Jennifer Nelson:Capstones: A lesson in fairness

I’ve been a champion of University Studies since I transferred here a year ago. And why wouldn’t I be? As far as I could tell, the fact that I needed a few upper-division film and music classes to graduate couldn’t be a bad thing. And it wasn’t.

That is, University Studies wasn’t a bad thing until I attempted to register for my senior capstone, a task that proved to be impossible winter term (they really do fill up on the first day of registration). By spring-term registration I knew better, and I ended up in my capstone of choice: tutoring English as a second language for a small nonprofit in southeast Portland.

But the first week of classes was shaky, and the following week wasn’t much better. There are 15 students in my class. That’s 15 schedules to coordinate, 15 different needs that must be met. Sixteen if you count our teacher. And at least another 15 to 20 if you count our tutees.

By the end of the second week, it was pretty clear to me that it wasn’t going to work. And yet, it had to work (because I needed to graduate).

“When life gives you lemons …”

Corny adages aside, I knew I had to make the best of it. Fortunately, this wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.

It was last week when I had the epiphany. April 15. I had prepared my taxes the day before, and, sticking with the theme, had prepared an in-class presentation on immigration and taxes.

Researching my presentation was shocking, to say the least. Like so many things in life, there is so much we don’t know. The fine print. Things like:

* There are an estimated 9 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

* Illegal immigrants do not have Social Security numbers, and are therefore not allowed to work legally in the United States.

* However, this does not mean that illegal immigrants do not pay taxes.

* Although a Social Security number is required to gain lawful employment, it is not required to file taxes. An illegal immigrant can simply apply for an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN.

* The Internal Revenue Service has issued more than 6.8 million ITINs since they were created in 1996.

* According to the Associated Press and the IRS, approximately 366,000 returns were filed using individual taxpayer identification numbers in 2001. People with the tax numbers reported wages of almost $7 billion and paid almost $305 million in taxes.

* Finally, law prevents the IRS from sharing tax information with immigration officials.

More shocking than these statistics, though, was the reason many immigrants gave for wanting to pay taxes: They hoped it would speed the process of becoming a legal citizen.

Following my presentation, we watched a film titled “Immigration in Oregon,” and while the two weren’t related, they weren’t totally unrelated either. I can still hear the voice of the woman who claimed that her family had lived in Oregon off and on for 11 generations. Yes, 11.

I’m fourth-generation Danish American, fourth-generation German American, a legal, tax-paying citizen and soon-to-be college graduate. This woman can’t even visit her family in Mexico for fear of being deported. Surely she has just as much right to be here (if not more) as I do.

Walking out of class that day, I was struck by several things, although not necessarily for the first time. Our government is messed up: Whether or not this loophole is fair, it’s still a loophole. Immigration policy must change: A world in which an 11th-generation Mexican American is considered an illegal immigrant, while I am not, is not a fair world.

Finally, and perhaps most startling: Thank goodness for University Studies. How lucky we are to take classes that challenge everything we’ve been taught. It may seem inconvenient, but in reality, it’s what college is meant to be.