by Carol Backus and Eva Castillo Turgeon
Last Sunday’s editorial headline about police practices when encountering undocumented immigrants is deeply offensive to people of faith and good will across the Granite State. While we agree with the editor’s assertion, “State and local police should not be stopping people based on skin color or foreign accent,” we are troubled by language elsewhere in the editorial that dehumanizes immigrants.
Human beings are not fish or game to be caught and released. We are not domestic animals to be penned in barns. Actions, not people, can be illegal. To label immigrants as illegal is an attempt to dehumanize them. When people are dehumanized, they are easily targeted as undeserving of respect and basic human rights. Labeling people negatively may be unintentional, but it is nonetheless harmful.
People who are unable to produce citizenship papers are human beings and deserve the same care and respect as members of the Union Leader editorial board and staff or the authors of this op-ed.
A person may be in New Hampshire without documents for a variety of reasons: they may have overstayed a tourist visa; they may have jumped off a merchant ship; they may have crossed a border without stopping at a check point; they may be a victim of human trafficking; their abusive spouse may have taken their documents; they may have an expired student visa; or for any number of other reasons. Unless we know a person’s story, we don’t know why they are here without documents. When we know their story, we can decide whether they have committed an illegal act, and if so, whether it was justified.
The process for sorting out these situations must be humane. A humane attitude on the part of police and the larger community will lead to resolution of policies affecting the millions of people who live in the U.S. without documents. We at the Granite State Organizing Project, a New Hampshire faith-based community organization, laud the efforts of state and local police departments to clarify their roles regarding immigrants.
As a matter of public safety, it is crucial for everyone in our communities to feel safe reporting a crime, calling for help on the roadside, escaping from an abusive spouse, or cooperating with the police on community projects. As so many of our immigrant neighbors come from mixed status families (e.g. a parent without documents, children who are citizens, etc.) it is very important for everyone to know that casual contact with local police will not result in the catastrophic family separations we have been reading about in the news.
Decisions of local police departments not to act as enforcement agents on immigration issues that do not involve serious misdemeanors or felonies seems to us reasonable and a wise use of resources. We hope that the state police will also develop wise and humane policies.
Wise policies will also recognize that immigration has always strengthened our country. Wise policies will be good for our state’s economy as we seek to find workers that our employers tell us are needed to fill job vacancies.
Except for a handful of Native Americans, we are all descendants of immigrants. First came the European colonists who were undocumented from the perspective of the people already living here. After its establishment as a colony of Great Britain and later as a state, New Hampshire benefitted from waves of immigration as French-speaking, Irish, Italian, Greek and other immigrants came to live here. Each wave experienced its share of conflict as those longer settled resented the newcomers. With time New Hampshire gained the gift of diversity that resulted from this immigration.
Now we find ourselves with undocumented people living in our midst. Many of them have been here for years and even decades, living as quietly as they can, trying to keep their families together. Our challenge is not how to deport them, but how to offer a path for their legal integration into the social, economic, and civic fabric of our state. If we undertake this, New Hampshire and its citizens will not be diminished, but will grow stronger.
Carol is President of the Executive Committee of the Granite State Organizing Project and Eva is First Vice President.