News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Honest work is not a crime

Let’s face it. All legal violations are not equal. Who among us has never jaywalked, driven above the speed limit, indulged in a private poker party, or bent the law in some small way? In our hearts, we all know the difference between something technically illegal and something that’s truly wrong.

Is it wrong to want a better life? The overwhelming majority of today’s undocumented immigrants want nothing more than a chance to work. Jobs in their home countries are scarce. Employers here are looking for willing workers. So they come. Faced with the same circumstances, would you do anything different to provide for your family?

There are some among us who want to demonize undocumented workers. These self-proclaimed “patriots” brand the newcomers as criminals wantonly violating our laws. This is wrong in so many ways.

To begin with, working without a visa is not a felony or even a misdemeanor. In fact, it’s not a criminal act at all. It’s a civil violation—like jaywalking or simple speeding. Yes, crossing the border without legal authority is a crime. But here’s the reality of the situation: The great majority of undocumented workers in the U.S. arrived legally and overstayed their visas. (Of course, that hasn’t stopped the xenophobes in wailing for an impregnable border wall, but that’s another discussion.)

Despite being legally unfounded, the nativist accusations have created an ugly consequence. Their shrill screams of “amnesty” are blocking the chance for a guest worker program that would bring undocumented workers out of the shadows. A regulated work program would allow us to collect taxes from those now being paid under the table and get them into medical insurance programs—although a recent UCLA study showed undocumented workers are less likely to use medical emergency rooms than previously thought.

A guest worker program would also improve our national security. As Michael Chertoff, chief of the Department of Homeland Security said, “Right now, I've got my Border Patrol agents and my immigration agents chasing maids and landscapers. I want them to focus on drug dealers and terrorists.”

The solution to our immigration dilemma is not hate, fear mongering and exaggerated accusations of criminal behavior. Because in our hearts, we all understand a simple truth: honest work is not a crime.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez