When I came back to Baltimore in late 2016 after living in Nicaragua for the two previous years, I came home with a conviction to get to know city’s immigrant community. I had built a sort of life for myself in another country and was leaving with yes, some difficult memories of struggle, but mostly beautiful memories of growth, community, and friends that now felt like family. It was clear that outsiders in the United States were often not treated with the same love and welcome that I received in Central America, and I wanted to understand our country from their perspective. Since June of 2018, I’ve worked full-time at a local immigrant resource center, and have loved the opportunity to accompany immigrants as they adapt to life in our strange land. Here’s a list of some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about immigrant issues in this short time.
1. Undocumented immigrants pay taxes, a lot of taxes
It is important to break down the myth that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, benefit from our school systems, hospitals, and more without paying their fair share in taxes. Some of the first things I learned about at my job were the ins and outs of the IRS’ ITIN system – Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers. How do you file income taxes if you don’t have a social security number? Well, there’s another kind of number out there – ITIN. This is the IRS’ system for allowing foreign nationals to pay taxes on income earned here in the U.S. Immigrants, especially undocumented ones, have a lot of incentive to pay taxes – it shows a good sense of citizenship if and when they have the opportunity to legalize their status, and many states, including Maryland, offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants that can show proof of filing taxes. In fact, research has shown that undocumented immigrants in the United States pay a higher effective tax rate than the top 1% of earners in our country.
2. I should be thankful for my social security card
A tiny blue card with my name and 9 digits printed in courrier font – my parents always told me to guard that thing like my life depended on it. I never really realized why it might be so important until I started working with people that cannot get one.
Think about the times when you have to use your social security number – at the bank, with your insurance company, etc. – what do you do when you simply don’t have a number to give? Well, it means access denied. Undocumented immigrants do not have access to health coverage save for small, specialized programs, they cannot take out student loans nor apply for any public benefit amidst a long list of other cannots. Taking the question of ‘should they have access to these things?’ out of the equation, it’s simply a bit mind-boggling that access to so many services hinges on 9 digits printed on such a tiny, little card.
3. The undocumented do, in fact, have rights – plenty of them
Since we are talking about all the things that the undocumented do not have access to, it’s important to also highlight what they do have access to.
Clients come in all the time expressing frustration over landlords that won’t fix something in their house or bosses that refuse to pay them for time worked. We usually hear the same story – “they threatened to call immigration if we say or do anything.” More than being an empty threat, this is reflective of the problematic assumption that many have that the undocumented don’t enjoy the same basic rights as the rest of us.
Immigrants, even the undocumented, are protected under the United States Constitution just like any other resident – their immigration status does not make them any less a person. They have rights to many of the same things we all do, like due process, for example. Immigrants can use our court system – we send them there all the time for custody forms and to place demands in small claims court, among other things. So when landlords or employers are not fulfilling their duties to their tenants or employees, it’s unlawful regardless of a person’s immigration status, and that person has the right to seek retribution. Part of our work as community service providers is to encourage our clients to stick up for and advocate for themselves.
4. In a country considered a “melting pot,” it’s very easy to get isolated
We all generally live in bubbles – it’s hard to deny – and so do immigrants. I have clients that got to the U.S. risking their lives on a perilous journey across several countries, that rode on the tops of trains and crossed the desert on foot, and now they barely leave Highlandtown.
It kind of makes sense though – I don’t know about you, but I tend not to explore places where I don’t necessarily feel welcome. Many of my clients express fear of authorities and generally try to keep a low profile due to a general sense of unease created by the negative rhetoric and attitudes towards immigrants that permeate our society. This leads to some problems. I have clients that have lived here for nearly 30 years but who still barely speak any English because they have not felt safe or comfortable associating with people that don’t speak their language. I have clients that prefer to keep their head down and work minimum wage jobs rather than pursue further educational opportunities for a variety of different fears. How might our country look and feel different if immigrants felt more comfortable and welcome, if we all associated more with people that were different from us?
5. Our country wouldn’t function without immigrants
Another myth that is important to break down is the one that “immigrants are taking our jobs.” Yes, immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are working quite a bit, but the vast majority of jobs they are taking are positions that employers cannot otherwise fill because of how undesirable they are. And this, unfortunately, opens the door to employers taking advantage of immigrants.
Undocumented immigrants cook our food in restaurant kitchens, they build our homes, pick our vegetables, pack and process foods we buy in the grocery store, clean our homes, among so many other things. They are often paid directly in cash by employers that sometimes pay below minimum wage. Sometimes they wait for a check to come in the mail for a construction job they worked only to have it never arrive and the employer to stop answering their phone. Meanwhile, the homebuyers move into their new house, beginning a new chapter in their lives, none the wiser.
There are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States, the majority of which are working at least some sort of informal job. If one day they just stopped working, what would happen to the industries that they are supporting and our economy as a whole?
6. Despite the rhetoric, xenophobia, discrimination, and other day-to-day challenges immigrants face, most still view the U.S. as a land of opportunity
People don’t move to a new country just because they feel like it – usually they are searching for something. For many, that’s a better life – better job opportunities, safety, the chance to give their kids a better shot than they had.
Despite the challenges they face, so many of my clients still think their life in the U.S. is better here than in their home country. It does not mean that they don’t love their home country. Rather, here they can live without fearing the gang that was trying to recruit their child, or have more stable access to work than in their farming village back home. If the situation back home were better, they might prefer to still be there with their friends, family, and culture, but for most that’s simply not the case.
I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to learn from the many immigrants I’ve come into contact with in Baltimore, and I’m excited to continue learning. It’s also important to note that I’m simply one guy speaking from his own perspective – I try to back that perspective up with research and experience, but I’m certainly no authority on the matter. More importantly, I also always remind myself that immigrants are not just people in need of assistance and orientation, but business owners, community leaders, parents, and authorities themselves that make our country a better place.