By Cesar Fernando Zapata
FORT MYERS, Florida — Mr. Felix was my accountant back in Texas, just before my moving to Southwest Florida, one year ago.
As a permanent resident for more than twenty year, Mr. Felix is an immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico. We use to have a friendly argument all the time about how convenient —or not— U.S. citizenship was.
He opposed becoming an American citizen. I, on the other hand, insisted —just for the sake of contradicting him— that one had the obligation to swear before the Star-Spangled Banner, if he had a life and family in this country, like him.
"You never know what could happen later", I repeated.
"Look", Mr. Felix said, dressed in his usually impeccable suit, which it seemed he never took off, not even to sleep. "Legally there is no difference between a permanent resident and a U.S. citizen. That is, aside from voting and being elected to office".
"Other than that", he kept on, "all their rights and duties are the same".
"By the time I retire, the Social Security Administration will pay me all my due benefits for all the years I worked, like any American citizen", he explained confident. "So, why take all that trouble to become a citizen? It's not worth it".
I repeated my litany: "Yes, Don Felix, but that's today. You never know what could happen tomorrow".
That was one year ago. Barely twelve months.
And that "tomorrow" we saw so far in the future back then, seems to be not so far after all.
Last July 19, the U.S. Senate voted on an amendment to the College Cost Reduction Act (HR 2669), proposed by Senator John Ensign (R. NV).
Said amendment planned to force every legal alien in the country to submit quarterly all their immigration documents to the government, to prove he or she is legal.
If the alien did not comply, their Social Security benefits would be denied, period. No excuses.
The worst is that the law would include even American citizens born overseas —naturalized citizens. Only U.S.-born citizens would be excluded.
So, no matter if you had been an American citizen for decades, nor if you are an honest, hard-working, law-abiding and tax-paying person, who and served in the military and feels more American than many U.S.-born citizens: Just for being born outside the country, you would be considered an "alien" forever, and your Social Security benefits —for which you worked so hard for so long— would be removed if you couldn't prove over and over your being American, every three months.
Sen. Ensign's amendment is unconstitutional in principle. Article XIV of the U.S. Constitution reads: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall (...) deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
"This is unbelievable", said Victor Valdes, a naturalized American activist born in Cuba, who chairs the Naples Chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "I had seen such things only in Cuba. That's how Fidel Castro started, by passing laws for his own benefit".
Sen. Ensign's amendment was not approved. It needed a minimum of 60 votes to pass to the House and become law. However, the proposal was voted by 57 senators; it ended just 3 votes short of being approved.
Oddly, Florida Senator Mel Martinez, an immigrant himself, voted in favor, probably without fully realizing this proposal could potentially hurt him as a naturalized citizen.
(Neither Sen. Martinez's office, nor Sen. Ensign's responded to our requests for comment on the issue.)
This says a lot about the anti-immigrant feelings in vogue today in the United States.
For Rosa Rosales, LULAC national president, the proposal was "a slap on the face" of Latinos, according to a press release.
"This amendment would have left elderly, disabled, and widowed families with the burden of proving the mandatory components of this amendment. Not only do these individuals require the most support in terms of Social Security benefits, but they also would have had the most difficult time satisfying these requirements", Rosales wrote.
Despite not being approved, the amendment is far from dead.
"Oh, they will submit it again later, with minor changes, and it will pass", said Mr. Valdes wryly. "That's the way things are done in this country".
No matter how hard I try to understand the purpose of Sen. Ensign's amendment, I just can't.
What is the point in forcing millions of U.S. citizens to submit four times a year all the paperwork they exhaustively have already presented to the Immigration Bureau and the Department of State?
Would this make the country safer? We doubt it. Would this reduce crime and terrorist attacks? I don't think so.
It would be just the opposite: It would create more problems, since more staff would be needed to process the tsunami of documents that will —unnecessarily— flood government offices.
So, in the end, the so-called College Cost Reduction Act would not cut expenses, but increase them.
I know what some may say: "They're illegals, anyway, I don’t care. Good riddance!". But let me remind you that this is American citizens we are talking about. Legal immigrants who have followed all the rules and the paperwork to gain citizenship.
A similar situation happened during the 1930's Germany, when nobody protested when anti-Jewish laws were approved. After all, despite being in Germany for generations, they were not "real" Germans, were they? Some even say Jews were not human beings.
So, what's in store for Hispanic immigrants (legal and illegal) in the U.S.? A law to seize their properties?
A patch to sew on their chests? Concentration camps for those who are not "real" Americans, no matter if they are naturalized citizens?
This bizarre situation made me remember an opinion by another Cuban-born American citizen —Marcos, my ex-boss in the Dallas newspaper where I used to work.
He once said a real truth: "If some day panic ensues in this country, they are going to look for someone to blame", he said. "And the first ones they will go after, club in hand, would be people like you and me".
They are already preparing the clubs.