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  • Writer's pictureMara Cao

They Broke The Law


“But they broke the law!” The young woman who said this to me was a family friend who I had known for many years. I was telling her about Street Level Health Project, a community center in East Oakland where I was volunteering. The center is surrounded by a population consisting of large numbers of recent immigrants, many of them undocumented. A lot of the people who come through our doors are day laborers who have no access to health care otherwise. I was mentioning them when she interrupted me.

I was taken aback by the tinge of disapproval in the voice of the young woman. She was a few years older than me, a college graduate, professionally employed, married, with a young child. She and her husband were both active in their church and community. I knew her to be a good person, but I felt she did not understand the issue of undocumented workers and their families, or in INS terms, “illegal aliens.” She lived in one of the suburban communities where one does not often meet and know these people as direct neighbors, as friends, as fellow workers. The fact is there are between eight and eleven million undocumented people living in the US. This number cannot be accurately estimated and changes depending on the state of the economy and available jobs, but undocumented workers are all around us. Discussing the issue of illegal immigration, Jorge Ramos, a journalist and immigrant himself, wrote:

We are all accomplices of the undocumented immigrants. They are able to obtain jobs because there are US companies willing to employ them, despite the punishments immigration laws impose. We are accomplices of the undocumented immigrants when we hire them to take care of our children and clean our houses, when we eat the fruits and vegetables they pick, when we go to restaurants where they serve us, when we stay in hotels where they are employed, when we live in homes that they built, when we drive on roads that they paved, when we buy what they sell. In short, undocumented immigrants in the United States participate in practically everything we do. We are their accomplices, whether we know it or not.


I was born in Oakland, CA, and that made me automatically a citizen of the United States. Nobody can ever take that away from me. Growing up, I never put much thought to what it meant to be an undocumented, an “illegal.” The first time I became aware of this class of people was when I was already a highschool teenager. I remember early one morning I was in the car with my mom and we were going someplace we had not been before. We were looking for the street when we found ourselves in West Berkeley, near the freeway. It had rained the night before and the streets were still wet. Looking out the car window, I saw, along the two sides of the street for several blocks, clusters of men, some alone, some in groups of twos or threes, odd figures in beat up jeans and work boots and rolled-up sleeves, standing silently in the morning cold under the trees still wet from the rain. My mom and I said nothing to each other as we drove past these men, but somehow we both knew who they were and why they were there. I still remember their face. Later as she dropped me off, my mom said, “It must be hard, looking for a job everyday.”

My mom came to this county as an immigrant, a refugee herself, and I knew she sympathized with these men. She was born in Vietnam, a land that was ravaged by a long war. She arrived in this country with only the clothes on her back, knowing barely any English. In the refugee camp, she received job training and English lessons. She also got all of her teeth removed, a result of non-existent dental care during her years in her old country (she has been wearing dentures since before I was born). She found work as a hairdresser and manicurist in a beauty salon. Her sweet nature and willingness to work at all hours earned her loyal customers. By the time I was born, thirteen years later, she was making a comfortable living. We are not rich, but I could go to college, something my mother never had the opportunity to do. My mom is very proud that I graduated from college and finishing up medical school. It is hard to imagine what her life would be like had she not been given a chance to come to this country.

My mom does not often talk much about her years before she came to this country, but I know she grew up in poverty, in a society wrecked by war and corruption. From the time she was a child, she helped her mother carry and set up stalls to display and sell used clothing on the sidewalk. This was how they made their living. Poor as they were, they could not escape the harassment from police, who extorted payments from street vendors and invented charges to punish those who did not or could not pay them. She still recalls the times she watched her mother get taken away to jail and their entire load of used clothes confiscated because they had no money to make the payment. She spent days waiting outside the jailhouse for her mother to be released. They were destitute. At thirteen, she worked in restaurants and then bars and hotels. I know she was exploited during those years although she does not tell me. When the South Vietnam government collapsed, she found herself among the flow of refugees out of the country. This was her chance for a new life in the US.

My mom was lucky she was admitted into this country legally. As that of all refugees who came with her, my mom’s initial status was "parolee", as if she was on probation for some criminal violation. But at least she did not have to hide from INS agents. She was able to work, find a place to live, rebuild her life. Later she was gained legal status, received a green card, and eventually became a citizen. The circumstances of a lot of the undocumented in this country are no different from those of my mom’s: they are poor, they come from countries wrecked by war, unrest, economic collapse, corruption, terror and intimidation. They seek a better life. But for them, coming to this country is not an end to their plight. They continue to live in fear of arrest and deportation, continue to be subjected to mistreatment and exploitation.

According to the INS statistics in 2000, the three countries from which the largest numbers of undocumented immigrants came from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Close behind were Honduras, Nicaragua, and Haiti. Economic conditions, combined with decades of political turmoil, war, and violence in many of these countries leave many with no choice but to flee their homeland and make the arduous journey to the US. Along the way, they are murdered, raped, and face other abuses, but still they come. Some come alone to find work so they can send money home, others bring their family. Unfortunately too often this issue is simplified and marginalized. Charges such as, “They’re here illegally” and the media’s portrayal of them as people breaching our borders and breaking our laws make it easier for many of us to turn a blind eye to the desperate conditions of these people and to condone the violent and inhumane manner with which our government deals with them. We give the authorities carte blanche to hunt them down, raid places where they work, arrest, jail, and deport them. I have watched news programs showing INS raids where undocumented individuals are shown tied up and put in cages, waiting to be taken away. They are treated as if they are criminals who must be removed from our society. They are not criminals. They have harmed no one. They come here not with intent to harm us, but only to seek relief from the dire conditions at home. They come here looking for work, even at substandard wages, so they can keep themselves and their families alive. Their only crime is to be poor.

We may need to secure our borders, but only against those who want to do us harm: terrorists, drug smugglers, and the like. Must we close our borders to people just because they are poor and need a life-saving chance? Working in jobs unwanted by most Americans, they provide cheap labor, keep our food prices low, and contribute to our economy while generating their own demands and jobs. Those who argue that they take jobs from citizens should realize that we have a global economy. Jobs are being shipped overseas legally by corporations anyway, and the salaries paid to worker in these foreign countries are not put back into our economy.

Our immigration policies welcome well-educated individuals such as distinguished artists, writers, and scientists into our country because “they have something to contribute.” While no one would dispute this statement, it denies the huge contribution of those who are less educated, less privileged. We also cheer human rights advocates, dissenters against repressive regimes, and people escaping political persecution from many countries all over the world. We welcome them as heroes of freedom. We need to realize that economic oppression is as grinding and as pitiless as political repression, and often a result of social unrest, war, and corruption. That the victims are not intellectuals or political figures does not make them any less human, any less deserving of our sympathies.

There have been numerous proposals about granting amnesty to the millions of undocumented immigrants who are already in this country. The proposals have met with fierce opposition. One of the arguments from groups that oppose any amnesty is that those who break the law by entering the US illegally should not be rewarded for doing so. Some even suggest that they should go back to their country and reapply from there. “Follow the proper procedure prescribed by US law,” they say, “and wait.” “Until when?” I ask. Don’t they understand the desperate condition these people must face everyday in their home country? And at the rate the INS processes cases, these people will wait until they are old and still they will never be called for interview.

Most bills that have come before US congress to address the issue of undocumented immigrants in recent years have not come to any resolution, due as much to lack of consensus as to lack of political will. And so the status of millions of immigrants remains “illegal.” They remain subjected to searches, arrests, detention, deportation, without recognition of their rights and contributions. They receive no protection from groups that want to blame them for all the ills of our society. Members from these groups even go as far as to arm themselves and patrol the borders as if against an enemy, threatening to shoot and kill anyone attempting to cross.

Many of us forget that we have occupied this land for only a few hundred years. As we expanded westward, we drove the Native Americans who were here long before us deeper and deeper into reservations, leaving them and their cultures devastated. And as a result of the 1848 Mexican-American War, which started as a border dispute, we forced Mexico to cede us over half of its territory, which included present day California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming, moving the US-Mexico border down to the Rio Grande. An old Mexican man, upon hearing about a teenage boy who was shot and killed while crossing the river from Mexico to the US commented bitterly, “For thousands of years, we lived on both sides of this river, families crossed it back and forth to visit each other, and then one day someone put up a fence and then it became a crime to go across, a crime for which you could be killed.”

There is a time when we must recognize the fundamental truth that all people are equal and should be treated with the same dignity and respect, and this should not depend on their gender, the color of their skin, the money they have, or whether or not they carry a document issued by the US government. It must not depend on whether that person was born inside or outside our borders. Our government should not exclude a class of people because they are poor. They should be given the same chance as everybody else. If someone is willing to hire them, if they can work, can pay taxes, contribute to this country, there is no reason not to let them stay. Some might say, “But our country cannot afford to do it!” I believe we can. We were able to free a class of people on whose exploited labor the South depended upon and to recognize them as fellow Americans. Our county has only become better and stronger for it. We can do something like that again.

Our constitution does not tell us to exclude people because they are poor or because of the color of their skin. Laws that criminalize them are not based on our constitution. We have turned our backs away from our original ideals. But I have faith in the ability of country to look at itself and correct its past mistakes. We have recognized the rights of various marginalized classes of people: women, blacks, Native Americans, homosexuals. If we are to call ourselves a free people, we must embrace these so called “illegals” who have contributed so much in helping build up our nation.

In the end, we must all look into our hearts and ask ourselves, “Is it right to treat these people the way we do, perpetuate a system of laws that discriminates and violates the freedom and dignity of a whole class of people just because they are poor?” All the excuses: They broke the law. They’re foreigners. They take our jobs. They stretch our resources….None of them can in any way justify the inhumanity we allow to continue.

At least fifty communities all over the US, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley have passed laws that protect undocumented people from federal searches and call for a better treatment of these people. If all cities recognize this fact and refuse to cooperate with federal authorities in any activity that attacks the safety and well-being of undocumented people, our government will have to rethink its policies. We need to stop sanctioning actions that violate basic human rights, laws that criminalize people on the basis of their race and wealth, for who they are. We cannot continue to close our eyes, our ears, our hearts to the reasons why they are here, why they cannot obey these laws. We simply cannot close our borders and believe we solved the problem. To many of those trying to cross the border, it is a matter of living or perishing.

What do you do when you and your family have nothing left to live on: no money, no food, no protection? The border offers temporary relief, a hope, a chance at a better life. We need to make our government know that we want laws that allow these millions of undocumented immigrants, people like us, to live as humans, to be given a chance like everyone else.


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