THE BLOG
05/23/2012 08:29 am ET | Updated Nov 29, 2012

Wall of Fear

U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords from Arizona addressed a local audience in Tucson in January 2011 and took a bullet in the brain from a deranged gunman. He has not spoken publicly about why he did it and we may never know for certain. But keep this in mind: Congresswoman Gifford took a very controversial position on protecting the rights of immigrants in the first state to pass a bill that requires people -- that is to say, Latino-looking people -- to carry documentation. They must prove that they are legal residents and face deportation if they are not. Her stand upset a lot of people in the great state of Arizona, where immigration issues are very touchy subjects. Was this shooting that killed six, including a child and federal judge John Roll (whose rulings provided illegal immigrants the right to sue people who assaulted them) a coincidence? I don't think so.

But more importantly, there is a valuable lesson to be learned by taking a closer look at this tragedy. Twenty-year-old student and gay Latino-American intern Daniel Hernandez put his hands on Gabby Giffords' wounds to staunch her bleeding and keep her alive. A Korean-American trauma surgeon, Peter Rhee, operated on her and saved her life along side a Philippino-American nurse. This is a small example of who and what makes up these United States. We are a country of immigrants. Some of our families have been here longer than others, but, sooner or later, we all came from somewhere else.

The United States desperately needs to pass a formidable version of the DREAM Act, which would conditionally provide permanent residency to minors of undocumented immigrants, as long as they have gotten a high school or college education, or entered the military (depending on the version of the bill). While politicians, including Senators Marco Rubio and Richard Durbin, have strongly advocated for the passage of the bill, any version of the DREAM Act is far from passage. Many children of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have lived their entire lives in this country working hard, in school and out of school, to make sure that they can build a solid and successful future for themselves that their parents sacrificed for the greater good. In fact, I recently signed a petition to help a girl named Daniela Pelaez, a high school senior in Miami, from being deported. While her parents are illegal immigrants, she came here as a young child at the age of four. Ms. Pelaez, who is heading to the very respectable University of Miami, is a high school valedictorian and dreams of becoming a doctor. And this country wants to throw her our? Are we insane? There should be no doubt that many of these children will provide innovative leadership in the workforce that this country desperately needs. And certainly, with the upcoming presidential election, immigration issues and the DREAM Act will be a point of much discussion.

But of course, it's not as simple as that, and immigration policy is one of the biggest issues facing many countries throughout the world. One thing they all seem to have in common is that many people think that things have changed, that immigrants are a burden they can no longer bear, that these people are living in their country under false pretenses or worse. Fear of immigrants takes many forms. In many cases, the threat of terrorism makes them suspicious. For others, it's the economy and scarcity of jobs. Or how immigrants abuse social services such as schools and hospitals. Or questions about their loyalty to the flag. The ancient Greeks came up with a name for this a long time ago. Xenophobia is a hatred or fear of foreigners or their culture. As a result, most countries have toughened their asylum laws.

If you are caught illegally, you can be deported even before your appeal over refugee status is heard. If someone slips into a country illegally, so what? Why shouldn't the country kick them out? Once again, it's not so simple. In Europe and Japan, where many regions have aging populations and falling birth rates, they desperately need to attract skilled foreign workers. The fact is that employers EVERYWHERE hire illegal immigrants because they need skilled labor and can pay them less. Would many of these jobs go to local workers? Not if they don't have the skills. Many of these immigrants are well-educated, far from the cliché of layabouts who come to countries to sponge off of society. Just ask Silicon Valley where most of their best engineers come from.

And sometimes, the definition of "skills" can be pretty basic. The Germans took in Turkish immigrants by the tens of thousands years ago because the local German people did not want to do the dirty, menial tasks that a society requires to function. The Japanese did the same with the Koreans. The Scandinavians did the same with the Africans. They took them in and allowed them to work, but that's about it. You can go around the industrialized world and see more or less the same principles at work. Someone has to clean the streets, bus the tables, do the plumbing and wash the windows... But when the economy starts to worsen and people lose their jobs, they start looking around for someone to blame. It goes downhill from there really fast.

Take France, where tensions with those from North and West Africa runs high. So what is a French-speaking immigrant to do? The French ignore them and prevent them from assimilating into their society, getting good jobs, going to good schools or even socializing with them. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently put a law into place banning the burqa, the face-covering Muslim veil, from being worn by women in public. Other countries are planning similar steps.

A typical response from most government officials and a good portion of people from the host country goes something like this: "Immigrants should adopt our customs in 'our home.'"

How far should host countries go to allow immigrant communities to retain their distinct character? These are questions that homogeneous societies, which is to say just about EVERYONE except the U.S., has had to deal with. Japan has largely been exclusively Japanese. The same goes for China and all of the countries in Europe. Their struggles with immigration are a relatively new phenomena. And, of course, we've been struggling with immigration issues for a long time now and don't seem to have the answers. Or do we?

For all of our imperfections, this country celebrates diversity. E Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one. Despite the hard times that we find ourselves in, the American Dream still lives, and for immigrants who are here legally, the dream burns bright -- maybe not as brightly as it did before 9/11, but nowhere else in the world is there a place that provides such opportunity and protect the rights of man.

It is for these reasons that the masses came here a century ago and why they still come today. The rest of the world has a lot of catching up to do if they are going to integrate their societies in a meaningful way, so that they no longer see immigrants as "the other, " a stranger to be feared. They say old habits die hard, but it can be done. Not so long ago, it was hard to imagine that European nations would ever come together to form a union, exchange workers or sacrifice their currencies for a common one. But they did, and if they put their hearts and minds into it, they can assimilate legal immigration into their societies and be the better for it. We, in our country, must also resist the same fears while jobs are scarce and we go through tough financial times. Diversity broadens a nation's resources and provides fresh talent, ideas, culture, and energy. It may not be a smooth ride and our cultural differences can often be hard to understand, but, in the long term, the walls will come down.