There have been a number of times in which I've been proud of my mom, but I don't know that I've ever been more proud than the day I told her that a dear friend was here in the U.S. illegally.
When I confided that Jose Antonio Vargas, a terrific journalist and all around great human being, was the illegal immigrant in question my mom's first response was, "How can I help? I mean could I adopt him or something?"
Her reaction nearly brought me to tears (and Jose too when I shared it with him). You see illegal immigration is a subject I've never written about, in part because my own feelings about the subject are complex, and I know my mother's feelings are too. But ultimately her compassionate response, and our conversation that followed, made it crystal clear to me that there has been a real failure in our country when it comes to the issue of comprehensive immigration reform.
Not simply a failure in terms of policy but a failure in terms of communication. And not merely on the part of conservatives (although they certainly bear some of the blame.) There has been a fundamental failure on the part of progressives to make a compelling case to people like my mother why they should care about this issue. Even more important, there has been a failure to acknowledge and communicate a simple truth that has severely limited the progressive movement's ability to mobilize more people like my mom -- die-hard Democrats who care about civil rights -- around this issue. That simple truth is this: all undocumented immigrants are not created equal.
Much like the term "deserving poor" became a dirty word among progressives, (despite being a term very much rooted in the realities of poverty) the idea that some undocumented immigrants in this country are far more deserving of a second chance than others is an idea that supporters of illegal immigrants remain hesitant to fully embrace -- to their detriment.
I began thinking about the disconnect around this seemingly obvious fact after coming across the recent New York Times article "Illegal Immigrants' Children Suffer, Study Finds." Anyone looking to disprove the theory that the New York Times is a bastion of liberal bias, with a secret agenda to advance progressive causes need look no further than this piece. It's hard not to surmise that the person writing it was purposely attempting to provide fuel for critics of illegal immigrants. The piece introduces us to a young illegal immigrant struggling to find services to aid her following the birth of her first child -- yet somehow she has two more children in quick succession, all of whom are currently on government assistance.
What I found so disturbing about her story is that it is not the story of many illegal immigrants in this country -- those who actually contribute and do not take advantage of government programs that cost taxpayers enormously.
Immigrants like Jose Antonio Vargas.
For some reason the conversation over illegal immigration seems to have been hijacked by two equally extreme positions: Those who believe that all illegal immigrants are bad people and should be deported, and those who believe that all illegal immigrants deserve a path to citizenship, (and that anyone who disagrees is a bigot).
Both sides operate under the illusion, (or should I say, delusion) that all illegal immigrants are equal. And both sides are equally wrong.
Someone who comes to this country -- or in Jose's case is brought to this country -- and spends his entire time here contributing in every way imaginable is not comparable to someone who doesn't contribute at all, and it's disingenuous for supporters of illegal immigrants to pretend otherwise. However it's equally disingenuous for immigrant opponents to pretend that our country has not benefited greatly from illegal immigrants, those who as the president often notes, learn English, pay taxes and break no law (beyond the ones they break to begin their journey in the first place).
Vargas, for instance, has already made much more of a contribution to this country with his writing than I probably ever will with mine. In addition to a shared Pulitzer, his work covering the AIDS crisis in Washington, D.C. inspired a film on the subject that may just end up saving lives. As my mom said, "I can think of ten American citizens off the top of my head I'd gladly trade for one Jose."
I can think of 20.
America would simply not be America without people like Jose. (Click here to see a list of the most Politically Influential First Generation Americans of the Last Decade.) For this reason, I hope this issue finds a resolution, for him, and others like him. But that's not going to happen until supporters of the DREAM Act and other compromise measures stop wasting valuable political capital denouncing the president and the government's efforts to deport people who have not worked to earn the privilege of remaining here. This includes people who are legitimate criminals (and yes if you drink and drive and endanger other people on the road, or commit any crime whatsoever after already committing one to enjoy the privilege of living in the greatest country in the world, that means you). Not to mention wasting valuable political capital denouncing legitimate conservative criticisms as bigoted.
Asking a person who chooses to come to this country to learn English and earn his own way and make responsible choices (as Jose has) so that taxpayers don't end up subsidizing him or his family, does not make the person doing the asking a bigot. And if you have ever called a person who believes in the above that word, then you should look in the mirror and congratulate yourself for being one of the people responsible for our country's inability to reach consensus on this issue. Because there are fair-minded people who may be willing to compromise who will not do so as long as you dismiss them as bigoted, simply because it's easier to do that than to engage them on those issues in which they have expressed valid concerns.
Ultimately, we will never find common ground as long as we alienate each other with name-calling, and as long as liberals and conservatives are unwilling to acknowledge that no one owns the moral high ground on this issue. No one.
When Jose first shared his secret with me, he mentioned that he had spoken with some who were encouraging him to speak on behalf of all illegal immigrants. My response was, "But you're not the voice of all illegal immigrants. You're the voice of immigrants like you. And frankly they are underrepresented in this debate."
Here's hoping that thanks to his courage more voices like his will join the debate and progress will finally be made. Because our country can't afford to lose Americans like him. In fact, as my mom pointed out, we could use plenty more.