On Earned Citizenship

After a nice ten-day break from the blog, I’m back and getting increasingly excited for the impending publication of Working in the Shadows. Later today, I hope to actually lay hands on a finished copy of the hardcover book for the first time, and will probably sleep with it next to my pillow, as I used to do with new pairs of shoes as a kid.

Right now, priorities include getting together a “book trailer” (a short video that introduces the book to people who evidently don’t like to read…don’t ask me: I’m just following the lead of publishing professionals here); trying to write an op-ed or two that ties in with the book; and finalizing book talks for February and March.

While I’ve been walking the fine line between necessary self-marketing and obnoxious self-promotion, I came across an interesting/depressing article about how the recession has affected Latino immigrants in New York City.

The article, published in the Times, looks at the situation of day laborers who can’t find work and have found themselves living on the street. The accompanying photo is dramatic, and in many ways the article reminds me of pieces I’ve read documenting the precarious situation of California farmworkers camped out under tarps in ravines near the fields. The piece is available here.

The hardships that undocumented workers suffer got me thinking about a term I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more in the coming months: earned citizenship. This term, which is meant to convince people who are skeptical about immigration reform, is supposed to highlight the fact that immigration reform doesn’t just grant people amnesty, but forces them to follow a path to citizenship that they must “earn” by paying fees, taking English classes, watering their neighbor’s lawn, etc.

I understand the strategic purpose of highlighting this idea, but it still makes me want to punch the nearest wall. The truth is that most undocumented immigrants have already demonstrated more chutzpah than people like me ever will, and have already sacrificed to the extent that the notion of making them “earn” anything is condescending.

When I was at the chicken plant, I worked with a bunch of Guatemalan immigrants. My life story: I grew up in the suburbs, moved to New York City, like to read and write.

Their life story: fled a civil war in which many of their friends and family were killed. Arrived in Florida to pick tomatoes for years in an area where slave labor still flourishes. Now spend eight hours a day doing the highly repetitive work of poultry processing, sometimes suffering from carpal tunnel and other ailments. Half of my English-speaking orientation crew had left the job within weeks; many of the Guatemalans I worked alongside had stuck with the work for years.

When I’ve gotten to know the individual stories of undocumented immigrants, the last thing on my mind is that they need to “earn” something more in order to prove they are willing to make sacrifices to live in this country. Instead, I think about how lucky I am to have had such an easy life, which was only made possible because some very determined Finns and Norwegians took a big risk a hundred years ago and got on a boat. Of course, back then we didn’t make my ancestors “earn” anything–if they were white and had the gumption to make the dangerous trek, they were granted legal status–so some things have certainly changed…

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1 Comment

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One response to “On Earned Citizenship

  1. Just came across your blog and would love to get in touch. Email me when you get the chance. Your sentiments echo a lot of the frustrations pro-migrant folks feel around the messaging advanced to pass immigration reform.

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