Commentary: Honor students and 'illegal aliens'

Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton
Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton The Sacramento Bee

It can't be stated often enough that the term "illegal alien" is deeply hypocritical and prejudicial.

That point was driven home last week when the California's state Assembly voted in favor of granting college financial aid to "illegal alien" kids. In hundreds of reader comments on sacbee.com, invective rained down on the fresh-faced images of young people who could benefit from the Assembly decision – some outstanding students.

The very term "illegal alien" is like blood dumped in shark-infested waters. It triggers fuming reactions in the absence of understanding that not all "illegals" are alike.

And not all those who hate the words are in favor of open borders or opposed to sovereignty and fortified borders.

An open border is neither a good idea nor politically realistic. Sovereignty and fortified borders are essential in the age of terrorism.

But there is a big difference between a drug dealer and a day laborer. There is a big difference between a rapist and an honor student.

So why are they all segregated by the single label of illegal alien? As Americans we reject generalizations of large groups of people, except in this case.

Last year, the New York Times/CBS published a poll saying that 74 percent of Americans thought illegal immigrants weakened the economy.

It sounds provocative, but really there is no verifiable proof to back this misplaced sentiment.

Dig up an anti-illegal-immigrant study and you'll likely find that it was funded by an anti-illegal-immigrant group.

Then there are the strongly held feelings that "illegal aliens" steal jobs from Americans. OK. But in the labor markets of California and other Western states, there is no proof of this.

Last year, the Associated Press analyzed 1,160 farmworker positions open to U.S. citizens and legal residents – real jobs posted in real unemployment offices in California, Texas, Nevada and Arizona. According to AP, one grower hired 36 people – and that was it.

Paul Wenger, president of the Sacramento-based California Farm Bureau Federation, told me the same story last year.

"If we could hire from within our own borders it would be great, but people are not lining up," he said.

But too many Americans don't want to acknowledge this. I dare some of you to take a ride up to the Yuba City area in July when it's good and hot so you can pick melons all stooped over and moving as fast as you can to keep up with the real workers.

Good luck.

The scripted response by immigration hawks is: What about "illegal" don't you understand? Fine. What about economic reality don't you understand? What about out-of-date laws don't you understand?

Yet this is where it all breaks down. The idea of immigration reform dies when it comes time to acknowledge the need for immigrant labor.

It breaks down when anybody mentions a pathway to citizenship for immigrants and when acknowledging there is a difference between the day laborer and the drug dealer.

Many worthy laws to reform immigration are either blocked in Congress or have been shot down altogether.

Wenger and some of the largest grower groups in California teamed with the United Farm Workers union to support legislation that would allow law-abiding undocumented workers a chance to earn legal status.

Farmworkers would have to pay a fine for being illegal. They wouldn't be eligible if they had committed any serious crimes and would have to be legitimately working to qualify for assistance under a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The bill remains blocked in Congress.

The federal "Dream Act" died in Congress late last year. It would have provided a pathway to legal status for the children of illegals who were brought to this country when they were too little to have any say in being "illegal aliens." The Dream Act was for law-abiding kids going to college or the military, though it couldn't get the votes to pass the U.S. Senate.

That the state Assembly passed the "California Dream Act," to help undocumented students receive financial aid was positive.

These kids are not taking the slots of Americans. They still have to pay their own way. And yet, some still refer to them as criminals.

Regardless, the state Senate is expected to pass the California Dream Act and there is a good chance Gov. Jerry Brown will sign it into law.

It's all very nice, but it's all very symbolic.

We can help these kids with their tuition, but when they graduate, the honor student could still wind up shackled and deported with the drug dealer.

It's against federal law for employers to hire "illegal aliens" no matter how smart they are.

On Friday, The Bee carried the haunting image of one such person. Maria Luna wore her Sacramento State cap and gown as she watched the Assembly debate from the gallery.

Luna was present for the proceedings, but apart from them in that she can't share in the benefits of a society she is now fully capable of enhancing with her education.

Such is life as an illegal alien.

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