It feels like the folks I hear talking loudest in the immigration reform debate are often the ones who know least about it. “Secure the border!” No doubt, we should. Some say we should “round them up!” But in reality, we don’t have the resources or the space available. Then there was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s suggestion of “self-deportation,” which quite possibly cost him the White House.
Frankly, we are not starting this discussion where we should. Before we can know how to reform immigration in America, we need to understand who is coming and why. Illegal immigrants to America can be placed into four categories. The first are terrorists. They actually come here with documentation, but because their only goal is killing Americans, I don’t give them the dignity of being called lawful residents.
The drug cartels are the second group. They care only about trading guns and narcotics. Securing the border won’t do anything to stop the first category. The second might be slowed, but they have enormous resources to evade whatever we place before them. Adding yet more patrol and fencing, however, will stop the final two types of illegal immigrant. And they’re the ones, broadly speaking, who mean our country no harm. I know them best because they are part of my own story.
My grandfather was one of America’s many temporary workers, who comprise the third group. These immigrants simply want to work and send their money back home to their families. He would cross the border as part of a “brazero” program, riding buses as far north as Chicago to work in the steel mills. At the end of a job, he always went back to Mexico. Citizenship is not critical for these guest-workers, but our economy needs them. Their contributions, just like my grandfather’s, ought to be in the sunlight, not the shadows. Immigration reform should revamp and expand these opportunities to fit our current needs. But it cannot end there.
For those who are already here and seeking the American Dream for themselves and their children, the back of the line for citizenship must be accessible. These immigrants comprise the fourth category, people like my father.
German Reyna entered this country as an undocumented worker. He came to Texas to work as a citrus farmer in Hidalgo County. For up to 100 hours a week, he labored in the orange groves. He didn’t come looking for a handout. In fact, years later as a legal resident, he refused to enroll his eldest son in the school district’s new lunch program. German, like many immigrants before and after, came to earn his family’s keep. It was a lesson I never forgot.
German eventually saw his dream realized many times over. Through marriage to his American wife, he obtained a green card. And as his children grew, we helped him prepare for his citizenship tests. Of German’s five children, two became high school valedictorians, two were salutatorians and another finished in the top 5 percent of the school class. You see, German had a pathway to find his place in America. From that path, I like to believe that Texas and our nation gained great benefit.
Immigration reform should make more of these routes available. But, like Congressman Bill Flores says, we cannot allow the undocumented to skip ahead of those who have entered this country legally and maintained their documentation along the way.
A financial penalty should be assessed on illegal residents, a price that legal residents would not have to pay. There should be English-education requirements that are stronger than any legal resident must meet. Yet, if these undocumented residents have come forward and have gotten right with the law, then they should be able to apply for legal residency. And from that point, they can choose to join the back of the line for citizenship.
I appreciate Congressman Flores for not following some of the loud voices in Washington. His comments toward the Dreamers have been helpful and he rightly supports a direct path to citizenship for immigrant children who have no other home. While Dreamers should have their own line for citizenship, I also hope Congress will keep the back of the traditional line open for the other undocumented people who have been productive and kept clean records.
In America, we don’t believe in a “second class.” Immigration reform shouldn’t establish one.
Felipe Reyna began his career working as a janitor for the 10th Court of Appeals. He later earned appointment and re-election to the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office before serving as a justice on the 10th Court. Now retired, he lives in Lorena. A biography by Bart Cannon, “From Janitor to Justice: The Life of Felipe Reyna,” was published in 2010.