A Centralia, Washington man recently had a huge surprise when he went to get an extended driver's license to visit relatives in Canada. It turned out that Leeland Davidson might not be an U.S. citizen, despite living here for 95 years and fighting for the U.S. during World War II. He was born in Canada to American parents, but his parents did not register his birth with the U.S. government. Many people commented that these official rules are ludicrous in this case. By being a productive member of his community for almost 100 years, serving his country in the military and participating in the democratic process, Davidson had done more than enough to merit the privilege of citizenship.
Cesar Chavez, the civil rights leader who would have turned 84 this week, would have agreed with these commentators. In a speech in 1982, Chavez argued that what makes the U.S. great is its devotion to the idea of democracy. Democracy is the idea of a society in which people participate in power to control their own futures. Democracy, he said, is "sustained by people's involvement"; it works only if people are empowered to take part in the decision making in the institutions that affect their lives.
This is why Chavez also would have supported Oregon SB 742, the bipartisan bill recently passed by the Senate and making its way to the House. It grants in-state college tuition to students who are undocumented immigrants. Eligible students must have completed high school in the U.S. and then file an affidavit promising to seek legal immigration status as soon as possible. Chavez would have recognized that these students, like Davidson, are not responsible for the missteps of their parents. They ought to be judged by their own actions and their willingness to become involved in the democratic process as productive members of society.
Some people claim that Chavez was a longtime foe of illegal immigration. It is true that in 1969, Chavez led a march to the Mexican border to protest unauthorized workers, and in the 1970s asked Congress to police the border better. Yet, by 1982, Chavez came to realize that the problems leading to undocumented immigration could not be dealt with by simply increasing border restrictions and cracking down on immigrants themselves. He then advocated for the government to grant amnesty to all undocumented workers. Doing so would allow these workers to come out of the shadows and prevent them from being exploited by employers who could take advantage of their status. He wrote: "We must replace the policies that exclude people from participation in our economic and political life because of their race, language, or immigration status with policies that encourage people to participate in society. We need to get people involved."
Chavez came to this conclusion by reflecting on the meaning of our democracy. He understood that policies that discriminate, or create a permanent underclass of people, are incompatible with an ideal that all people are created equal. He would ask of us today: Does allowing for an underclass of uneducated and under-skilled people, some of whom have never known any other place than Oregon as home, really benefit this state? As with the case of Leeland Davidson, Chavez knew that what ought to count more than papers is a person's willingness to stay involved with the good of society: "What should count is the fact that he or she has lived here and is paying taxes and is making a contribution to the country. And of course, the person would have to say ‘Yes, I want to live under this system.'" This is precisely what SB742 hopes to achieve and why it should be signed into law.
Jose-Antonio Orosco is associate professor of philosophy at Oregon State University in Corvallis. He is the author of "Cesar Chavez and the Commonsense of Nonviolence" (University of New Mexico Press, 2008).