Lacking Papers but Owning Values

Rethinking the Criminalized Identity of Undocumented Individuals in the United States

Dangerous, criminal, welfare abusers, lazy, illegal, these are some of the terms that have been used in the media recently to describe undocumented immigrants in the United States. Even an editorial piece published locally made the argument that the deportation of all undocumented people should be made priority to avoid murders, such as that of Kate Steinle, a woman who was murdered by an undocumented man. Kate Steinle’s death in San Francisco in 2015 is a tragedy; however, it is not an immigration issue as Donald Trump and many in the media have attempted to label it.

There is no proof nor viable research that sustains the notion that immigration status has a direct correlation to crime or violent behavior, nor that someone who is undocumented is more predisposed to become a murderer. Yet, over and over again, the identity of undocumented folks in the country is repeatedly criminalized and dehumanized, viewed only in a positive light when seen as an extension of labor.

And historically, the labor of undocumented immigrants in the United States has been severely undervalued. The view of their contributions as unskilled and expendable is made possible through negative depictions in the media. Policies have been implemented that have established a hierarchical structure that labels undocumented people as less than human. Undocumented immigrants, as we have seen in the past, are the first to be scapegoated when the nation undergoes financial crisis or social instability. They otherwise remain invisible as we profit from their livelihood and willingness to work for meager wages.

Let us give merit where merit is due: Not only do undocumented individuals contribute to the labor force, but they also contribute to taxes.

A report released by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in February of this year found that, in sum, undocumented people paid an estimated $11.64 billion in local and state taxes. As undocumented people, they will never see that money back because contrary to common belief, they do not qualify to receive government assistance.

How does the issue affect us here in Santa Barbara County? A study conducted by CAUSE in 2011 found that one in five people living in Santa Barbara and Ventura County are immigrants. More so, the study found an estimated 71,000 people in Ventura County and over 39,000 in Santa Barbara County were undocumented. That is roughly 11 percent of Santa Barbara County that lives without legal status, constantly living in fear of deportation.

Just as the backbone of this nation relies on the labor of immigrants, the same can be said when talking about Santa Barbara. Our county prides itself on being on a luxurious escape, a must-see travel destination; however, none of this would be possible without the labor provided by undocumented folks.

Why then do we not complain and raise our voices in protest when undocumented people work the fields, picking the strawberries so many of us enjoy, grown locally. What then with those working in the backs of the restaurants? The students, the nannies, the gardeners, the housekeepers, and so many others who struggle in the informal economy, who struggle to stay alive in a country that does not care for their well-being but reaps the benefits from the sweat of their backs?

No, when referred to, undocumented folk in the nation are rarely ever referred to as anything more than “illegals,” classified by their citizenship status rather than their humanity. Many call for the deportation of undocumented folks without being informed of our current deportation system nor how dependent we as a nation are upon them.

It is imperative to have the discussion about deportation centers, especially here in Santa Barbara with the Adelanto detention center just a few miles away from us. It is urgent to discuss how the vast majority of detention centers are run by private corporations for profit, capitalizing on having people detained. At times, individuals are kept for months on end in these places, without access to legal representation and denied contact with their loved ones.

Where then is the concern for Fernando Dominguez Valdivia, who died in custody of ICE for lack of medical attention, or the many others who have suffered similar fates?

There is much that begs to be discussed about the issue of immigration in this country. While there is no data that sustains the idea that there is a direct link between violence and immigration, there is ample evidence that continuously sustains the idea that undocumented folks contribute more to this nation than they are given credit for.


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