Narrowing the gates to opportunity

By Michelle Chen Feb 16, 2009

As some doors open for immigrants and others close, the gateway to citizenship remains mired in politics. The Pentagon is attempting to pull more immigrants into its ranks with a new“fast-track” to full legal status. The aim is to draw in certain temporary-status immigrants with technical or cultural assets that could serve the military’s operations abroad. The New York Times reports:

‘Recruiters expect that the temporary immigrants will have more education, foreign language skills and professional expertise than many Americans who enlist, helping the military to fill shortages in medical care, language interpretation and field intelligence analysis. ‘ "The American army finds itself in a lot of different countries where cultural awareness is critical," said Lt-Gen Benjamin C Freakley, the top recruitment officer for the army. "There will be some very talented folks in this group… "The army will gain in its strength in human capital, and the immigrants will gain their citizenship and get on a ramp to the American dream." … ‘Military officials want to attract immigrants who have native knowledge of languages and cultures that the Pentagon considers strategically vital. The program will also be open to students and refugees.’

It’s a perfectly logical strategy from a recruitment standpoint, but hopefully the central irony of the military as a means of social advancement will not be lost on the targeted communities. Immigrants could see incentives to providing the military with their human capital to "earn" their way to citizenship. But on the other side of this “ramp to the American dream” is a moral precipice of occupation and aggression. And for some, that mission could be fueled by exploiting a tragic heritage–of displacement driven by the same tides of violence and oppression. To go from being a refugee to creating new ones exacts a deep moral toll. Could it be worth the price of citizenship? Meanwhile, on the southwest border—bifuricated by an artificially imposed divide —local residents are caught in a legal battle over the validity of their citizenship. According to a pending lawsuit, federal authorities are challenging the US passport applications of people born in these towns who were delivered by midwives. The issue is complicated by new rules on passports as required identification for border re-entry. Civil liberties activists say the government is systematically discriminating against so-called "border births." Often, communities that straddle the border lack the concrete and wire barricades displayed elsewhere on the US-Mexico divide; only the border’s arbitrary nature is apparent. So, remember: being born on the “right” side of the U.S. border may not be enough to merit equal treatment as a citizen. But putting your life on the line to impose the government’s will outside of U.S. borders is. And lest you think see another viable path to citizenship in the rungs of America’s meritocracy—public higher education is becoming hostile territory for many immigrant youth. The South Carolina Illegal Immigration Reform Act is the most comprehensive law yet banning undocumented immigrants from state-funded colleges and universities. The law, which is expected to disrupt both schools and students pursuing their degrees, contrasts with measures in several other states to grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented students residing in the states, as well as the DREAM Act, which would offer legal protections to undocumented children completing their education. The choices an immigrant faces in carving out a future seem to be narrowing by the day. Beyond the obvious fact that one can’t control her place of birth or a parent’s decision to migrate, structural limits to opportunity are increasingly trailing young immigrants throughout life—from their hometowns to the college gates… and even all the way to the battlefield.