Yesterday at the Council on Foundations annual conference in Seattle, a session entitled “The Color of Democracy” ended with two very different stories.

Georgia Representative Anthony Sellier told his own history—how he migrated from Venezuela, sought an education, became a successful businessman, and now sits in the state legislature. He has lived the American dream. On the other hand, Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, asked us to imagine the future of the children of undocumented immigrants. Historically, America has meant a better life, not always for migrants themselves, but at least for their offspring. Today, however, the second generation is accumulating disadvantage, and that, Suro said, is a “prescription for disaster.”

In 2006, as the immigration debate boiled, local governments attempted to bar or limit migrants’ access to housing, jobs, and healthcare, and empowered police to enforce immigration laws as part of their normal routine. Over the last year, as a result of Operation Return to Sender, 23,000 people have been detained, separating mothers from children and husbands from wives. The effect is dehumanizing.

Earlier in the session Sellier had told another story, about his friend Carlos, a Mexican immigrant from Sellier’s district in middle Georgia. Sellier’s church worked with Carlos through the long, difficult, and expensive process of applying for documentation. Now Carlos is the chief of a construction crew, and he recently called Sellier to complain about a competitor—a crew chief who hires only undocumented workers and pays lower wages. Sellier acknowledged that Carlos, who has gone the extra mile, shouldn’t have to compete with that chief for business.

But what about the crew of undocumented workers? If we take away their jobs, how will they survive?

What can we do to help them?

Is one partial answer more vigorous prosecution of employers who don’t pay minimum wage, thereby helping the workers while evening the playing field for people like Carlos?

As Suro said in his opening remarks, immigration holds a mirror to the host country. How we answer these questions will tell us much about ourselves. Please share your thoughts below.


Catherine DiBenedetto is the assistant editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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