Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The immigrant in all of us

This is one of those posts that I wrestle with. Immigration is complicated. It has layers of complexity. It is usually argued emotionally, and understandably so. So let's start with emotion.

One of my son's close friends came to the United States when he was a young child with his parents, who were fleeing Russia.

To say his parents gave up everything to seek a better life in this country is an understatement. They still have family in Russia. They both had professional jobs. When they arrived here, they had nothing, and started over again working long and hard laborious hours, including late and overnight shifts, while they worked to make sure their son was never on his own. 

They persevered. They now are contributing members of our community. Their son is a good student, a talented athlete and an exceptionally driven person. A senior in college, he is driven to a career path that can help him support his parents as they grow older, much in the way they supported him.

Another of my son's close friends came to the United States when he was a young child with his parents, who were fleeing El Salvador. His parents obtained Temporary Protect Status, which allowed them to stay in this country, to work, to have a drivers license and to live as Americans. He thrived as a student, student athlete and community leader, and is now an award-winning teacher in Minnesota. His siblings were born here. 

Another family we know relocated from Poland after the father was invited to leave. His alternative was to face jail and even death. A follower of Lech Walesa's solidarity movement, he was put on a list  after fighting for a cause he believed in. They raised their children in our small town, most of whom went to college and are now raising families of their own.

These families I speak of aren't just contributing members of our community. They are our neighbors. They are loved. They are part of us. And I think of the lives they may have been stuck with, or the lives they might have even lost, if they didn't have the option of seeking something better in America.

But immigrants are stealing our jobs. They're terrorizing our country. They're costing us money. They don't pay taxes and they're stressing programs like Social Security and Medicaid.

That argument also is emotional. It's also inaccurate.

There are hundreds of ways to justify the right-wing agenda to curb illegal immigration. We need jobs. We feel unsafe. We're scared. We don't understand. We need to get a handle on things. We need to protect ourselves. America first.

All of those things may or may not be true, but I do know that these actions, along with the anger and fear from many (not all) who support no-holds-barred immigration policy represent a horribly naive view of how to prevent terrorism in this country. An audit of acts of terrorism in the United States since 1800 shows that many terrorists perpetrating crimes within this country are born and raised right here in the U.S.

Repealing DACA and laws that will repeal programs like Temporary Protect Status are in the works. This provides a very real problem to these friends and neighbors who live among us.

Deporting immigrants who have become members of our community to countries they have no knowledge of accomplishes nothing. Preventing desperate refugees from entering America after an extensive vetting and sponsorship process does not prevent acts of terror on our shores. What it does do is help fear fuel our intolerance just a little bit more, eating away at the empathy we have for those who are suffering in plain sight. That simply is not a Christian value, and I'll argue with anyone who tries to say it is.

We have all sought refuge for something better at some point in our lives. And, many of us know the taste of desperation. It's bitter with fear and it aches with hopelessness. I'm not willing to yank hope out from under someone's feet because I'm afraid.

I have no quarrel with those who want to reform immigration. But it is incumbent on us as patriots to lobby for immigration reform that is strategic, evidence-based and works to solve the problem, which is getting a handle on who is in this country illegally. That step isn't enough. We also need immigration reform that makes sense and has heart. Not a policy that sends a young man who has committed his life to educating our kids back to a country he has never known. Or his parents, leaving their U.S.-born children behind. That's just madness.

Here's what we need to do:

- Start conversations. Not just with the people who agree with you. Reach out and be willing to have tough discussions with people on both sides of the aisle. Tell them the stories of the immigrants you know. This is the single most powerful step to change we can take.

- Call your Representatives and Senators. Better yet, find out who is on their list of major campaign donors and call them.

- Learn the immigrations stories within your community, your local businesses and your schools. Lend your voice to those who are at risk. Their need is urgent and the time is now.

- Use your voice. It's easy to do nothing when you worry that speaking up will risk your job, your business, your friends, your relationships.

Nothing worthwhile was ever easy.

It's Epiphany. Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated the birth of a child of desperate immigrants who were fleeing terror and oppression. He went on to save humankind as we know it.

This is our Bethlehem, friends. Let's get after it.

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