‘Somos ustedes’

The central message of Monday’s nationwide demonstrations, including the one in Chico, was clear to see: We who are marching are Americans too. The image of illegal immigrants as shadowy figures sneaking through back streets evaporated like the myth it is, and what emerged to take its place was the sight of regular people, moms and dads and kids, who call this land home. These were not temporary and unwelcome guest workers; these were full-fledged members of their communities.

Yes, many of them are here illegally. But what does that really mean?

It means that they won the game the United States has been playing for decades on its southern border. They risked crossing a desert or being stuffed in an airless van for hours, knowing that if they made it past the border they would find a willing employer somewhere—in a hotel, at a meat packing plant, on a farm. They were needed, so the government would do little or nothing to prohibit their employment. Once here and settled, they were relatively safe. They could work, pay taxes, buy a home perhaps and send their kids to school.

There are between 11 million and 12 million illegal immigrants in America, and many of them took to the streets Monday, asking to be recognized and allowed to work to become citizens of this country, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. It was a refreshing sight, but it will not solve the immigration problem. The United States, the richest country in history, shares a 2,000-mile border with a poor country, and that presents challenges, especially to the cities and counties along the border.

Perhaps, though, our efforts to solve that problem can at least proceed with a new understanding of the people we’re talking about. The demonstrations Monday, like those a few weeks earlier, have put a human face on any future discussion of immigration. Those 11 million or 12 million people have turned to the rest of us and said, Somos ustedes. We are you.