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Immigration means different things to different people. For some, it’s the start of a new life in the “Land of Freedom and Opportunity.” For others, just a way to send money home. Among those already established here, some feel that it’s a welcome influx of diverse traditions, novel philosophies, and colorful customs; others feel it brings in competition that depletes limited economic resources.

However you feel about immigration ­— legal or otherwise — in this Land of Freedom and Opportunity, I believe we can all agree on some core values. It’s uniquely American that we’re an upwardly mobile society; entrepreneurs willing to distinguish themselves through ingenuity, schooling, or even just sheer hard work, have opportunities to advance in life. We don’t have a monarch — instead we vote for our democratic and accountable government. Everyone has equal rights regardless of gender, race, income, religion, and national origin. We have law and order: Those engaged in violent, fraudulent, or anti-social acts are eventually taken to task by law enforcement and the judicial system.

Despite the Boston Tea Party, our government collects taxes and provides public services like transportation, sewers, police and fire, national defense, economic and housing development. We are a civilized society. We look after our children, provide for our elders, and help the truly desolate and needy poor — whether through government programs or charitable organizations. And, we have a fair and balanced system that safeguards workers’ rights against blatant abuses, but also management’s rights to maintain continued viability and growth of the economy.

But there is a hidden population here — intimidated, desperate, and frightened. They’re trapped by their lack of immigration status, yet remain here in hope of a better life for their loved ones. Some, like children of illegal immigrants and refugees from war-torn nations — stay here because they have no other country to call home. But they also fear for their safety from prejudice and those ready to take advantage of their illegal status. Many labor in what amounts to perpetual indentured servitude, accountable to no one but those who looking to profit from hard workers receiving little compensation. I always thought slavery ended with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865!

It’s easy to dismiss “their” problems: They don’t belong here, they’re clogging up the welfare system, and it’s their choice to come here illegally.

But we ought to uphold our American values. Those whose only sin is making a decision to come to the U.S. illegally, whether on their own, through smuggling, or even escaping from inhumane abuses in their home country, are people, too, and probably our friends and neighbors. If they become victim of a crime, they need full force and protection of the law. If they are criminals, they should be arrested and prosecuted rather than merely deported. This is how America is different from the “back country.”

They must contribute to our government functions through taxes and user fees, but they should also receive social benefits just like you and I would if we were to hit a rough patch — instead of being forced to work under terrible conditions. If some are illegally clogging up welfare, perhaps we should actually check identifications when people sign up! Our domestic jobs and pressure on our wages must be shielded from encroachment by profit seekers willing to ignore the law to obtain cheap labor.

The only way to do this sustainably is to: 1) clear the backlog of illegal immigrants here — through a combination of deportation and legitimization, recognizing their hardship at the same time allowing them an opportunity to earn the right of abode; 2) make legal immigration less cumbersome, but require applicants to demonstrate good work ethic, self-advancement through education or otherwise, and a willingness to adopt these core American values; 3) clear the accumulation of unprocessed immigration applications, to minimize difficulties for legitimate candidates and attract talents that will truly contribute to this country. As long as there is poverty somewhere in the world, they will come — we might as well pick and choose the best and the brightest, give them a legitimate channel, and regulate them properly.

There are many reasons why I came here in 2001 in search of better opportunities: the blatant racism and lack of work in Scotland, the lack of civil liberties and political instability in Taiwan, and the cheap and plentiful products and services that you couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. Despite 9/11 and its aftermath, the people of Massachusetts and MIT welcomed me with open arms, I received my degree here, and an Irish gentleman gave me a lot of help on getting my Green Card. During this process, I learned how this great country was made possible — on the backs of newcomers and illegal immigrants — and found current immigration practices unconscionable.

Let’s do the “right thing” — the uniquely American thing — and make it possible for everyone to work hard and earn these same opportunities. Talk to your elected representatives today (in your home districts) about what immigration means to you. You can make a difference. After all, there are no monarchs here.

Alex Lu is a member of the M.S.T. Class of 2003, and can be reached at lexcie@alum.mit.edu