shutterstock_126507572There are very few issues facing our country today that are more polarizing than immigration. From the White House to your parents’ house, Wall Street to Main Street, the classroom to the dining room, discussions about immigration have sharply divided parties—and touched a collective nerve. The current vitriol espousing fear and scapegoating has made the immigration debate not just a theoretical or intellectual one, but a personal one. “They’re stealing our jobs!” “They’re killing our children!” “They don’t pay taxes!

Facts and figures, studies and statistics, and plain common sense abound to debunk most of the common myths and rhetoric, yet some people still cling to their anti-immigrant sentiments. Some of it is based on benign ignorance, some of it driven by emotion, others by personal experiences and biases.

As a practicing immigration law attorney and immigration law professor, my responsibilities include educating the general public and raising awareness about the various issues in immigration, to open minds and hearts in the immigration debate. It’s not always an easy task because many people already carry deeply-embedded presumptions about immigration. One of the first places I start is with the meaning of words. In immigration law, words matter. Use of particular terms is deliberate. In the context of practicing law, precise use of terms is critical as terms have specific meanings. In communicating to the public, the use of incorrect terms causes confusion. For example, a “temporary visa” is not a “green card”, the granting of a “green card” is not the granting of “citizenship,” and “deferred action” is not a “waiver.” Correcting the misuse of terms is almost always a good place to start.

But still, immigration law is extremely complex and easily misunderstood. Sometimes clarifying basic concepts in immigration law is enough to open people’s minds. For example, with family-sponsored immigration, only immediate family members (as in parents, spouses, children and siblings of United States citizens or spouses and unmarried children of green card holders) are eligible for sponsorship—so for many there is no line to get into for lawful permanent residency. Or that parents entered the U.S. without documents are generally not eligible for a waiver, thus discrediting the notion of “anchor babies.”

While decoding the immigration laws can open minds, nothing is more powerful at opening hearts than sharing a real life story. Human stories drive home the fundamental point that sometimes gets lost in the conversation—that at the end of the day, we are dealing with real people’s lives…people just like you and me.  Sometimes hearing a story about someone we can relate to allow us to connect to the issue—one that can be too abstract or black-and-white at times—on a deeper level.

Stories like that of Maria*, a single mother who raised two U.S. citizen children—her oldest child, a U.S. military veteran, and her youngest, a college-bound teenager who excels academically. Maria has been in the country for more than 14 years, works long hours as a housekeeper to provide for her children and has always paid taxes. She is the beneficiary of an approved family petition filed by her son, but because she entered the U.S. without inspection, she is not eligible for a waiver of that immigration violation and thus, not eligible to adjust her status. Or Anna*, another single mother who originally came to the U.S. as a missionary with a valid visa. She was abused by her husband (also traveling with the church) and father of their autistic child, a U.S. citizen.  She never thought to report any of the incidents of abuse as she focused instead on protecting and caring for her young child. She overstayed her visa because she desperately needed the medical care the U.S. was able to provide her infant autistic child.  She has been in the country for over 15 years now and struggles to make ends meet.  It’ll be another few years before her daughter would even be eligible to sponsor her for lawful permanent residency. All she can do now is wait and hope for some change in the laws or regulations.

Our immigration issues are complicated and there is not one single or easy solution. But before we can even begin to have a conversation, we need to shed our preconceptions and open our minds, and hearts, to a different perspective.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy

Written by Evangeline Chan, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee