We’re Still Calling People ‘Illegal’ After All These Years

by on January 8, 2019 · 3 comments

in California, From the Soul, San Diego

by Ernie McCray

Note: I found an old piece I wrote for the San Diego Tribune in November of 1994, twenty-four years ago. The piece was about Proposition 187, a ballot measure that required me, a school principal, to rat on families who were in the country illegally. And, as I read it, I felt as though we, as a society, had been frozen in time, because what I wrote, with all the talk nowadays about caravans and building walls and such, would speak to these times:

Despite the passage of Proposition 187, my disposition remains the same. I will not, in any way, play a role in willfully hurting another person.

I have sat at the back of the bus. I’ve had someone tell me to get my “black ass” out of a hotel where there were plenty of rooms available. I’ve skaked at the rink on special “Negro” days.

I know the hurt and humiliation that comes with being mistreated. So, needless to say, there is no way on God’s green earth that I could ever treat fellow human beings with such disrespect that I would ask them to prove to me their right to be in this corner of the world.

Who are we to make such demands? There is nothing in my DNA that will allow me to, without sensible reason, stand in the way of other citizens of the world who, as I do every day, struggle to house and feed themselves and their families and to live in dignity.

And if I were to play the game, what am I, as a school principal, to say to a family with whom I’ve bonded, who happens to be here “illegally?” Am I to smile and say something like, “So long, it’s been good to know you?”

Am I to look a little child in the face and say: “I really appreciate how you’ve improved in your school work and how you’ve been such a good citizen, but I’m going to have to turn you in. It’s nothing personal, you understand. Just remember those high fives we used to give each other and all the wonderful conversations we used to have, and if you’re ever in Guadalajara, I’d like you to say hello to some friends of mine.”

A parent has already asked me, “What are the children supposed to think if their principal breaks the law?” I told him I feel that the law is immoral, and I would have no problem explaining to a child why I can’t honor an immoral law.

What a shameful and hurtful proposition 187 is. When I reflect on it, I sometimes don’t know whether to laugh at its absurdity or cry because of its cruelty. I’ve done both.

The laughter comes spontaneously, like the time I overheard an attorney saying to a peer: “We need Proposition 187 because people are coming over here taking our jobs.” Come on. How many U.S. citizens are standing in lines for the back-breaking work that lettuce fields have to offer?

It’s after the rare but occasional laughter that the sadness sets in and my eyes water. Tears caused by the very reality that we live in a world where people don’t know how to get along but pretend to do so by creating hollow and shallow schemes like the North American Free Trade Agreement.

If NAFTA tenders half the potential it has promised, we won’t have an immigration problem with our neighbors to the south. Do we really think people want to leave the country of their birth, of their ancestry, and split up their families, living on the edge, facing a life of uncertainty?

The fact is, far too many Mexican citizens are living lives of brutal poverty, some forced off agricultural land that should be theirs, causing a breakdown of their traditional way of living. They flee, and all we can offer them as fellow human beings are frenzied and cold “light up the border” receptions.

How can we choose to hate and live in fear of other citizens of the world when we, because we are human beings, have the capacity to love and create a hopeful existence?

There really could be a world without borders if we stopped pinning names on each other like “illegal immigrants.” We can only do this by first accepting deep in our hearts and consciences that all people deserve to live in peace and dignity in a just world and then pursuing, via all the avenues at our disposal, making such a reality come true.

To such principles I am bound. As a parent, a grandparent, an educator and a contributing citizen of a most incredibly beautiful planet, it is my responsibility to reach out from wherever I am with as much love as I can muster. I will not take part in the destruction of people’s hopes and dreams and their struggles to maintain their dignity.

Further Note: Since that piece was written, drug cartels in Mexico, fighting for control of trafficking routes into the United States, have put many innocent citizens’ lives in danger as they’re caught in the crossfire of the violence, causing them to flee and seek a better life as any one of us would do – finding themselves branded as “illegals.” So the question becomes when will we cease calling people, who are trying to escape harm, names and learn to accept and get along with them as an example for our children who are charged with changing a world? Isn’t that an impossible task if it’s not undertaken in a spirit of love?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie January 8, 2019 at 11:11 pm

In tonight’s rant, Trump must have used the phrase 20 times.


Robin Blackwood January 18, 2019 at 3:06 pm

Thank you, Ernie, for always saying what needs to be said.


Thomas Gayton January 18, 2019 at 9:26 pm



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