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The undocumented and the inhumane

Jack Lessenberry

It now seems nearly certain that one of our major political parties is going to nominate a presidential candidate who has pledged to deport every undocumented person in this nation.

Experts say that’s about 11 million people.

This has struck terror into the heart of one woman I know, who is not from Mexico, but Eastern Europe, who cleans houses and takes care of her husband and little daughter

She’s been living in fear for years anyway. Whenever she goes to work, she knows she is just one traffic stop from potential deportation. I knew her for years before she confided the truth about her status.

When I suggested she see an immigration attorney at a legal aid clinic, she even seemed paranoid about that. When I assured her they wouldn’t turn her in, she asked how a free attorney could possibly be any good.

Her life is bad enough.

But now think how bad it is for undocumented immigrants in Flint. Flint wasn’t a hotbed of illegal immigration even before the water was poisoned. There haven’t been many jobs there for a long time. But there are some people without papers virtually everywhere, and I would guess there are a few hundred in Flint.

From accounts I’ve seen, most are Hispanic, and many are having a harder time than their neighbors, for whom life has been no picnic. Last night, Rana Elmir, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, talked to me about them.

She showed me press accounts, notably in the new media outlet Fusion, about undocumented people who went to fire stations to get bottles of water, were asked for identification, and fled.

Some may be still drinking the tap water.

Some were drinking it long after it was safe, because they don’t speak English – and no one was printing any information in any other language.  Some won’t answer the door when well-meaning people knock to see if they need water, because they fear it may be immigration authorities.

Back in February, the Department of Homeland Security did announce that they and Customs and Border Protection “do not and will not pose as individuals providing ... water,” or conduct enforcement operations near water distribution locations.

That’s good, but not good enough for a coalition of 60 civil rights organizations who have written to the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, asking that Washington publicly suspend any immigration enforcement activity in Flint.

They argue it would be inhumane to deport someone poisoned by lead to a country where they couldn’t get proper medical assistance.

Naturally, the idea of mass deportations of any kind is ridiculous and barbaric. That would severely cripple our economy and put this nation on a moral plane with Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Besides, the entire concept reeks with hypocrisy. I once saw a marvelous poster of a sour-looking Geronimo holding a rifle. The caption said, “unsuccessfully fighting illegal immigration since 1492.”

No, America can’t take in everybody on the planet.

But we pretty much all come from ancestors who were once unwanted strangers. Those who have been here for years are now part of the fabric of this nation.

We need at the very least, to treat them with the humanity we deserve.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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