Little Pieces of Paper

By W.D. Reasoner on October 19, 2011

As I imagine many did who are interested in the subject of immigration, I watched the show "Lost in Detention," even knowing in advance that it would not likely advocate a pro-immigration enforcement point of view (I was not wrong). The show aired last night as a part of the PBS Frontline series, and for at least some period of time, it can still be viewed on the internet.

Within the larger narrative was a storyline about a family which had been disrupted by the deportation of the wife and mother after her arrest for driving without a license. While there was certainly pathos – who could not be affected by the children's sense of loss? – I was left dissatisfied by the many threads left untouched in the story, such as the mother's decision to drive with no license. The chances are astronomically high that if she had no license, she also had no insurance. With casual disregard for the safety and rights of others, unlicensed-and-uninsured motorists kill and injure many thousands of people on American roadways every year, leaving the victims and survivors to try to pick up the pieces of their lives as best they can. When she chose to get behind the wheel, surely she understood the risk that she would be stopped and arrested, as surely as she ought to have understood the risk that, sooner or later, she might be detected and removed by immigration officials for having crossed the border illegally. Her choices affected the almost-inevitable outcome. Should she be permitted to evade the consequences of her own repeated bad judgment?

Then there is the question of the husband's status. The story is notably silent on this point, despite repeating several times that their children are citizens by birth. A telling moment, though, is when the narrator describes the husband going to the jail to bail out his wife the day after her arrest, only to be told she has been taken into custody by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Instead of contacting that agency, which surely would have been able to advise him of her whereabouts, apparently he randomly went from jail to jail in the vicinity trying to locate her. One might reasonably surmise that he felt he could not contact ICE, for fear of being arrested as an illegal alien himself.

The narrator also tells us that after the wife's removal, the husband had a hard time making ends meet with his auto repair business. Why would this be? Had she been employed illegally, potentially displacing a legally authorized worker from a job? Was she the fulcrum by which the family had been obtaining taxpayer-subsidized benefits such as TANF (the old AFDC), or food stamps? We don't know. And of course, there is that repair business. If the husband is illegally in the United States, chances are also pretty good that the business is not licensed, bonded, or insured. Anybody want an unlicensed mechanic working on their vehicle? I'll take a pass on that, thanks.

But the crowning moment of this story-within-a-story is when the man expresses his dismay that his wife was whisked out of their lives for lack of a little piece of paper. This husband and father may or may not be an illegal alien, but he is nobody's fool. How adroitly he sweeps away a whole system of laws and justice with one well-turned phrase! It got me to thinking about little pieces of paper.

Take, for instance, the birth certificate: this little piece of paper is our way of affirming to society and government, "I exist and I matter." It is the foundation of our identity. It is the wellspring by which we can obtain a job, a passport, or a Social Security card – another little piece of paper which allows us to open bank accounts, serves as our taxpayer identification number and, most importantly, in our declining years proves our right to a small monthly stipend which, to an increasing number of the elderly, is the thin cushion between eking out an existence and financial calamity.

Then there is the voter registration card, yet another little but very important piece of paper – one which we use to establish our right to select those who lead us: everyone from local school board members to the president of the United States. If I had my way, it would be minted in gold, commensurate with its value, despite the fact that it and the attendant right to vote are all too often underappreciated by our citizenry.

And, after a decade of war, let us not forget the DD-214. This little piece of paper is given by the Defense Department to military members upon their discharge from service. It serves as the gateway for a host of veterans benefits such as education, health and disability assistance, pensions for those who are eligible, even preference points on a number of federal and state civil service exams, thus providing a path by which honorably discharged veterans can continue serving society through jobs in the public sector.

Finally, there is the death certificate. This little piece of paper is important not only symbolically as part of the closure process for those grieving the loss of a loved one; it is critically important for the remaining spouse in order to gain access to survivor benefits, insurance annuities, and all of the things that mean the difference between a decent way of life and a hardscrabble one on the wrong side of penury. It is of course also legally required for heirs and survivors to execute a will or to distribute and dispose of the tangible assets of the deceased.

These are just a few of the pieces of paper that surround and define our lives, even in this technologically advanced society in which we dwell. Can there be any doubt? "Little pieces of paper" do matter.