When the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy passed in 2012, Nell Lawrence, the executive director of Catholic Charities in East Texas, didn’t expect it to impact her life very much. DACA shields many young undocumented immigrants from deportation and allows them to work here legally. But Lawrence expected this population to be too frightened to come forward and ask her office for help. She was wrong. “I totally misjudged,” Lawrence says. “We had to implement a new system at our office simply to keep track of everyone that was coming to our door. And they’re still coming!”
The office, which has five full-time employees, has since helped hundreds of immigrants file their DACA paperwork. (They also offer green card assistance.) “They’re just like you and me,” Lawrence says of the immigrants in her community of Tyler, Texas. “They’re not trying to steal anything from anyone or take a job away, they’re just trying to live and let live.” She adds that many of the people she’s worked with are already contributing to the IRS, despite their status. “They have their individual taxpayer identification numbers and they’re paying their taxes, hoping that it will benefit them in the long run, even if they won’t see the benefits immediately.” Those who weren’t filing taxes, she says, refrained out of fear. “They were worried about that paper trail,” Lawrence says. “But I told them, the IRS doesn’t care about your status, they just want your money!”
The people who are here should not be penalized for the failure of America’s immigration system.
From top to bottom, Lawrence believes the immigration system is broken. She believes that we, as a society, must operate within the law, but the laws as they currently exist are not working in anyone’s favor. Her son-in-law is a border patrol guard in west Texas, and the two have talked about the hardships undocumented immigrants endure, from the minute they attempt to cross the border to years later, when they’re contributing members of a community but are still unable to step out of the shadows. “The people who are here should not be penalized for the failure of America’s immigration system,” Lawrence says. “Assuming they have not committed a major crime, let them stay. There’s value to the whole economy for letting them stay legally with a pathway to citizenship—or not! A lot of them don’t want to be citizens. They just want to make enough money to send it home to their families. And what’s the harm in that? I don’t see it.”
Many immigrants in the area work in local restaurants or are agricultural workers – Tyler considers itself the rose-growing capital of the United States – and are performing work that American residents have not pursued for years. “It’s hard labor, physical labor, and the pay is still fairly low,” Lawrence says, adding that in addition to immigration reform, she’d like to see legislation to better protect foreign workers from unfair treatment. “Those jobs require young, physically able people, and young Americans have big eyes and big wants, and they don’t think they can get the things they want working on a farm or a sweet potato field. American people would have to be really desperate to do that kind of labor. People refuse to see [these laborers] as individuals, and think immigrants threaten their livelihood. But that’s simply not the case.”