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What Does Illegal Look Like

by Jess George

June 9,2010

If you spend any time on the east side of Charlotte, you know it is an international mosaic of ethnic restaurants, mom and pop businesses, and wildly diverse neighborhoods. Yesterday, on my way to work, I passed several mothers in bright headscarves helping their children onto the school bus, a Vietnamese grandmother chiding her straggling grandson as they walked to the corner store, and two Latino men laughing together as they waited at the bus stop – all within one city block.

These folks are my neighbors, but who are they exactly? Where are they from? What languages do they speak? How long have they lived here? Are they “illegal?”

What does an illegal immigrant look like?

This may sound like a ridiculous question, yet Arizona’s new immigration policy allows law enforcement to detain and arrest individuals based solely on a reasonable suspicion that they are illegally present in the United States. A copycat bill just introduced in the North Carolina legislature would require immigrants to carry and produce identification that proves they’re in the country legally.

Now re-imagine my daily commute, but this time grandma is being asked by the local police to show her papers.

This kind of reactionary legislation has not come out of the blue. Americans have every reason to be frustrated that our representatives at the federal level have failed to fix our broken and unenforceable immigration policy. In the absence of nationwide immigration reform, states and local municipalities are taking matters into their own hands, but at what cost?

While defenders of the Arizona law claim that this policy – and its progeny popping up across the nation – will not lead to racial profiling and discrimination, one must wonder how it will be enforced without it. How can you tell if someone is in the country illegally? By their skin color or their accent? The ACLU and other Civil Rights organizations have wondered the same, filing a joint suit against Arizona which declares the policy to be an unconstitutional violation of federal law. The United States is a nation of laws, but those laws must be just, appropriate and enforceable.

Immigration isn’t new and isn’t wrong. It’s not a plague. Migration is a part of the human condition that has existed since the dawn of man. The city of Charlotte has a long and proud history of immigration that brought large groups of Greek, Italian, and Scotch-Irish immigrants (to name just a few) to our region. More recent decades have brought families from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and has delivered a steady stream of U.S.-born migrants who continue to move to Charlotte from around the country.

Let’s face it: Charlotte is a city of newcomers. Like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles before us, Charlotte has become a destination for families from all around the country and the world, attracted by jobs, affordable homes, good schools, and a desire to be close to family members who have already made Charlotte their home.

Yet, anti-immigrant voices scream angrily that we must “demagnetize” our state; that we must do everything in our power to make our cities and our neighborhoods undesirable to immigrants. But families, no matter where they come from, are drawn to our area by the same fundamental motivation: the desire for a better life. Therefore, if we truly want to make our city undesirable to immigrants, we shall make it undesirable for everyone.

Fortunately we can still choose what kind of city Charlotte can and should be. Charlotte can become a city where "show me your papers" is just as common as "bless your heart," and where anyone can be subjected to harassment and investigation simply because they are perceived to be foreign. We can create an environment so fearful and toxic that no one will want to live here.

Or Charlotte can become a city that honors our immigrant past, present, and future. We can demand common sense immigration laws instead of costly enforcement-only smokescreens. We can be a city that expects our lawmakers to create policies that uphold our nation’s values, instead of putting people’s civil rights at risk. Rather than trying to decipher what “illegal” looks like, we can envision what Charlotte might look like: a great and welcoming global city.

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