The So-Called Nation of Immigrants

By | May 2nd, 2015 | Upfront

Why undocumented people are unwelcome in the U.S.

“This fence has electricity on the top, on the inside and the outside, 220 volts,” Dr. Mike Vickers, Brooks County rancher and veterinarian, said in a Texas Department of Agriculture YouTube video. “It won’t kill anybody, but it’ll sure rattle their teeth.”

This fence, however, isn’t to keep cattle or horses inside; instead, it’s to keep illegal immigrants out.

“It keeps them from climbing over and tearing my fence down,” he continued, gesturing toward the top. “Consequently what they do, they dig under the fence.” The dirt is disturbed, looking recently dug up.

Vickers is one of many who work against immigrants to the United States who cross the border from Mexico to Texas. Vickers’s passion for preventing illegal immigrants has earned him a national audience, including interviews with Fox News. In a 2011 segment of “On the Record,” Vickers showed host Greta Van Susteren pictures he had taken of skulls and dead bodies he had found on his private property, which he said belonged to primarily illegal immigrants attempting to cross:

VICKERS: This is a dead illegal alien that was found on private property in the area that we conduct our operations.

VAN SUSTEREN: How far from the border, about?

VICKERS: This was about 70 miles from the border.

VAN SUSTEREN: About how long ago?

VICKERS: Probably about a year ago.

VAN SUSTEREN: And how do you know this an illegal — that this person was illegally in this country?
VICKERS: Well, this is a common pathway. This is a pathway that is frequently used by illegal aliens. I don’t think there was any identification on this child. This kid I think was 12 years old. And quite frankly, a lot of children are coming down in these groups, and some of them are being left behind to fend for themselves if they can’t keep up with the group. And this is probably what happened with this young man right here.

In a so-called “nation of immigrants,” how did such a zealous, violent trend to keep new people out of the country arise? If you search “illegals” on Twitter, a common derivative of the term “illegal immigrant” used in a denigratory manner, you’ll be met with many alarmed U.S. citizens.

“The #IRS is asking congress for more money. How about they quit giving refunds to #illegals who’ve never paid taxes? #TaxDay2015,” @MTItalian1 tweeted.

Or, as @ColoradoRight tweeted on April 12, “It simply becomes a way of life- #Illegals can ignore the law, and soon the law applies to no one.”

It might be that the U.S. isn’t nearly as much of a “nation of immigrants” in its current makeup as it would seem based on cultural platitudes. Irene Bloemraad, associate professor of sociology at University of California Berkeley and an immigration expert, has done much research on social movements of immigrants in the United States.

“Today, about 13 percent of the people living in the United States are immigrants,” she said. “So this is still a small minority of the population. Adding on those who are born in the United States but who have one or two foreign-born parents, we find that about a quarter of U.S. residents are ‘first’ or ‘second’ generation immigrants.” Thirteen percent of the population is not a substantial, or even visible, segment. According to the American Pie Council, 13 percent of the population prefers pumpkin pie as their absolute favorite; in more somber news, News.Mic reports that, as of 2013, 13 percent of the population still did not condone interracial marriage.

But we still do live in a country where most people trace back their ancestry to a country outside of the U.S and proudly display it on certain holidays and celebrations, ranging from the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day to Mardi Gras celebrations of French origins in cities across the country each March.

Most of these nationality-based populations have the ability to not only trace back their ancestry, but can also pinpoint both the reasons why their ancestors left their home countries as well as the prejudice they encountered once they got here. Although we don’t have “No Irish Need Apply” signs up anymore like there were in East Coast cities in the early 20th century, being an undocumented immigrant today can prove to be just as much of a detriment when applying for jobs.

Saying that undocumented immigrants are taking our jobs is one of the dominant arguments against immigration into this country. Bloemraad, however, said the economic concerns against illegal immigrants often serve as a cover-up for more systemic issues.

“Social science research suggests that anti-immigrant attitudes tend to be linked with cultural fears rather than economic ones,” she said. “For example, conventional wisdom might suggest that someone who is unemployed would be worried about immigration, fearing that immigrants take jobs from the native-born … Rather, those more worried about immigration tend to be those who see immigrants as a cultural, religious or racial threat.”

Ryan Opila, a freshman at Ithaca College and volunteer with the local Immigration Services Program of Catholic Charities in Tompkins County, agreed with Bloemraad’s sentiment. Opila grew up in Arizona, where he said immigrants and discussions surrounding immigration played a large role in his daily life. He said one of the biggest misconceptions he’s faced in his educational work about immigrants is they steal our jobs, which is “completely false,” and a just masks racism against immigrants.

The 2010 enactment of Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona, also called the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” has emphasized for him how racialized immigration is, Opila said. SB 1070 allows police officers to ask anyone they encounter for documentation that they are legally living in this country, and it was only approved on the condition that its execution would not involve racial profiling.

“You can say that you can’t racially profile,” Opila said. “I run into police officers all the time. I’ve never been asked to present documentation. I have friends who are brown and from Latin America who have been asked to present documentation.”

This racist sentiment has allowed dominant conservative assumptions about Mexicans as a threat to the American economy, he continued; it’s not based in reality.

According to a November 2014 article, “5 Facts about illegal immigration in the U.S.,” released by the Pew Research Center, “Mexicans make up about half of all unauthorized immigrants (52 percent), though their numbers have been declining”; these immigrants certainly do not comprise all of the illegal immigrant population. Due to racial profiling, however, these immigrants have a more difficult time than European/white immigrants navigating legal paths to citizenship. Programs like the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program at Johns Hopkins University have been created to explore the role of racism in acquiring citizenship.

Opila said most undocumented immigrants want to become legal U.S. citizens, and that the path to that end is what needs to be altered. From complex paperwork to high costs to inaccessible information, there are many obstacles for new immigrants.

Genevieve Kessler, who is the deputy district director with a background in immigration services for Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY18), said that the financial cost of the immigration process is a frequent issue for the people she works with.

“The most common problems tend to involve the fees associated with immigrant applications,” Kessler said. “Most people do not realize just how expensive it is to file for necessary documents like green cards, work authorizations and citizenship documents — some applications are close to $1,000! It discourages many people from pursuing things like citizenship.”

Education for immigrants on these bureaucratic policies is important as well. “While a fee waiver application is available for those that qualify, applicants tend to not even know that it exists,” she said.

Opila has done legal research at the Immigration Services Program to support applications for waivers. He discussed the case of two immigrants, one documented and one undocumented, both from Latin America.

“They got married so now she qualifies for United States citizenship,” Opila said. “But when she comes forward to apply for United States citizenship it’ll become clear that she’s been living here illegally and as a result of that she will be deported. She has to leave the country again before she can become a U.S. citizen.”

This because when an undocumented immigrant is applying for a green card based on marriage, their previous immigration status matters. “Whether the immigrant can ‘adjust status’ — that is, apply for a green card without leaving the United States — depends on whether he or she fits into one of a few narrow exceptions,” Ilona Bray, lawyer and author of U.S. Immigration Made Easy, writes in “Can an Illegal Immigrant Get a Green Card?” Those exceptions include legal entry to the United States. According to Bray, if the period of unlawful stay was more than a year, this person could have to remain in their home country for more than 10 years and have their immigration processed by their home country’s government.

A waiver could forgo the 10-year time span. “Basically what this waiver says is, ‘Yes, I’ve been living here illegally, but I’ve been an upstanding citizen while I’m here, so you can waive that bar of limitations that limits you from coming back in the country for 10 years and then you still have to leave the country but you don’t have to wait for 10 years. It will be like a 1-year process or a 2-year process, not a 10-year process,’” Opila said.

Most immigrants are upstanding members of society who obey laws; if they were engaging in illegal activities, such as the drug trade, they wouldn’t want to become documented at all. “People aren’t just coming to the United States to mess around and hang out and party. The journey’s too tough for that,” he said.

He does understand, however, why ranchers like Vickers take such drastic actions in an attempt to protect their property. “From the rancher’s perspective, it’s very dangerous for some of these ranchers living very close to the border, with like drug trafficking and stuff. Ranchers get killed all the time, cattle get shot up, their cars get stolen, their houses get raided, and so it’s understandable, a lot of backlash,” he said, but emphasized the immigrants trying to make a better life for their families and those engaged in drug cartels cannot be placed into one group.

Even peers of Vickers, other ranchers in the region, think he could be going too far in his efforts. Ranch administrator Lavoyger Durham, when interviewed in The Guardian’s series of investigative YouTube videos on the Brooks County ranchers called Beyond the Border said he has come to “accept it as a way of life.” He works with activists to provide water for those on their journey from the border to the immigration checkpoint 70 miles north, even though he fully apprehends what they’re doing as illegal.

“Dr. Vickers is a nice guy, but I think he’s kind of like on the rough side, I think he’s obsessed with it too much,” Durham said in the video. “I’m not obsessed with catching people, no. I’m a human being, they’re a human being.”

Editor’s Note: The writer interned for the office of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney during the summer of 2014.


Alexa Salvato is a sophomore journalism major who celebrates St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras and Cinco de Mayo. You can email her at asalvat1@ithaca.edu.

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