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Guest opinion

Simner: Undocumented are not strangers, they are us

My great-grandfather came to America seeking work and fleeing discrimination against Russian Jews. He spoke English with a Russian accent, and sometimes I couldn't understand him. Sometimes he couldn't understand me. Sometimes we relied on smiles and nods instead of words to communicate.

My great-grandmother came to America fleeing life-threatening pogroms in Poland. In Poland she'd smuggled cigarettes across the border to feed her family. She entered the United States legally, but only because she arrived just months before strict new quotas dramatically curtailed immigration by all Eastern European Jews.

My grandmother came to America as a toddler and didn't even realize she wasn't a U.S. citizen for many years. She only applied for citizenship as an adult. It was granted without much fuss, even though when asked on her citizenship test where George Washington had been born, she covered for her lack of knowledge by answering simply, "In a bed."

I owe my very existence to grandparents' and great-grandparents' journeys. Yet lately I've been wondering what their lives would be like if they lived in America—and Pima County—today, when there might well not be a realistic and legal path to citizenship for them.

Without such a path, my grandmother's application for citizenship would have been rejected long before she could take her citizenship test. At best, if she were young enough, she'd be dubbed a Dreamer and given an uncertain residency status that could be taken away on a whim. She'd live knowing that, at any time, she could be sent back to a country she didn't even remember.

Meanwhile my great-grandfather would worry, as he drove to his job pressing clothes every day, that a routine traffic stop for an improper window tint or malfunctioning turn signal might end with a call to Border Patrol and deportation. He'd be right to worry. For more than a decade, the Department of Homeland Security, through grants such as Operation Stonegarden, has paid local police to make such pretextual traffic stops, which aren't routine after all. With his foreign name, his foreign accent, and his home in a neighborhood made up mostly of other immigrant families, my great-grandfather would be targeted by the same police who have sworn to protect us all.

And the moment someone found out about those cigarettes my great-grandmother smuggled back home, they'd label her a criminal and make her return to a country that was actively trying to kill her.

Many people see undocumented immigrants as strangers and aliens, deserving of whatever fate might befall them. But they're not strangers. They're our parents and our children, our grandparents and our great-grandparents. They're fellow-travelers on a journey so many of our families have made before them.

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How differently would Southern Arizona treat present-day immigrants, if we remembered we already knew them?

Would we still accept grants such as Stonegarden, deeming its funds an adequate payoff for turning in our own parents? Would we still accept equipment from the federal government knowing it meant our families would be afraid to call local police when they were victims of violent crimes? Would we accept our own children returning to face deaths in their countries of origin if it helped Border Patrol get their numbers up?

If we wouldn't accept these things for our own families, we must not accept them for present-day migrants, regardless of their immigration status. For they aren't strangers, unknowable and unknown. They are our history, and they are our future. They are us.

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