Saturday, March 26, 2011

"'Illegal' means 'Illegal'" except when it doesn't

Meet Leeland Davidson: 95 year-old resident of Centralia, Washington. Decorated World War II veteran. Not a United States citizen.

Mr. Davidson was born in British Columbia in 1916. Both of his parents were United States citizens, but they never filed the correct paperwork for their son. And, now Leeland Davidson has run into a bureaucratic nightmare because he can’t actually prove that his parents were citizens. They were each born in the rural Midwest in the late 1800s, before birth certificates were issued.

The citizenship surprise came when Mr. Davidson went to apply for an enhanced ID so that he could travel to visit his cousin in Canada. Not only was he denied the ID, the paper pushers advised him to let the matter drop. They warned him that if he pursued his attempts to get identification he might wind up losing his social security benefits. He might even face deportation.

Critics of the current immigration system in the United States refer to the system as “broken.” That brokenness would seem to be on full display here. After all, here we have a system in which laws, policies, procedures, and paperwork make difficult or impossible that which is “plainly the right thing to do.”

This story also is a perfect illustration of what white privilege looks like. Taking a page from Tim Wise, in this story we see that:
White privilege means being able to live in the United States for 95 years without ever once having your immigration status questioned.

White privilege means that rules and laws don’t really apply to you. “Oh, that’s not how the law was intended. We’ll make an exception for you.”

White privilege means being able to openly speak of your immigration status without fear.

White privilege means that your experience defines what it means to be American.

White privilege means that the media will treat your immigration story as a quirky, offbeat, and humorous human interest story. (In this news broadcast, this story was lumped in with a story about “pole dancing for Jesus.” I originally discovered this story in the Yahoo news feed that regularly brings me “news” of funny videos of pets on YouTube and unusual sports bloopers.)
While critics of the immigration system in our country refer to that system as broken, those who favor tougher immigration laws and enforcement have rallied around a slogan that announces “illegal means illegal.” This argument says that no exceptions should be made for anyone. The law is supreme. No consideration should be given to keep families together or to look out for a child’s welfare. If the child was brought here as an infant or toddler and has lived her entire life here, she should be barred from receiving financial aid to go to college. No consideration whatsoever should be given to complexity or nuance, to larger social and economic and geopolitical factors, or to a higher sense of what is moral and humane. Everything is black and white. Illegal means illegal.

It will be interesting to see whether the anti-immigrant voices in the United States speak up loudly and unequivocally in the case of Leeland Davidson. Will they demand that Leeland Davidson be held to account? Will they charge him with voter fraud? Will they charge him with social security fraud? Will they call for him to be deported to a country where he never actually lived? Somehow I doubt it. The laws are the laws and they need to be obeyed, except when they don’t.