Earned Citizenship

February 24th, 2010, by GABRIEL THOMPSON

The hardships that undocumented workers suffer, which I witnessed firsthand while reporting my book, has me thinking about a term that is frequently used in debates around immigration: “earned citizenship.”

The phrase is meant to highlight the fact that immigration reform wouldn’t just grant people amnesty, but force them to follow a path to citizenship that they must “earn” by paying fees, taking English classes, etc.

I understand the strategic purpose of highlighting this idea, but it still makes me want to punch the nearest wall.

The truth is that most undocumented immigrants have already demonstrated more chutzpah than people like me ever will, and have already sacrificed to the extent that the notion of making them “earn” anything is condescending.

When I was at the poultry plant, many of my coworkers were Guatemalan immigrants. In brief, my life story: I grew up in the suburbs, moved to New York City, and like to read and write.

Their life story: fled a civil war in which many of their friends and family were killed. Arrived in Florida to pick tomatoes for years in an area where slave labor still flourishes. Now they spend eight hours a day doing the highly repetitive work of poultry processing, sometimes suffering from carpal tunnel and other ailments. Half of my English-speaking orientation crew had left the job within weeks; many of the Guatemalans I worked alongside had stuck with the work for years.

When I’ve gotten to know the individual stories of undocumented immigrants, the last thing on my mind is that they need to “earn” something more in order to prove they are willing to make sacrifices to live in this country. Instead, I think about how lucky I am to have had such an easy life, which was only made possible because some very determined Finns and Norwegians took a big risk a hundred years ago and got on a boat.

Of course, back then we didn’t make my ancestors “earn” anything — if they were white and had the gumption to make the dangerous trek, they were granted legal status — so some things have certainly changed.

Gabriel Thompson is an award-winning investigative journalist, who, in 2005, traveled to Mexico to complete his book, There’s No José Here. His latest book, Working in the Shadows, chronicles his year-long experiment working undercover in the immigrant workforce. Check out his new book and become a Facebook fan.

Last modified: May 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm