Guilty Parents, Innocent Children?

By Domenico Maceri

Reacting to one of my articles on immigration, the reader revealed that she had been brought illegally to the US at age three by her parents. She committed no crime, but her parents’ illegal action still stigmatizes her. As she begins her graduate studies in an American institution of higher education, the reader went on, she is still “illegal.”

The reader is not the only one in that situation. Although children do not “inherit” their parents’ crimes, in the case of undocumented workers in the US, that is often the result.

The reader is a “virtual” American since she knows little or nothing of her native country. She has been educated in the US and although she might know some of her parents’ language, she would be in a foreign country if she were deported.

Since there are approximately 12 million undocumented workers in the US, there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of youngsters who could be labeled “guilty” of their parents’ crime. And yet, the children of undocumented workers had little say in their parents’ illegal act.

But they suffer the consequences. The reader will finish graduate school but may have trouble finding work in the only country she knows because she does not have legal papers. That would be a shame since she did nothing wrong.

Even what her parents did may not deserve the label of a “crime” since her parents could not have stayed in the US without companies committing the crime of hiring them. By virtue of the job that the parents did and the taxes they paid, the daughter attended school, did well, and has the potential of becoming a highly productive member of our society.

She is not the only one. Kids of undocumented workers contribute to the US in many ways. Some die for their country. One of the first casualties in the Iraqi war is Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, who was brought to this country illegally as a kid.

There are more than 41,000 foreign citizens in the U.S. fighting force, according to the Defense Department. It’s is possible and indeed likely that some of these soldiers may have parents who do not have legal status in the US.

Recognizing that kids of undocumented workers committed no crime, California, Texas, New York and Utah allow children of undocumented residents to attend public colleges and pay resident fees instead of the much higher out-of-state tuition. Several other states are considering following suit.

Attempts to help these youngsters have also been made at the federal level. The “Dream Act,” sponsored by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), which was introduced in Congress, would give temporary U.S. residency to students who entered the country illegally at least five years before the enactment of the proposed law. Residency would become permanent if the immigrant graduates from a two-year college, studies for a bachelor’s degree, enters the U.S. armed forces or performs 910 hours of community service.

Unfortunately, the “Dream Act,” introduced in the US Senate in July of 2001 went nowhere. The events of 9/11 virtually ended any chance of its passage.

In fact, the negative feelings against all foreigners also spilled over to undocumented workers and legislation has also been introduced in Congress that would take away citizenship from those individuals whose parents came into the US illegally.

Yet, not all is negative. In May of this year, Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy introduced a bill that reflects the broad principles outlined by President Bush to solve the immigration problems.

The bill offers a way for undocumented workers to regularize their status sometime in the future. If that happens, it would “wash” away their crime.

It would in all likelihood cleanse their kids of a crime even if they did not commit one. The reader who feels stigmatized would have the opportunity to become the American she already is.