Illegal Immigrant, or the Next Celebrity Chef?

Squeezed March 29, 2006

Perhaps no issue has revealed our inner divisions more than the question of immigration in general and illegal immigration in particular. A Senate committee has passed an immigration measure that would create a guest worker program and a path for undocumented immigrants in the country to earn full permanent resident status, provided they pay back taxes and fines. This contrasts with a House measure that seeks to make illegal immigration a felony. Critics of the guest worker measure call it an amnesty for illegal immigration.

Call it what you want, but I completely agree with Michael Stickings at The Moderate Voice, who calls for an immigration policy that is generous, fair, and flexible:

To be sure, something needs to be done about “illegal” (or “undocumented”) immigration, but I must say this: Let America’s policy towards these immigrants be generous, fair, and flexible. Do not punish them for having chosen to come to America. Offer them an opportunity to settle, legally, for good. If they work, if they pay their taxes, if they accept the American way of life and want to be a part of it, indeed, if they are already American, broadly speaking, be generous to them. They only want to live their lives in Lincoln’s last, best hope, in a nation of immigrants that has historically welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled masses who have yearned for the chance to start anew, to make a better life for themselves and their families.

These new Americans want to breathe free. Let them.

As an example of the above, consider the story of Hawaii’s most famous “illegal immigrant.”

A young Thai man by the name of Chai came to Hawaii on a tourist visa, and opened two restaurants in Honolulu. However, his attempt to get a green card was denied because the INS declared his marriage to be a sham. While he appealed his case to the INS, he became one of the best known chefs in Hawaii.

His immigration problems came to a head in 2001, when, after returning to Hawaii after visiting his ill father in Thailand, he was taken into custody and prepared for deportation. It took petitions by his fellow isle chefs and ultimately action by Sen. Daniel Akaka to partially settle the matter. Akaka introduced private legislation that would essentially overrule the immigration service and make Chef Chai a permanent resident. The bill has never yet come to a vote, but Akaka has vowed to keep introducing the bill until it passes. Meanwhile, Chef Chai continues to cook, constantly considering the chance that he may yet be deported. Should that happen, the Hawaii culinary scene will never be the same.

Of course, we have immigration laws for a reason, and by all means, they should be enforced, preferably before said immigrant is in the country. But in the final analysis, though, I believe that before we start branding undocumented immigrants as criminals once they’re in the country, that we stop and think…are we turning away the next Emeril Lagasse?

They’re here. They ain’t leavin’. Let’s deal with them and move on.

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