Illegal immigrants can become good citizens

The sheer mass of people crossing our borders, legally and otherwise, tends to mask the individuals involved. Their stories are hidden, awash in the numbers.

Some come to our shores for no good reason. Whether they are terrorists whose intent is to cause us harm or drug smugglers hoping to profit from their poison, we don’t need them here. Tighter measures are needed to keep out dangerous individuals, or at least monitor the people who come. But they are not representative of all immigrants any more than a violent criminal is necessarily representative of his or her community.

The majority of immigrants are more like my friend, Ana, whose real name is withheld for her protection. She grew up in dire poverty in Mexico. From the time she was a small child, she had to rise before dawn to plant rice plugs, then pick beans, tomatoes or cotton, and do whatever else was required of her until dark. She was allowed to go to school for only two years before she was needed in the fields again.

When she was 16, Ana got married, like most girls in her village. Over the next 10 years, she had five children. She couldn’t bear to have them grow up in such poverty, but she and her husband – let’s call him Carlos – lacked the money and skills necessary to improve their lives in Mexico. Carlos’ sister had moved to Chicago. She sent money for Ana and her husband to come to America, but couldn’t afford to bring the family of seven. So the four older children stayed with Carlos’ parents while he and Ana took their three-month-old daughter from Mexico City to Tijuana.

There, they mingled with the day tourists from San Diego. At day’s end, they joined the crowds returning to California and walked across the border. From there, they flew to Chicago.

Border control is tighter now, of course – that was nearly 30 years ago. But the desire for a better life is no different today than it was then. Mexico’s poverty is just as bad. The passage is much more dangerous. It would be impossible for amateurs like Ana and Carlos to board a plane without proper documentation. Professional smugglers might be able to arrange that – for a price, of course – and those with enough education and money could get the legal documentation. Ana and Carlos could have managed neither.

When they got to Chicago, they stayed with Carlos’ sister and her family. They both got jobs. Ana’s new employer forged the paperwork needed for a Social Security card and other documents. All of her co-workers spoke Spanish, so there was no need to learn English – at first.

Her outlook changed entirely when she got a new job across town. She got lost on the way to work because she couldn’t read the signs, so she got fired. Ana got a new job, and her co-workers began to teach her English.

Carlos went back to Mexico for the other children. When Ana enrolled them in school, the principal offered to place them with Spanish teachers, but she insisted they learn English. The family was later granted permanent legal residency under President Reagan’s amnesty program.

Fast-forward to today: Ana and Carlos have good jobs. So do their children, all of whom graduated from high school. One son served in the Navy, giving back to the country that took him in when he was young. All of them pay taxes – none are on welfare.

America has nothing to fear from people like Ana and Carlos. Obviously not everyone who sneaks across the border will have a success story like this, and we need to secure the borders from troublemakers. But our country will suffer if the borders are closed entirely to people who want a better life and are willing to work for it – such individuals can only serve to improve our nation.

Karen Andrews is a senior majoring in mass communications.