When Will You Personally Know an Immigrant Affected by New Enforcement Regime?

Someone should create one of those “seven degrees of separation” rules with regard to immigrants—that is, an indication of how many close friend-or-family ties away each person in the U.S. is from someone whose run-in with immigration authorities has them thinking, “What?! Not him/her! Is that really legal?”

Such exclamations and protestations have been common in many recent deportations from the United States. Even people who think mass removal is a good idea in general often want to carve out exceptions when they realize it’s going to be applied to a friend or long-time community member.

For instance, The New York Times ran a story called “He’s a Local Pillar in a Trump Town. Now He Could Be Deported.” It described how a town in which the majority voted for Trump was shocked when the manager of a local Mexican restaurant was arrested for being undocumented.

The article quoted one town resident as saying, “I think people need to do things the right way, follow the rules and obey the laws, and I firmly believe in that . . . But in the case of Carlos, I think he may have done more for the people here than this place has ever given him. I think it’s absolutely terrible that he could be taken away.”

For people within my own circle, that “not him” moment came when news surfaced about our long-ago high school theater director, Ruben Van Kempen—who came to the U.S. from Holland the year that most of my classmates were born—being refused Social Security retirement benefits because “The Department of Homeland Security is unable to verify the immigrant document you submitted as evidence of your lawful alien status.”

That’s bureaucratic error piled onto bureaucratic error—not only were the records missing, but Van Kempen had become a U.S. citizen decades ago, meaning that “lawful alien” is no longer the appropriate way to describe him. To suggest that he’s NOT lawful means that he’s undocumented, which is of course grounds for deportation. But fixing that error should be easy, right?

Not in the current harsh immigration enforcement regime. Van Kempen’s case turned into a nightmare of calls to Social Security and the Department of Homeland Security, neither of which agencies would offer help or answer his questions—until there was public outcry and his Congressional Representative stepped in and started asking questions.

But as Van Kempen told the Seattle Times, “I would still be considered an alien in my own country, and my file would still be sitting there buried, if a friend hadn’t thought to contact the Seattle Times . . . But your newspaper can’t profile every immigrant with a problem. That leaves me very unsettled.”