Promotin’ the General Welfare

When DACA kids were spotlighted as part of the larger illegal immigration discussions during the Obama presidency, it may have been the first time many Americans were introduced to the subtle, yet significant, distinctions among those who were not legal citizens. Over the years working alongside people whose families came to this country both legally and illegally, I have come to understand well what troubles lie ahead for someone who was not a citizen, especially someone who had difficulty securing a green card or getting a visa extended. 


There were just as many people from Europe as they were people from the oft-disparaged Central American, South American, and Caribbean countries. At one point, while living in the northeast, I probably knew as many Irish “illegals” as I did Latinos caught up in the same dilemma, and to a lesser extent, quite a few from the Middle East and Eastern Europe.


If word got out that ICE raids were taking place, more than a few persons might be missing in action from their daily routines and had to go into hiding until things calmed down. Needless to say, those of us, their friends, were left to wonder if they’d been caught up in the dragnet. 


For some people, the immigration debate is cut-and-dry: either you are a citizen or you’re not, circumstances be damned. And for them, there is no debate about the status of DACA kids, who aren’t kids anymore – they’re adults now, adults who’ve spent almost their entire lives in this country. Culturally, they may have been raised in families whose heritage has ties to other than “America”, but they are no different than most Americans in that respect. They are essentially as American as all other Americans.


As Congress continued to leave unresolved the status of so many as resentment against illegal immigrants has risen, President Obama decided it was important to grant a measure of comfort and reprieve from being deported automatically provided they meet certain criteria – hence, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, which began in August of 2012.


It was hardly a perfect solution, but to those “illegals” who were here through no fault of their own, perhaps they could breathe a sigh of relief – but for how long?


Ultimately, Congress will have to address the matter, but Obama’s action upset so many in that divided body, there seemed to be a faction resolutely opposed on principle alone, those who refused to heed reason and consider a more rational approach. After all, a glance at DACA requirements reveals they are hardly flimsy, and seem to create a profile for the model American.


And let’s face facts: Congress knows well how much our economy depends on labor from so many illegal immigrants. Even business leaders have been chiming in on fair and compassionate immigration reforms for those working in all sectors of our workforce, from farming and manufacturing to service industries and tech companies.  


Stubbornly, some members of Congress can’t be budged. As a result, now under President Trump, approximately 800,000 Americans, who took a chance on the good word of the former president, are at risk of deportation.


Why should we be surprised?  


Marginalization is so engrained and normalized in the United States that we often overlook how it impacts those so affected. Even with all the effort to eliminate discrimination, there remains the tendency of human beings to act in accordance with norms. We learn to “see” people when they fill the roles we’ve come to expect them to fill, but not beyond those parameters, and if they dare desire to move past those boundaries, games of manipulation and machinations of the gatekeepers work together to keep out certain groups of people, by race/ethnic group, gender, class, creed, or orientation.  


More importantly, when segments of the majority population feel threatened by people not knowing their place in the society, even as they are allowed to move up and down in certain professions, those hates which lie dormant or close to the surface often find voice and expression in anxious times. Then, we learn that the ugly underbelly of racism has hardly subsided and must be dealt with even further.


Like racism, marginalization starts at home, and if members of the majority population choose to  marginalize and discriminate among their own, then it follows that all others should expect no better treatment down the road, regardless one’s station or situation.


While living in New England just after finishing college, the town I lived in was faced with a dilemma: how to distribute the population of the “poorest” school, located near the town center, proportionately among the remaining, better-performing schools in its district. Racially, the community was almost entirely “White.” The core issue seemed to focus on this question: if any one school took on too many “poor” kids, how might those kids alter the “balance” – the school environment, the performance, etc. – and, thus, success of that school?


This was public education, mind you. You’d like to think it should follow that the well-being of all kids is at stake in such a moment. But “those” kids weren’t “their” kids, and it was clear what “they” meant as “they” worked hard not to offend and maintain a modicum of decency while denigrating other people’s children.


Sadly, it was a sentiment I was all too familiar with as a New Orleanian. All the “good” kids attended the “good” schools, and with a few “exceptions” – those lucky enough who fell through the cracks, at least not too many lucky ones to upset the balance – the social order was maintained. Not long thereafter, returning home in 1992, for four years, I saw up close how families from marginalized communities in New Orleans had to fight harder and longer for a place at the table for their kids – and this was not as simple as a “White” v. “Black” thing; it was complicated even more so by the divisive segregation practiced among blacks themselves, the derisive and unbecoming attitude toward “other” Black children simply because they were not welcome.


When affirmative action became the whipping boy for those in the angry white electorate in the 80’s, each of us walking the campuses of Tulane, Loyola, and UNO heard the nasty words pointed in our direction. But as the old adage goes about sticks-n-stones, our immediate detractors failed to appreciate that it was not their ignorant and prejudiced words which posed the greatest harm; rather, it was the action, or inaction, of those in power who could grant or deny access to full participation.  


First, it was necessary to be in the know; once in the know, one had to apply to join. Once the criteria was set before you, the question was, “Can you meet the requirements?” And once you did, one’s admission was challenged. It was not enough to want to participate. Were you willing to take that chance? Well, how else were you going to “get there” unless you trusted and tried.


And even when you play by the rules, upon coming to the table, you often learn the rules may have changed, sometimes unannounced, and if that was unfair, it didn’t matter. It was a consequence born from circumstances in that moment, that region, that company, that environment. How high you dared to climb depended on your perseverance. Hopefully, being marginalized, you knew it was going to take just a bit more – your character would be tested, questioned, even before you showed what you could do. And even when you demonstrated your competence, that you belonged, the place to which you’d come was not so welcoming after all.


Take the recent stories of sexual harassment and discrimination coming out of the tech industry. As we learn more and more about the predominant macho-chauvinist-sexist culture of so many major tech companies, many may have to thank Ellen Pao for her courage. Ms. Pao, who sued her employer, was recently profiled on NPR.


“In 2012, tech investor Ellen Pao sued her employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, for gender bias. She accused her bosses of not promoting her because she was a woman — and then retaliating against her when she complained.”


She lost the case, but “the legal battle garnered national attention, prompting a closer look at gender diversity and inclusivity in the tech industry.”


In August, Anita Hill penned an op-ed for the New York Times regarding the once-anonymous Google misogynist’s memo.  “The recent leak of a Google engineer’s screed against the company’s diversity initiatives is a reminder that the notion of Silicon Valley as the seat of human progress is a myth — at least when it comes to the way the women behind the latest in technology are treated.”


Where you are born and to whom you were born are still, perhaps, the most significant factors impacting one’s route to success. Yet, though you may achieve and excel beyond expectations, there remain forces at work which complicate your path on the way to that slice of American pie. Sometimes, all they want is your gratitude ‘cuz you got your seat at the table. Now, you wanna be a VIP, five-course meal and meringue on your pie?


Even when we welcome people to our country with the promise of full participation, provided they “do the right thing,” they run the risk of rejection by members of the majority population because they are not welcome everywhere, even when their safe passage has been granted, secured, and guaranteed by their employers.


Earlier this year, two male Indian engineers were shot in an Olathe, KS, bar by a local man who was not pleased they were in America.  He threatened them with a familiar taunt (“You don’t belong here”) before leaving the bar. There were other patrons who called him a jerk and did not share his views, but he’d departed with a purpose and returned with a gun. Unfortunately, one of the men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, died from gunshot wounds, leaving his wife, who’d moved to the United States from India, to question, “Do we belong here?”  


For DACA kids, all grown-ups now, the answer is a simple, resounding “YES!”  For the many who support them despite the road they have had to travel, through no fault of their own, when answering the question — “Do they belong?” — the answer, overwhelmingly, is “YES!” But to those who do not see their humanity, and coldly, hatefully view them as unwanted undesirables, they are no better than the alcoholic Kansan who shot the engineers at that bar, no better than the tech chauvinists who make things uncomfortable for their female counterparts, no better than the better-off townspersons in that predominantly white New England town wanting to keep their nice White kids separated from those poor White kids, no better than those people who say, “Assimilate!” but wish not to accept those who do when they arrive.


So, why care about DACA kids, or DACA grown-ups, whether or not you know any?  


Our quality of life as a nation is contingent upon the success of all persons from all parts of society, marginalized communities included. The dilemma surrounding the status of DACA kids is the same dilemma all persons from marginalized communities face as they hope and work hard to enjoy a future that can be navigated with fewer, if any, hurdles or obstacles, where injustices are lessened or quashed, and where they can enjoy the fruits of full access and participation without enduring dehumanizing acts or suffering violence.


The “DACA kids” dilemma is not just about deciding the eligibility of DACA grown-ups to remain in this country. It is about how we treat human beings, our fellow Americans – for they are Americans in every sense of the word — and whether we will honor those virtues and values as a moral and ethical society.


You don’t have to know a “DACA kid” to understand the current anxiety or distress, or hurt; you just have to know the history of people from marginalized communities in America – their struggles, their successes, and their setbacks, and how they enrich our culture when given a chance to prove their worth.  


And if you don’t know that, they you don’t really know America.


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The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender’s Editorial Board.

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