At this point, the debate over immigration in the United States is less a conversation than an interminable morass. We hear the same arguments time and again: We can’t grant illegal immigrants citizenship because they’ve broken the law by coming here. If we do, we’re rewarding criminals, and so on.
I’m not going to take on that or any other anti-amnesty argument here; experts and legal scholars are better equipped to do battle in that arena. Instead, I’m just going to tell a story about a friend of mine. And no, he’s not an illegal immigrant. But I’m beginning to wonder if it might be in his best interests to become one.
Samy grew up in a family that could barely make ends meet. They worked a small farm, and were harassed by a military government that demanded large percentages of their yield. Eventually, the regime hauled Samy’s father and brother off to work for the army. They became too sick to march, and had no choice but to desert. The entire family was put in danger of retribution, and they were forced to flee, so they split up. Samy made his way, pursued and persecuted, to a location he knew was a safe haven for people like him: a refugee camp in Thailand.
Once there, he began to realize he had traded fear for hopelessness (not to mention crushing boredom). He’s alone. People around him are contracting malaria, and his camp experiences chronic food shortages. He’s watching the prime years of his life tick away. Two, three, four, going on five years spent in and around a tiny, muddy camp. Samy is talented, industrious, itching to do something. He’s 24, and the rules are telling him he has to stay put: He’s got to wait his turn. He doesn’t even quite know what exactly it is that he’s waiting for, yet rules are rules, and dammit, he’s got to wait.
But here’s the thing. He knows that out there, there’s a place that is receptive to his talents—he speaks five languages, is trained as a cook, a carpenter, and a tailor. He knows he’d thrive. He would give literally anything to get there.
Cliche as it may sound, this isn’t an exaggeration. If anything, it’s toned-down. So the question is: Is it wrong for someone in Samy’s circumstances to attempt to make his way to a country where he can find a better life, even if the rules prohibit him from doing so? When, if ever, is one morally justified in breaking immigration laws to pursue a decent life for himself?
Samy is living in purgatory, and has for years, so I was hardly surprised when he skeptically relayed some advice one of his friends had given him: Get a passport. A fake one. They usually run a couple of thousand U.S. dollars. Use it to get the hell out of Thailand, out of Burma. Buy a plane ticket to the United States, or to Canada, and go.
Once here, he could declare himself an asylum-seeker, and wait for his turn in court, and could perhaps be granted a temporary visa. But make no bones about it—if he were to somehow get here without first being registered as a refugee, then he would face spending years in immigration detention while waiting on a decision. And after all that, they could still decide to ship him back to the refugee camps.
Then again, he could join the 11 or 12 million people who already live in the United States as undocumented non-citizens. He could find work, join a community, and live happily. Is that outrageous? Out of the question?
And if it is, does that mean we just have to accept that some people will never have a shot at a better life? Do I have to accept that my friend Samy has to rot in a refugee camp for no reason other than the fact that he was born in a country ruled by one of the world’s most oppressive regimes? Does it really end at "tough shit"?
Looking at Samy’s case, I would have to argue that no, it does not.
There’s still hope that a path to resettlement will arise. Perhaps the PAB will resume registering refugees, and the U.N. will be allowed to begin its work again. Perhaps the Canadian resettlement efforts will find a way to cope with this obstacle. And this fall, I’ll enter Samy in the Green Card Lottery—a long shot when you consider that of the 13.6 million entrants granted visas in the last lottery, 473 were Burmese.
But if none of these pans out, Samy may have some tough decisions to make. And if he were decide that it is worth breaking the law, risks and all, to have a shot at starting a life in America, then I’d understand entirely. And I would support it.