“No Human Being Is Illegal”: This is a phrase I’ve seen emblazoned on t-shirts and bumper stickers. It is a response to the vitriolic anti-immigrant sentiment that labels those without official papers as “illegal.” Over the past decade the political debate about immigration has heated up as money has been poured into securing our borders and rounding up supposedly “illegal aliens.” Although federal legislation to address immigration has been at an impasse, localities and states are forging their own path: criminalizing, detaining, and deporting anyone without documentation.
As part of We Belong Together, I am joining a group of women leaders from around the country to participate in a human rights delegation to Georgia, a state that recently passed one of the country’s harshest immigration laws. We are going to witness the plight of undocumented immigrants in Georgia under the new law and observe its impact on women and children. We are going to hear the voices of the undocumented; to learn the other side of the story of immigration.
The Georgia law is part of a long line of efforts to take crack down on “Illegal aliens.” But it is a particularly harsh one. HB 87 essentially takes hard-working, upstanding, otherwise innocent people and turns them into criminals through legislative fiat. If an individual uses a fake id to get a job, under HB87 they could spend 15 years in jail and pay up to $250,000 in fines. Although the provision giving state and local police the authority to question certain suspects about their immigration status is being challenged in court and has not yet taken effect, the bill creates a climate of racial profiling where anyone who looks “foreign” is suspect. It has isolated and stigmatized all immigrants, but made those without documentation vulnerable to extreme poverty, detention, deportation.
The Georgia law (like other similar laws around the country) is a violation of our basic principles of dignity and human rights. It is tearing families apart and has destroyed the lives of countless children. It is making it impossible for people to work or apply for public aid. It is preventing people from turning to the police, or any state agency, for assistance—for fear of being deported.
We should not, we cannot, sit on the sidelines. As women, as American citizens, as human beings we must know about, think about, and observe what is happening within our borders in the name of our well-being and our security.
Martin Luther King, who was born in Georgia and led many civil rights campaigns from there, most eloquently summed why each and every one of us has to care about what is happening elsewhere.
He wrote in 1963 in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail: "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
We have to be concerned because, as the slogan so succinctly puts it: “no human being is illegal.”