In May, I took a flight from Los Angeles to North Carolina for a law conference. My seatmates were two elderly white sisters from small-town North Carolina, both incredibly friendly. They chatted warmly about their visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum and their admiration for the late president — and their disappointment with the GOP today.
I intuited that their reasons for disappointment with the Republican Party platform likely differed from mine. They smiled, but undoubtedly expected to hear me, a black woman, list all of Reagan’s transgressions against the black community.
Imagine their surprise, however, when I let them know that, although I disagreed with some of Reagan’s policies, there was one for which I would always be grateful. My family had been undocumented immigrants, and it was the Reagan amnesty program that allowed us to exit the shadows.
I was born in Nigeria but came with my parents as a toddler to the United States in the 1980s while my father pursued an engineering degree at the University of Texas at Austin. The stories he recounted about how hard he worked to attain the education and skills in Nigeria’s oil industry so he’d be admitted to UT were awe-inspiring. After the expiration of my father’s student visa, my parents decided to stay here. They believed with hard work, they could build the American dream for our family.
Life in the States, however, was by no means easy. Both my parents worked various service jobs to pay tuition and to provide for me and my three siblings. They were so happy to have an opportunity to work and learn. They never complained about disparaging remarks others made about their service jobs. They knew what they were working for: a life for themselves and their children that would be almost impossible elsewhere.
Hearing this, the women sitting next to me on the plane marveled at my parents’ struggle. They were impressed, too, that I had graduated from and taught at some of the nation’s top universities. They agreed there is a distinct beauty in our American dream and the fact that the American story is an immigrant story.
How sad it is, I told them, that my story can’t be replicated today because so many Republicans refuse to even consider a path to citizenship for undocumented residents.
The sisters were quiet for the rest of the flight.
Like my family, nearly half of the nation’s suspected 11 million undocumented immigrants arrived in the United States legally with temporary, non-immigrant visas. These weren’t people who used criminal connections or secretive behavior to sneak over borders in the dead of night. Rather, these were people who “stood in line,” who worked hard to achieve something in their home country that led the U.S. government to grant them a visa.
Despite their legal arrival and contribution to the American economy, however, barriers impede nearly all paths to citizenship. For parents, an undocumented life is risky — but a better option than returning to a country they know will not provide a healthy and fulfilling life for themselves or their children.
The life I live — I graduated from the University of Texas and Stanford Law School, I taught law at UCLA and now at UC Davis — is drastically different than the life I’d have had without the amnesty program. The same is true for my siblings: One is a microbiologist, another is a pharmacist and my brother, although he has an intellectual disability, is constantly improving because of American research and programs available here for the disabled.
Today, as a law professor, I help students discover the power of laws to truly change lives. I encourage them to think through the complex problems plaguing our criminal justice system and propose new theories for improvement. I too contribute to the conversation about how it will be better for everyone if we shift away from emphasizing retribution for the perceived faults of offenders, and instead make efforts to more fully integrate marginalized people into our communities.
Immigration reform needs that same sort of reimagining. Perhaps it starts by seeing undocumented immigrants for who they really are, as opposed to who we fear they could be.
After my flight landed in North Carolina, the two sisters did say something else to me. They said I had changed their vision of undocumented immigrants.
As someone who owes a debt to Reagan and the Republican Party of the 1980s, it was the least I could do.
Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe is a law professor at UC Davis.