A historic migration

Attorney Randall Stroud published the following essay in the April 4, 2012 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.

Can a stable government exist when millions of people within its jurisdiction are legally kept outside the system?

History shows that a government sometimes must go through changes to maintain legitimacy over the people it claims to govern. Monarchs and hereditary claims of authority gave way to popular elections, although at first only white men could vote. After the U.S. Civil War, black men could also vote, in some places, but women could not. In 20th century America, women were finally allowed a say in their own governance.

Yet there now live among us millions of people who are not allowed to participate.

When South Africa was being colonized by Europeans, blacks from all over Africa went to South Africa to work in the gold and diamond mines. The white government did not stop these workers from entering, but the law was very clear that neither the immigrants nor the indigenous black population could participate in their governance. Not only were blacks not allowed to vote, but South Africa legally mandated segregation of schools, businesses and neighborhoods – apartheid. But over time, global and internal political pressures brought about sweeping changes to South Africa and ended apartheid there.

At each of these moments in history, whether it was transferring power from monarchs to citizens, ending apartheid or allowing blacks or women to vote, people who opposed the inevitable change firmly planted themselves on the tracks, held up their hands at the historical juggernaut and cried “Stop!”

Those opposed to the necessary changes were brushed aside; they are remembered only for being on the wrong side of history.

The U.S. government acknowledges there are more than 10 million undocumented people – many brought here as children – who are denied any type of legal status in the U.S. Although they live among us, pay sales taxes and property taxes like us, and even perform labor for us, laws mandate that they must be “apart” from us. It is illegal for them to work alongside us in most of our jobs, to drive cars in almost all states, and in some states to go to universities with the same friends that were in their high school classes.

This is our homeland apartheid.

Regardless of the words politicians have written on paper in Washington, millions of migrants live here. They are our neighbors, our subcontractors or employees, our tenants, our customers and our children’s friends. They are part of our churches and our communities, an essential part of our economy, and they are part of many U.S.-citizen families. They are gaining political power by virtue of their numbers and presence alone.

We could cling to our current legal model of homeland apartheid that declares these migrants personae non grata. That would require more tax dollars for law enforcement, more regulations and intrusions for employers and more long term civil detention facilities. It will also mean more political instability, as millions are forced to work underground and more businesses and citizens choose to ignore the laws to deal with their own realities.

With over 10 million undocumented people in the U.S., we are facing a true test of the limits of written law. It’s not just a question of whether a government can remain stable while ignoring millions of residents. We are only now going to learn if any centralized authority can legitimately stop a historic wave of human migration.

Either way, our elected leaders must soon decide if they will help implement and guide the inevitable changes, or whether they prefer to ignore what’s coming down the tracks.

Randall Stroud has a Juris Doctorate from the Univeristy of North Carolina and a Bachelors degree in Economics from Davidson College.  He practices immigration law in Raleigh.

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