by Brennah Dallaire
Central Connecticut State University philosophy professor Stephen Balkaran has released his sixth book, “Before We Were Called Hispanics: Conversations On Race, Politics and Immigration Reform.”
“I feel a calling to raise America’s conscience, that we are a nation of immigrants, we will always be a nation of immigrants, we have always had anti-immigrant sentiments and I think we need to stop that and look at the positive aspects of immigration,” Balkaran said.
The focus of the book is to bring awareness to readers about the role of hispanic culture in America stemming back as far as the 1500s. The current political landscape has negated the positive impact Hispanic people have made in the United States. The Hispanic community has continued to be a pawn in politics since the presidential election in 2008. “Before We Were Called Hispanics” features topics of civil rights and human rights and seeks to start a conversation regarding the role of hispanic immigration in the United States.
“One of the most divisive topics I’ve written about extensively on is called immigration. Immigration has divided the nation across racial lines, ethic lines, unheard of in American history. I felt that the anti-Hispanic movement in this country, building a wall, has really divided who we are and taken away the best of what we are, as Americans… we are all human beings,” Balkaran said.
“An Open Letter from Undocumented Immigrants: Why Comprehensive Immigration Reform Still Matters to All of Us” was featured in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Journal of Hispanic Policy in July of 2017 and is featured as the ninth chapter of his newest book. Below is an excerpt from Chapter Nine of “Before We Were Called Hispanics: Conversations On Race, Politics and Immigration Reform”.
The comprehensive immigration reform debate goes far beyond the typical discussions on the loss of jobs, draining on our social system, criminals, etc. It has now vested in “building a wall.” The economic, political, and social clout of current immigrants is far more beneficial than portrayed to the nation by our media, immigration critics, and politicians. Whatever the debates, our values, tradition of welcoming immigrants, and Americanism will be tested with how we approach and legislate the new comprehensive immigration reform laws. This complicated, but imperative public policy must be achieved by the new presidential administration for a number of reasons. It is imperative this legislation be passed in a humanistic, sensitive, and compelling way that illustrates our American values of embracing diversity and inclusion of all. Embodied in this reform legislation, one must be cautious, compassionate, and not forget the watchwords of our immigrant history and our nation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
First and foremost, comprehensive immigration reform must be conducted in a humanistic way that champions human rights and diversity. As the leader of the democratic free world, history reminds us of our vast atrocities of human rights violations: slavery, the Trail of Tears, the Mexican Repatriation Act, and last, but definitely not least, Japanese internment. Can we conclude, then if American history doomed to repeat itself? If human rights becomes the center of the debates, how do we address families who have lived here undocumented for decades, and their children growing up in American communities, who have established friends, loyalty, and community relationships? This legislation must be done in a humanistic way that takes precedence over our recent abrasive political rhetoric emanating mostly from frustrated Americans. We must be cautious and vigilant on how we plan to address immigrants, America’s greatest resource; it must be done with an approach filled with love and compassion. The breaking up and removal of families who have solidi- ed their roots here is un-American, unconstitutional, and it is not what we stand for as a country that professes tolerance, diversity, and acceptance.
As we delve deep into the waters of American patriotism, the cultural backlash that takes credence is founded on the philosophy many undocumented immigrants are unpatriotic toward America’s culture and refuse to be American. Hence, one would question what is or is not American? Is there a threshold to gauge our Americanism? This debate has not only generated dialogue about the continued role Americanism plays in our society, but has also posed the question of whether undocumented immigrants are truly committed to the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” The issue should not be whether undocumented immigrants are loyal to America. That question was answered when undocumented men and women signed up and served in America’s military, fighting to protect and promote democracy throughout the world for a country that has remained uncommitted to them. It must be noted that some 38,000 military officials serving in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not American citizens. In fact, history has forgotten that Lance. Cpl. Jose Gutierrez became one of the first casualties in Iraq. He illegally came to America and died serving America’s cause. Hence, the question is not if undocumented immigrants are loyal to America, but rather, can America live up to its rich tradition of welcoming immigrants in a fair and impartial way?
Secondly, the debate has turned to the economic impact of undocumented immigrants on American society. These economic arguments have been debunked by many economic pundits on the grounds that undocumented immigrants do not undercut wages, are not a drain on social services, and don’t take jobs that would otherwise go to Americans. The majority of undocumented immigrants are unskilled and thus never pose any economic threat for skilled jobs secured by legal residents or American citizens. In fact, economists have stated that undocumented workers actually compliment the economy and it’s the driving force behind our nation’s economic growth and prosperity.
In an interesting report released by the Social Security Administration in 2013, Stephen Goss, chief actuary, claimed undocumented workers contribute about $15 billion a year to social security through payroll taxes. On the flip side, Goss also commented these undocumented immigrants only receive about $1 billion since many of them are not eligible to receive benefits into which they paid. What is more astonishing, Goss noted in an interview for the New York Times that undocumented immigrants have contributed up to $300 billion, or nearly 10 percent, of the $2.7 trillion of the nation’s social security trust fund. In other words, their economic contribution and benefits to society far outreach many of the criticism undocumented immigrants face. The need to reach a humane solution on this immigration nightmare will ultimately benefit all Americans. Hence, there is a need to create a legal path to twelve million residents enabling them to come out of the shadows of despair in order to continue contributing to the American economic pie in a fair and just way that benefits all.
Last, and by no means least, the center of the argument is the breaking and outright disregard of American laws about undocumented immigrants—after all, we are a nation of laws. I do concur that our laws are to be respected, acknowledged, and obeyed by all. As American patriot, reverend, and civil rights activist Dr. Martin L. King Jr. noted, there are two types of laws: just laws and unjust laws. King further elaborated one has not only a legal, but also a moral responsibility to obey just laws, “but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” I must remind the American masses that slavery, racism, the removal of Native Americans from their land, and Jim Crow segregation in American society were all legal. King, his non-violence movement for civil rights, and the abolitionist movement in southern states were considered illegal in the eyes of the law.
Seldom do I ever pause and critique our legal process, but Americans openly voiced their disgust on undocumented immigrants’ willingness to break our laws. Yet, we refuse to critique unjust laws and customs that haunt our national history. It becomes paradoxical in our society when many of our laws that have perpetuated our ignorance and hatred toward others are obeyed and respected throughout our history. When we openly advocate obeying and disobeying laws in place to maintain law, order, and stability, but fail to question the validity of those laws, we ultimately become immune to the hatred we create.
As long as we have double standards in our society, and as long as President Donald J. Trump and other billionaires insist they avoid paying taxes by legally exploiting tax loopholes, our legal integrity and our laws must be examined. As long as there is criticism on undocumented immigrants for not paying their fair share of taxes, while Americans remain silent as our president and other billionaires fail to pay federal taxes, we have the right to question the integrity of our laws.
America is only as great as the doors and opportunities we open to others. Comprehensive immigration reform matters because America matters. Our nation’s trajectory is at stake. Immigration and America go hand in hand and without each other, there can be no true immigrant nation. Success in America is not determined by our ethnic background or our native language, but rather, our commitment and dedication that is so much part of our past and present immigrants. American history will remind us oppression takes away the best of who we are and what we can become as a nation. America’s passion of including all that choose to come here is the cornerstone of our history, democracy, and constitutionalism. Without this inclusiveness of all ethnic groups, the American Dream would not be possible.
“Before We Were Called Hispanics: Conversations On Race, Politics and Immigration Reform” is available at the CCSU bookstore.