“If they want to come to this country, they should do it legally.” That’s the safe, politically-correct answer to give if anyone asks your opinion about the undocumented immigrants in the United States.

No one can argue that the laws of our country should be obeyed by every person within her borders whether they are natural-born citizens, naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, or just visitors, but if you are 100 percent against immigrants of any sort and secretly attend hate rallies on the weekend, you don’t want to risk your job or social status in the presence of “polite” company by offering your unvarnished opinion. Then again, neither do you want to go against your grain and feel like a hypocrite by saying something that might sound like sympathy or support for the undocumented immigrant. By saying, “if they want to come to this country, they should do it legally,” you will have successfully avoided saying anything that would offend anyone or would betray yourself.

On the other hand you might be 100 percent in favor of immigration reform and on the weekends you work pro-bono as a coyote on the Mexican border. You certainly don’t want to let your boss (the guy who attends the hate rallies on weekends) know how you feel. But in as much as telling the truth would be career suicide, telling a lie would be spiritual suicide because your convictions about human rights extend beyond what might be legislated at any given moment. By saying, “if they want to come to this country, they should do it legally,” you are safe in saying politically inoffensive words, knowing full-well that what you meant is that the process for coming here “legally” is flat-out broken and should be fixed so that people actually could come here “legally.”

There actually are quite a number of ways to come here legally…but not for the campesinos, the people at the bottom of the economic ladder in their native countries. As we discuss those various ways, we will be looking for how a man we will call “Juan” can come to the United States to earn some money. Our fictional “Juan” comes from Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico. Let’s learn more about him and where he lives. The statistics all came from Mexico’s National Counsel for Evaluation of Social Development Policies. That’s the English translation, its actually called Coneval – Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social:

• In 2005, Chiapas had a poverty rate of 75.7% as compared to 47% for the rest of Mexico.

• The “extreme poverty rate” for all of Mexico was 18.2%, which means they are too poor to even feed their families. In Chiapas, the extreme poverty rate was 47%. Almost one out of every two people in Chiapas—over 2 million people—were too poor to even feed themselves. Even worse, Juan lives in the Chiapas municipality of San Juan Cancuc where 83.7% of the 24,906 people there live in abject poverty.

• He didn’t complete school, just like two-thirds of everyone in Chiapas over the age of 14.

• He doesn’t have a refrigerator…more than half of the people in Chiapas don’t…but at least he’s lucky to not be one of the almost 30 percent with just dirt floors in their house.

• Neither he nor over 75 percent of the people in Chiapas has any kind of health insurance.

• Neither he nor over 75 percent of the people in Chiapas has a washing machine.

• Juan has seen the economic situation of his fellow campesinos decline since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, especially for anyone who was growing corn. Corn grown in the United States is subsidized, but not so in Mexico. When NAFTA removed the tariffs on corn, it also removed the Mexican corn-grower’s ability to compete.

Juan only reached the equivalent of the 6th grade in school, not because he wasn’t bright enough to go further, but because his family could not afford to send him anymore. Juan’s parents could barely afford to feed him and his siblings, much less pay the inscription fee of $15.00 which pays for such things as chalk, light bulbs, bleach and cleaning the toilets. Juan’s parents would also have to pay for uniforms, books, pencils, field trips and food for a never-ending string of festivals and holidays. In some schools, supplies are so short that students are required to bring four pesos (about 36 cents) to pay to take the monthly exam; the school needs the money to buy the paper. We’re talking public school too, not private school…that costs much more. (Reference: The Washington Post. Monday, November 24, 2003; Page A01 “Mexico's Dropout Economy” By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan Washington Post Foreign Service)

Finding himself in the same position as his parents were with children to feed in conditions of extreme poverty, Juan makes a decision. He is going to go to the United States to work where many of his paisanos have gone before and made good money. He is going to provide for his family. Now let’s examine his options: