Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Not all undocumented immigrants deserve the criminal label

Marcos Breton
Marcos Breton

Mandeep Chahal just went through her graduation ceremony at UC Davis. She spent the Fourth of July watching fireworks with her family, as she has for most of her 22-year-old life.

Medical school beckons and would be a slam dunk but for a little snag in her happy ending: Chahal is an undocumented immigrant.

Not long ago, she was wearing an ankle monitor like a common criminal. Her father had to spend $6,000 for plane tickets to send her to India with her mother.

"We reported to (federal authorities) at 9 a.m. that morning and I had no idea," she calmly says now of a moment that was anything but. "Then about 10 minutes later they told us we'd been given a one-year stay."

Chahal is emblematic of America's immigration dilemma.

As much as the issue is disseminated as an abstract policy – of whether to grant "amnesty" to "lawbreakers" or not – she is a flesh-and-blood reminder that such distinctions often don't fit the immigrants whose lives hang in the balance.

Chahal didn't have a say in her undocumented status. Her mother, who was applying for asylum, brought her to the U.S. from India when she was only 6. Like many newly arrived immigrant families, Chahal's family suffered from poor legal representation. They hired lawyers from India because they could communicate with them, but they were defrauded of thousands of dollars by a lawyer who was eventually disbarred, Chahal said.

If she'd had the right lawyer, Chahal might not have missed her window to obtain legal residency.

Her story and others like hers need to be heard because she is not what you think when you think about illegal immigration.

She is not the person you want to deport.

A recent poll commissioned by Bloomberg showed that 74 percent of Americans supported "allowing immigrants living in the country illegally to become citizens, provided they don't have criminal records, they pay fines and back taxes, and they wait for more than 10 years."

The polling firm told U.S. News & World Report that "Americans want to be sure that the right people are staying and the wrong people are not."

As I've stated before, the biggest immigration distortion of all is that all undocumented immigrants belong under the same umbrella of criminality.

Chahal's family has lived in the same Bay Area community for more than 15 years.

A few courses shy of a pre-med degree from Davis, Chahal has worked in a Sacramento clinic helping poor immigrant families.

"I've spent the last 16 years learning all these skills I want to put to use. I've gone through public schools my whole life," Chahal said, "I appreciate everything and I want to give back."

As Congress debates immigration reform, Chahal has one hope: "I just hope (they) remember that it's going to be kids like me and families like mine that are affected."

Call The Bee's Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096. Back columns, Follow him on Twitter @marcosbreton.