In the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the anti-gay folks divided people with the disease into moral categories. You were either "good" or "bad" based on how you contracted the disease; and gay people, of course, were on the bad side. The current national debate over immigration reform has a similarly disturbing, divisive and moralizing undertone that echoes those early days of HIV/AIDS. The classification of immigrants into "good" and "bad" camps is undermining the effort to create a common-sense immigration process that creates roadmap to citizenship for all new Americans. Let's not buy into it.
A lot of people - gays included - put undocumented Americans into two categories: the "innocent/good" and the "illegal/bad." The good category includes immigrants who are graduating from U.S. colleges with high-tech skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (the "STEM" students), young immigrants who were brought here at an early age by their parents or other relatives (the "Dreamers"), and foreign partners of U.S. citizens who are gay or lesbian.
The bad category is just about everyone else--or the overwhelming majority of the 11 million new Americans with whom we rub shoulders every day. They are frequently - and wrongly - castigated as people who snuck across the border to take good jobs away from real Americans, who don't pay taxes, and who are a drain on government-funded services. Just a few days ago, Alaska Rep. Don Young conjured up this demeaning stereotype by using the derogatory term "wetbacks" in talking about immigrant workers.
Back in the early days of the AIDS plague, there was a similar good/bad categorization of people with the disease; they were part of the "4H Club."
One of the "H's" - hemophiliacs who were infected through contaminated blood products and babies who became infected by their mothers - was for the "innocent" victims. The other three "H's" - Haitians, heroin users and homosexuals - went into the bad bucket as they were perceived to have become ill through - in the words of arch-bigot Sen. Jesse Helms - "deliberate, disgusting and revolting conduct."
As the AIDS epidemic unfolded with all its terror and death, thinking people realized that HIV/AIDS wasn't a moral issue, but a public health crisis. Finally, in 1990, the government responded by enacting the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act. While named after one of the "innocent" victims - Ryan was a young hemophiliac - the measure was designed to provide services to all people with HIV who couldn't otherwise afford them.
The good vs. bad categorization of undocumented immigrants today is just as irrational, dumb and heartless as the "4H Club" was back then. And, just like HIV/AIDS, the broken immigration system needs a fair, humane and comprehensive response, not one that elevates the "good" immigrants while penalizing and stigmatizing the supposedly "bad" ones.
Unfortunately, leaders in both the House and Senate are falling over themselves in a morality play to show how they will punish immigrants who did not follow the rules. These "bad" immigrants will have to plead guilty to a criminal offense, pay a steep fine and back taxes, somehow document their employment history, and then "get to the back of the line" to apply for work authorization and citizenship, behind those already seeking residency status through established channels.
The media is reporting that both the House and Senate bills will require that undocumented people wait from 10 to 16 years before being able to apply for a green card. There will then be another 5-year wait to apply for citizenship. Of course, the truth is that it will take even longer because undocumented people won't be able to get in line until everyone ahead of them waiting in other countries is cleared out. And, throughout this entire time they will be paying taxes but will be blocked from receiving federal benefits paid by those taxes, such as Social Security or unemployment benefits.
All of these hurdles are based on a moral judgment about immigrants, not on the reality of their lives or hard data about their impact on jobs and the economy. During the AIDS crisis, anti-gay forces demonized the majority of people who had the disease and said it was their own fault they got it. Similarly, today's anti-immigrant forces pin the blame on America's newest residents for a host of problems that are largely beyond their control, including the hopeless conditions in the countries they came from. These people are not criminals or "illegal." They are not living off someone else's dime. They simply were compelled to come to America - just as my grandparents were - to try to feed and house their families and join family members already here.
Back in the day, anti-gay forces sought to ignore the science of HIV - namely, that it was a transmittable virus - and claim it was "God's punishment for homosexuality." Today, anti-immigrant forces ignore the overwhelming body of data showing that immigration strengthens and grows the economy and makes us a better country.
We can't let them win the argument. America finally began to do the right thing when it came to helping people with HIV/AIDS. Now we need to do the right thing for all of America's newest residents and create a system where the road to citizenship isn't loaded with punitive barriers - and the wait isn't so ridiculously long.