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Asher 15: When we talk about immigration reform

According to family folklore, in 1914 my great-grandmother Eva Gilman — referred to as “Bubbe,” the Yiddish word for grandma — caught the last ship out of the port of Vilnius in Lithuania before World War I broke out. Whether or not it was, in fact, the last ship is impossible to tell, but we do know that she ended up in Boston, where she lived until her death in 1988. She raised five children, three of whom served in the United States Armed Forces in World War II, and helped run her brother-in-law’s butcher shop in Dorchester, a working-class neighborhood in South Boston. My family history is filled with great American immigrant stories like this.

Now imagine that her last name was not Gilman, but Garcia. Instead of Kaunas, Lithuania, her city of origin was Guadalajara, Mexico. Lastly, imagine her being flown out of the United States with her husband and being forced to leave her five children behind while she “got legal,” something which might never happen. For many undocumented immigrants living in the United States, that is the scariest nightmare imaginable, because it often comes true.

Now that politicians in Washington have realized that there sure are a heck of a lot of Hispanics in the country, and they overwhelmingly want our broken system of immigration to change, there’s been a lot of talk about immigration policy. Republicans have, in general, stopped talking about Mitt Romney’s infamous “self-deportation” policy, instead opting to talk about heightened border security and paths to citizenship for skilled workers. Democrats continue to sing the same tune they’ve sung for years — that we should normalize the status of undocumented workers already living in the United States, a practice also known as “amnesty.” There is so much policy discussion, in fact, that the human cost of our immigration policy gets lost in the crossfire. Terms like “normalization” and “securing the border” are commonplace. “Compassion,” not so much.

One of the common threads between two of the hot-button issues of 2013 — immigration reform and gay marriage — is how utterly devoid they seem to be of what Maureen Dowd, in a recent column in the New York Times, called “the human factor.” She compares Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s near poetic opinion in the landmark 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down anti-sodomy laws in Texas, to Chief Justice John Roberts’s  “Karl Rove” questioning in Hollingsworth v. Perry. In the oral arguments, Roberts repeatedly referred to the political power of the “the lobby supporting the enactment of same-sex marriage laws,” implying that it has already effectively won. The case was not about two humans being free to love one another and have that love formally recognized, but rather about political reality.

Practicalities are essential when it comes to discussing policy, and I’m not expecting senators to come together and sing “Kumbaya.” It is possible, though, that politicians underestimate the power of our humanity and capacity for compassion and empathy. Border security and E-verify may prove to be good carrots for lawmakers, but moral justice has always driven our most significant policy changes.

If there’s one lesson to be gleaned from the 2012 presidential election, it is that the country has irrevocably changed. For the first time in our country’s history, being a white male no longer makes you “normal.” Women, black Americans, gays, Latinos — this diversity is the new normal. So the question now is, do we fully welcome all Americans into the tent, or do we try to keep the divisions between us alive in the face of overwhelming historical tides? How we deal with immigration is one of our first tests. We can either let the 11 million undocumented workers in the country languish while Congress sits around and does nothing, or we can push our lawmakers to follow through. Not because it’s good politics — which it is — but because people are suffering, and the government has a chance to alleviate that suffering.

When we talk about immigration reform, we are not only talking about our would-be Hispanic brothers and sisters. We are talking about our country’s future, and the futures of everyone in it.

 

 

Adam Asher ’15 is majoring in Classics. You can follow him on Twitter (@asheradams).



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