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Citizens and Patriots: Not One and the Same -- A Commentary

by Christine Flowers

The other day, I was standing in line at the Immigration Office on 16th and Callowhill in Center City Philadelphia, waiting to file a client's application for benefits. Many of the people in place ahead of me were frustrated at the long delays, and shuffled from foot to foot, or juggled babies and papers, or chatted away in a babel-like spectrum of languages. One person, however, made his annoyance known, in a loud voice, in English: "I don't know why I should be stuck here," he said, to no one in particular. "I'm a citizen for God's sake. I just need a stupid form and some information and I've got to stand here all morning?" His tone ended in a question. I turned around and looked at him, a short, squat man of about fifty, with graying hair topped by an Eagles cap. I took in his striking blue eyes, his calloused workman's hands and the American flag pin attached to his collar and thought, this is a hardworking fellow who obviously considers himself a patriot of sorts. And I decided to help him.

"What information are you looking for" I asked. "I need to get my girlfriend into the country, and they're giving me the runaround. Its not like she's some illegal immigrant, like these guys here," and he gestured to the crowd standing ahead of us in line.

I could have asked him how he knew 'these people' were illegally here. I could have sought to embarrass him with the facts, waving my indignation like a banner. I could have told him that, from my observation, a large number of the people ahead of us were quite probably 'legal aliens' like the ones who were there to renew their green cards, and the ones who were seeking employment authorization after having fled the civil conflict in Liberia, or the ones who were there complying with Special Registration because they were students from Egypt and Indonesia or.....

But I didn't tell him these things. I kept my mouth shut, because I could see from the look in his eyes that it wouldn't have made any difference. For those who have a 'them' and 'us' mentality, the subtle nuances between 'citizens' and 'foreigners' are irrelevant. To them, all immigrants are illegal or, at the very least, create a drain on society. There is no place for them in a monolithic 'America' that draws a line in the sand coextensive with our national borders. Let's be realistic, they say. The waves of immigrants who flooded our shores, filled our coal mines, built our railroads and highways, and raised our great monuments, stone by stone and brick by brick, are no longer needed. We are a different country now, a vulnerable nation that must close its doors and seal its borders against all enemies, perceived and invisible. Sadly, some people have confused 'enemy' with 'foreigner.'

To those people, I would commend the story of Marine Lance Corporal Jose Gutiérrez. An orphaned Guatemalan who entered the United States illegally in 1997 and obtained asylum at the tender age of 16, he enlisted in the service to earn the possibility of an education, and to become a citizen of the country which had given him safe haven. He was the first serviceman to be killed in combat during Operation Iraqui Freedom, taking a bullet in the chest at the Iraqui Port of Um Kasr. It was Corporal Gutierrez's most ardent desire to become a citizen and yet he fought as an immigrant, never pausing to think that some of the people he was protecting would have closed the door in his face if he sought a visa today.
The debt that this country owes this serviceman will be paid, in part, by the posthumous grant of citizenship.

I only hope that the gentleman with the patriot's pin and the preconceptions in line behind me will hear about Jose Gutierrez's sacrifice. And bow his head in healthy shame.

About The Author

Christine Flowers is employed by Joseph M. Rollo and Associates, P.C. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The firm provides a complete range of immigration services and specializes in family and employment-based petitions, asylum and deportation. Ms. Flowers is currently co-chair of the asylum liaison committee for the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and has written and lectured frequently on immigration in the Philadelphia area. She is a 1983 graduate of Bryn Mawr College and a 1987 graduate of Villanova Law School. The firm can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.