I urge everyone advocating for undocumented immigrants to be allies to all immigrant lives, not only those who one identifies with.

A college education and a high-paying job shouldn't be the only valid measure of human value.

Or, better yet, we should all together stop quantifying individual worth based on economic contributions.

Miriam Magaña López a first-generation immigrant and Sonoma local who is pursuing a master's of public health at UC Berkeley.

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