Border fence near Tijuana, Mexico

Immigration debate becomes personal

I can’t help but reflect on two conversations I had one day last week. The two persons I talked with have almost nothing in common — except that they are the type of people that some want to keep out of the U.S.

The first conversation was with a medical doctor in practice for nearly two decades, first name Mehrnoosh, fluent in English, French and Farsi. She was helpful, affable, informative and thorough as she discussed with me the mostly routine medical issues I face. The second was with a coworker, first name Noé, fluent in English and Spanish. He is barely out of high school but has ambitious dreams of organizing churches and carrying out a music ministry. He’s a charismatic young man, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see his dreams become a reality.

As you might guess, neither of these talented people is someone that might be thought of as a “typical” American. And, honestly, that wouldn’t matter to me an iota — except that now we are engaged in a national debate over who deserves to enter or stay in our country.

The issues surrounding immigration are complex, especially for those with those who enter our country with few resources of their own, sometimes because they are fleeing persecution or horrendous economic conditions. So I’m not going to offer any simple answers. But our nation is one of immigrants, and I fear to think of how much poorer our lives would be without them.

It’s easy to come up with names of famous U.S. immigrants who have changed the face of America, mostly for the better — scientist Albert Einstein, politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, journalist Christiane Amanpour, singer Joni Mitchell, singer Carlos Santana, entrepreneur Sergey Brin, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, therapist Ruth Westheimer and so on. But I’m more likely to think of the immigrants I know personally — the ones I can count as friends include people from Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador, Mexico, Venezuela and Canada. None of them are especially close to me, but still I know them well enough to know that they are as deserving of enjoyment of all that the U.S. has to offer as I am.

What bothers me most about much of the immigration debate is that immigrants are often treated as abstractions. Specifically, they have become little more than political pawns tied to partisan and personal debates. Maybe if we could think of them as real people — people with the dreams and hopes that all of us share — just maybe we might move ahead on the debate more constructively.

Photo of border fence at Playas de Tijuana by Quim Gil/Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.

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