I recently read one of the most disturbing news articles I have seen in some time. It wasn’t about the World Trade Center, plans to bomb Iraq or the sniper in Washington DC. It’s a devastating tale of hypocrisy; murder, and suffering that could have been prevented if only we lived by the principles the United States was founded on.
Tainted with abuses, the United States also has a long history of coming to terms with the language used in her founding documents that state simply that every person has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That is a promise that hasn’t always been kept. For too many years Black Americans and women were denied many of the rights promised to them in the Declaration of Independence. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to keep out all people of Chinese origin. Chinese inside the United States were barred from suing or marrying Europeans.
During the “Red Scare” of the 1920s, thousands of foreign-born people suspected of political radicalism were arrested and brutalized; many were deported without a hearing. In 1942, 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent were interned in camps until the end of World War II.
A work in progress, the courts, government and people of the United States eventually came to recognize the injustices and reconciled, at least as far as the law is concerned, the actualities with the promises granted in the founding documents.
Despite a veto by President Andrew Johnson, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 declared that all persons born in the United States were now citizens, without regard to race, color, or previous condition. As citizens they could make and enforce contracts, sue and be sued, give evidence in court, and inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.
It took sixty years to pass the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act, and another twenty years until numbers of Chinese allowed into the United States was comparable to the numbers of Europeans.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in voting, education, and the use of public facilities, and barred the use of federal funds for segregated programs and schools.
In my view there are two basic strides that need to be made today to provide the rights granted in the Declaration of Independence to clear up the hypocrisies invading our society today. The first, which I won’t address now, is rights for gays and lesbians. The second is rights for undocumented immigrants.
Since this nation’s founding, more than 55 million immigrants from every continent have settled in the United States. In fact, with the exception of Native Americans, everyone living in this country is either an immigrant or the descendent of voluntary or involuntary immigrants.
On immigrant rights, first let me say that the classification of persons by their nature as “illegal” is unjust and immoral. Without stating so, the United States accepts certain numbers of these “illegal” people in the economic interest. Under present conditions, people inside the United States classified as “illegal” are legally available for exploitation and abuse, economically and otherwise. Their conditions and treatment are just as criminal and unjust as those imposed on women, blacks, Chinese, Japanese, and other groups in previous times. They enter the United States and subject themselves to this abuse and exploitation to be with families, in hopes of bettering their lives, and because of the promises granted in the founding documents of the United States of America.
In order to maintain the classification of “illegal” people, we participate in an ongoing charade called “border patrol” with the stated purpose of keeping would-be “illegals” out. Of course it doesn’t work–and I question whether it is at allsupposed to work. What it does do is create a criminal enterprise built around smuggling “illegals” in. Many are sacrificed in the process. Which brings me to the disturbing article I read. As many as eleven badly decomposed bodies were discovered in an Iowa railcar. The car, which had left Mexico more than a month before, was in long-term storage in Oklahoma. Investigators suggested a smuggler, cash in hand, locked the hatch on the car and left those inside the metal oven to cook in the Oklahoma heat. Medical experts said they probably died slowly and painfully from severe overheating or asphyxiation.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, increased attention and abused have been placed on immigrants, both legal and illegal. Detention, deportation, and discrimination have become commonplace.
It is right for a nation to protect itself from potential terrorists. It seems however that could be done all the better if people were not able to be classified as “illegal.” An “illegal” inside the United States can easily disappear, whereas a legal entrant will be documented. If an immigrant should want to enter the United States, barring any serious criminal background or membership in terrorist organizations, survival is nature’s law and our classifications and patrols shouldn’t create unjust barriers to that law. Let them in.
The rights expressed in the document we must come to terms with on all levels, were, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “granted by a creator.” We cannot take them away. An Oklahoma Sheriff called the event a “heartbreaking human tragedy.” Failure to come to terms with the contradictions between our promises and our practice has placed the blood of these eleven souls on all of our hands. Sadly, failure to act will mean many additional newspaper headlines like this one and only lead to additional tragedy.
For more information about the Constitution and immigration, visit the ACLU website at www.aclu.org