Editorial: Time to define what it is to be American


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Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas spoke Monday night at the Englert Theater about America’s need for immigration reform that moves the country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants toward legal status.

Vargas himself is not a documented American citizen; he was brought to the United States at age 12 and found out upon applying for a driver’s license four years later that his green card was a fake. He hid his undocumented status — even as he built national reputation as a journalist — until 2011, when Vargas wrote openly about it in the New York Times.

In his current role as an immigration-reform advocate, Vargas fights for the rights of the undocumented, who, he believes, deserve a path to legal status. His message and the message of the nonprofit organization he started, Define American, revolves around a central question: How do you define an American?

This question takes the immigration debate beyond questions of policy: How many resources should we direct toward border enforcement? How broad should our guest-worker program be? and into more abstract questions of national identity and morality.

As the battle over immigration reform plays out, we as a society will have to answer Vargas’s central question: Who is American, who is not, and how should that difference affect how we treat people?

The cut-and-dried answer is clear enough. Citizens and documented immigrants are Americans with access to the full gamut of freedoms and services afforded to Americans; undocumented immigrants are lawbreakers who belong to a lower, un-American class by virtue of their illegality.

This is the worldview that colors much of the current immigration policy debate and large swathes of public opinion. The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes that it is wrong.

The undocumented are a group of people who made a tough decision to come here or, in many cases, arrived as children. They have as many internal problems as any other group, of course, but they have as many virtues, too. They contribute to American society — they’re a part of American society — but they receive comparatively little in exchange.

More importantly, the undocumented are individuals who live and work and raise families in the United States like anyone else. But on top of the stress of daily life, undocumented workers often live in constant fear of being found out and without many of the protections afforded to legally recognized members of society.

We will ultimately be judged by how we treat people of every kind. As it stands, we treat our undocumented neighbors poorly; the undocumented in America are too often denied the basic protections we take for granted and too often denigrated in our politics.

We support a path to full legal status for America’s undocumented immigrants; anyone who chooses to live and work in the United States deserves a chance to do so freely.

As another set of political campaigns begins to take root in Iowa, we’re going to hear a whole lot of rhetoric about immigration. There will talk both ways about “amnesty” and “waiting their turn” and “a path to citizenship,” but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of what’s at the heart of the debate: 12 million real people.

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