In time, we will probably ship Jessica Colotl back to Mexico, the country that she left at age 10 to enter the United States with her parents. They came illegally, and she has no legal right to remain here.
But as we go through that process, it’s important to at least acknowledge that we won’t be accomplishing much except the gratification of certain politicians and the ruin of a promising American life.
Because Jessica is not alone.
According to an estimate by the Department of Homeland Security, 10.8 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States as of January 2009. The DHS estimates that 63 percent of those entered before 2000, just as Jessica and her family did, meaning that they have been here a decade or longer.
If those numbers are correct, 6.8 million of those here illegally have lived in the United States for more than a decade. They clearly have no intention of returning home on their own. No matter how tough we make it for them, they have concluded it will be better for them here than back home.
So what do we do about them? Mass deportation? Great. Once we rid our country of Jessica, the law-breaking sorority sister and straight-A student, we’ll only have 10.799999 million more to ferret out and remove. So that “solution,” while politically appealing to many, is going to take awhile.
Then there’s the fact that, in effect, we invited them here.
That assertion makes a lot of people angry, but it’s true. Laws against undocumented immigration and hiring illegal immigrants have remained on the books, but for years we suspended enforcement of those laws so we could benefit from the cheap labor that illegal immigration produced.
That was not an accident; it was a conscious decision. In fact, an important turning point occurred 12 years ago this week, right here in Georgia. After federal officials launched an immigration raid on Vidalia onion fields, the state’s congressional delegation complained bitterly. Immigration officials got the message: No more enforcement. Let them come.
Before that watershed event, immigration officials were arresting and deporting almost 1,500 illegal immigrants a month. By 2003, workplace arrests of illegal immigrants for the entire year totaled 445.
For many, it was a good deal while it lasted. Anybody who built or bought a new home in the last 15 years saved thousands of dollars in labor. Anybody who ate in restaurants, or even ate at all, saved in lower food costs and labor costs.
Today, we are trying to tighten both the border and the hiring process, to reduce the magnetic power of jobs to lure people to migrate illegally. Those are absolutely necessary steps.
But even if we make the borders airtight, we have millions of human beings already here. Again, as a practical matter, what do we do about them?
Jessica’s story offers a few clues, even if much of the country is not in the mood to heed them. She is not here trying to turn this country into Mexico. She is trying to turn herself into an American, to succeed in America and contribute to America. A person with her apparent diligence and intelligence, given the chance, would more than repay the taxpayers’ investment in her education.
But that requires a process to give legal standing to Jessica and others like her, and in the current political climate, that’s not going to happen.
As a result, we continue to bar millions from daring to rise above menial work. That’s dangerous, because, talent, ambition and hard work that are denied legitimate means of expression will pursue illegitimate means instead. We risk creating what we fear, a permanent underground that does not assimilate into the mainstream because the mainstream refuses to allow them to do so.