Commentary: Immigrants are People, Not Political Pawns

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Carolina Canizales: making her Mamá proud on graduation day at UTSA. Courtesy photo.

Carolina Canizales: making her Mamá proud on graduation day at UTSA. Courtesy photo.

Pope Francis I, perhaps the most compelling moral voice on the world stage, has lamented the “racist and xenophobic attitudes” that continue to prevent comprehensive immigration reform in the United States.

The Pope’s clarity of conviction contrasts sharply with the muddled messages and determined inaction that characterize the behavior of lawmakers in Washington.

That’s why I find myself inspired by Pope Francis and by San Antonio’s own Archbishop, Gustavo García-Siller, and pleased by the executive action of President Obama last week to ease the plight of millions of undocumented workers in our country.


The Republican-controlled Congress has not and will not act on immigration reform. The party’s leadership knows it has no intention of acting now, just as it has refused to act until now. All the rhetoric about Obama’s actions poisoning the well are absurd. Bipartisanship is dead. It has been for years, and there were zero prospects it would be resurrected miraculously when the new Congress convenes in January.

Your life and mine won’t be changed one bit by the President’s action. That’s not the case for Carolina Canizales and her mother, both of whom came to San Antonio from northern Mexico when Carolina was only 10. Her mother found work cleaning houses in Alamo Heights, where the overwhelming majority of voters are conservative Republicans.

The last photo of Carolina Canizales and her grandfather together. She was nine years old. Courtesy photo.

The last photo of Carolina Canizales and her grandfather together. She was 9 years old. Courtesy photo.

Carolina was an intern at the Rivard Report in our first year of operation. She also is a DREAMer, an undocumented resident here legally, thanks only to a previous executive action by President Obama. She was a 4.0 student in the Alamo Heights public schools and went on to graduate with honors from UTSA. Now she is employed in Washington D.C. in the national DREAM movement. Her mother continues to live in the shadows and clean the homes of Alamo Heights residents.

Why would anyone contemplate deporting them to Mexico, a foreign country with nothing to offer them except human misery? Why would anyone deny them citizenship when both have proven themselves productive members of society? How would welcoming them as Americans cause you or me any harm, or make your life or mine any different?

It only takes a few generations to go from immigrant to hypocrite. Unless you are a Native American, you, too, trace your lineage to immigrants. If you are German, Irish, or French-Canadian, as I am, please don’t tell me your relatives came here legally and thus are different from contemporary Mexican “illegals.”

Then as now, most immigrants came here in search of work and opportunity, neither of which was to be found at home. Immigration was far easier in the 19th century and early 20th century. The difference then is that we legalized people who came here to take jobs that others didn’t want or that we couldn’t fill without an influx of workers.

Now we let our immigrants work, and in many cases, pay income taxes and Social Security, but we make them live in the shadows. Worse, so many Americans only a few generations removed from their own immigrant roots harbor irrational fear of foreigners or those who speak a different language. The result is another year, another Congressional term of the dysfunctional status quo.

President Obama has deported more than two million undocumented migrants, most of them Mexican and Central American. That’s more forced deportations than any other U.S. president in history. Such deportations have broken up families, separated parents from children, and led to tragedy as too many returning migrants join those who fall victim to robbery, rape, or the loss of life.

President Obama and the Congress in his six years in office have spent more money on border security than any other administration or Congress before now. Every year since Sept. 11, 2001, we have allocated more federal and state dollars to securing our borders. The terrorist acts of 9/11 had nothing to do with Mexico or its people who have immigrated here, but the acts of terrorism were all that xenophobic and racist opponents of immigration reform needed to block any and all change.

People forget history so quickly. President George W. Bush went to the White House in 2001 determined to bring his Texas perspective to Washington. He confidently announced his intentions to govern in the spirit of bipartisan goodwill and enact comprehensive immigration reform. He even broke with long-standing protocol and instead of making the Canadian Prime Minister the first head of state to be feted at a State Dinner, he invited another reform-minded president, Mexico’s Vicente Fox, to the White House and to address a joint session of the Congress.

Fox delivered a memorable speech calling for a new relationship between the two nations, one defined by mutual respect. The date was Sept. 6, 2001.


Presidents Bush and Fox then traveled together to visit a community of Mexican immigrants in Ohio. Five days later, comprehensive immigration reform died with the attacks of 9/11. Since then, our political system has become more dysfunctional with each passing election.

A second-term President Bush delivered the first nationally televised speech calling for comprehensive immigration reform in 2006. The terms he laid out, read today, don’t differ much from what President Obama did by executive order last week. Both Presidents failed to push comprehensive reform legislation through Congress.

Political gridlock in Washington now trumps moral imperative. That’s why executive action by Pres. Obama was necessary and long overdue. The Republican Congress is free to take control in January and send the President a comprehensive immigration reform bill to sign. But we know that will not happen.

Many of my conservative friends will disagree vehemently with my position, but I would say many are living by one set of values on Sunday and a different set the rest of the week.

Many who hold anti-immigrant beliefs are also clinging to the national campaign of disinformation perpetuated by right-wing cable television hosts and talk radio personalities. Here are three facts that refute their most familiar lines of disinformation:

One, nothing the President has done since coming into office or with his most recent executive action makes it any easier for a convicted felon or criminal who is not a citizen to stay in the country. Bad guys have been deported throughout the Obama presidency and will continue to be sent home.

Two, millions of undocumented immigrants are paying income taxes, real estate taxes and sales taxes, yet they are unable to file tax returns or participate in most federal social welfare programs.

Three, millions of undocumented workers pay Social Security taxes and cannot collect benefits when they reach retirement age.

Those three links came courtesy of New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof and his Friday, Nov. 21 column, “Immigration Enriches You and Me.” There is no more credible journalist writing on behalf of the powerless, here and around the world, than Kristof.

It is true that undocumented workers who work off the books, cleaning homes, mowing lawns, and engaging in other manual labor, do not pay taxes or Social Security. Even if they did, they wouldn’t owe any taxes they earn such small sums. They don’t collect any benefits, either.

Undocumented immigrants work long and hard hours with little hope of advancement. They pay their bus fare, their rent and utilities, and their grocery bills. They stay in the shadows. They live for a better day for their children and their children’s children. It’s the story of generational and familial sacrifice, a story as old as any other narrative in our collective hearts and imaginations.

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, and has always benefited from the contributions of immigrants. It continues to do so. There is no crisis. It’s a manufactured political play. Our borders are secure. Our economy is strong. We can afford to do the right thing.

That’s why I am sticking with Pope Francis I, Archbishop García-Siller, and for what he finally did last week, President Obama. For at least now, it’s a better world for Carolina Canizales and her hard-working mother. And it’s still a good world for you and me.

*Featured/top image: Carolina Canizales: making her Mamá proud on graduation day at UTSA. Courtesy photo.

Related Stories:

Reflection of a DREAMer, Embracing Her Uncertain Future

Colombia-style Paramilitarism Arrives at the Texas Border

Mayor Castro and Business Leaders Call for Immigration Reform

Why I Ride the Bus, Why Don’t You?

San Antonio in Motion, Emileigh Potter’s “The DREAMer”

A DREAMer in San Antonio, Ready to Contribute

4 thoughts on “Commentary: Immigrants are People, Not Political Pawns

  1. How beautiful to read the story of Carolina Canizales! Let us stand with her and thousands of others. If we cannot recognize the humanity of immigrants, we become less as human beings.

  2. Pope Francis is the most compelling moral voice on the world stage? The man presides over a church that still protects child rapists and shields them from justice. A church that still views and treats women as lesser than men. A church that still demonizes and excludes gays and lesbians from its communion and actively fights against civil marriage equality. Not exactly the morality I aspire to in my life.

    (It’s worth noting that the designation “I” after “Pope Francis” is superfluous until such time as there is a Pope Francis II.)

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