Two high-profile cases involving immigrants have been covered by the New York Times in the past three weeks; the first involving Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Jose Vargas’ heartbreaking confession regarding his status as an undocumented immigrant, and the second the infamous DSK rape case (and its subsequent unraveling.) Despite their differences, both cases bring to light the fluidity of morality in the lives of many immigrants.
A quick scan of the commentary and responses to both cases ran the gamut from absolute sympathy to derision. In the case of Jose Vargas, a majority of comments seemed to reflect both - sympathy and admiration for his successes couple with a dose of admonition -You’ve accomplished quite a lot, but you still broke the law. Undoubtedly, Vargas must have anticipated this reaction to his piece, and one could argue that it was his intention as a journalist to expose the truths in his own case in the most impartial manner possible. Part of what made his exposition so heartbreaking was his willingness to align himself entirely with his journalistic principals and go into an in-depth account of his own culpability and actions in breaking labor and immigration laws repeatedly for his own gain. By doing so, he exposes the world of blurred ethics and morality in which many immigrants -even those of legal status- inhabit.
The question of ethics arise again in the Strauss-Kahn rape trial. In the past few days, the case has seen an unexpected reversal in fortune; the public’s favors have shifted rapidly from perceiving the case as a feminist rallying point against sexual assault into a convoluted examination into the accuser’s credibility. A litany of her transgressions have now come to light, among them the fact that she had “lied about her immigration, about being gang raped in Guinea,” about being “linked to people suspected of crimes,” that she had “misrepresented her income to qualify for her housing,” that her bank account reflected major inconsistencies with her claims of Sofitel being her sole source of income, that “she had declared a friend’s child as a dependent on tax returns to increase her tax refund,” and that she remarked to her boyfriend after the accusations that the “man had a lot of money and she knew what she was doing.”
As an U.S. born citizen raised in a first-generation immigrant family, what struck me most about this list of crimes was the unremarkable nature of these transgressions, and my willingness to believe that yes; she had probably laundered money, that yes; she had probably lied on her immigration forms, that yes; she had committed some sort of tax evasion by claiming multiple dependents. Yet what struck me the most was that the reminder that American society still perceives such transgressions as absolutes, that her credibility as a sexual assault victim could be called into question for actions that exist in the realm of minor half-sins for a many immigrants in this country.
By nature, immigration is a phenomenon borne of desperation and necessity. By nature immigration is a desperate act; one that robs the immigrant of his home, identity, context. In doing so he is also robbed of the sense of the absolutes in morality when confronted with necessary choices for survival. Should he hire a coyote, to bring his daughter here? Should he empty his bank account, to qualify for government housing? Should he fake a social security card, to get that job at a restaurant? For those who live free of this context, we make the choice every day to ignore the lives of immigrants that inhabit this gray zone of morality; we slip $2 to the Chinese delivery man, expect our 16% restaurant tip to somehow trickle down to the 3 Mexican busboys, perform magical calculus in our heads that allows us to believe their $30 a day wage allows them to feed, sleep, and clothe themselves in New York. We put envelopes of cash out to our Jamaican nannies, our Guatemalan maids and ignore the obvious tax implications of such actions for both parties. In refusing to pay immigrants a living wage or grant asylum seekers the means to a streamlined immigration process, we collectively benefit from their cheapened labor and try our best ignore the gaps left by our meager contributions to their labor. In the case of Vargas’ faked immigration papers or the DSK maid’s dishonest tax forms and recognition of economic gain from the trial, we should consider ourselves, as a society, all complicit of their half-truths and sins.