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We're Ready For Immigration Reform: A Novelist's Perspective

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With the bipartisan proposal on immigration just announced, and President Obama's speech on reform delivered recently, we're all braced for the polarizing winds of anger to rage.

But that's not what I've found. For several years, I have been talking about illegal immigrants, all over the country. Every time I finish my talk, I wait for a blast of hostility.

It never comes.

Six years ago, I published a young adult novel, Ask Me No Questions, about an undocumented, Bangladeshi immigrant family snared in a post-9/11 crackdown. The novel opens with this family fleeing to the Canadian border. They never make it across. Instead, the father is detained, held as a suspected terrorist, the mother remains behind at a nearby shelter, and the two sisters are sent back to Queens, N.Y., to carry on their lives as if nothing has happened.

It's estimated that nearly half the Bangladeshi community in New York City is undocumented. During the '90s, they were the immigrants bussing tables, renovating brownstones in gentrifying Brooklyn, or selling fruit and nuts on Manhattan street corners. The economy, New York City, was booming. Then came 9/11 and with that, the Patriot Act, and the Muslim Registration Act, which required that all foreign men born in Muslim countries must register. Whole communities went into a panic. Some registered, and some were detained. Others disappeared. Swaths of New York City -- shops, businesses -- were suddenly boarded up as families fled. Young people who knew no other home other than America suddenly had the rug pulled out from under them.

As a novelist, I often tour the country, talking about my book, and thus, immigration. What I've discovered is that people are ready for immigration reform. Young people especially are more than ready. They don't carry the same baggage of resentment and anger. They understand that the kid next to them in class is not that different than they are, and that they too, are facing a perilous future.

And it's these stories of immigration that reveal our common bond as an immigrant nation. I often tell my own: My immigrant grandmother fled the pogroms in Russia, zig-zagged illegally throughout Europe and worked in a German laundry, until she finally received a visa to sail to America in 1924 -- the very year the immigration gates slammed shut to Jews and other Southern and Eastern Europeans. Indeed, my grandmother, who barely wrote English, remained so fearful of standing out, or stepping forward out of the shadows, she did not even apply for her citizenship until, nearly 40 years later, when she was inspired by my immigrant father, who became a citizen when I was a young child.

Or another story: How every time my family traveled to Canada or England and we reached a border crossing, my father, a naturalized citizen from Guyana, would fumble with his passport, or blank out momentarily on his real name. I watched, pained, as the sweat broke out on his forehead and he struggled to answer an immigration official's questions. What hit me then is that even when someone is allowed in, granted citizenship, they never lose the feeling of not belonging, the fear that the authorities can snatch your country from you, papers or no.

Every time I finish my spiel, I take a deep breath and wait. After all, I have written about illegal immigrants. Muslims, no less.

What follows are thoughtful questions, sudden memories and most of all, stories. The adults instantly reach back into their own experiences -- of their mothers, fathers, grandfathers -- who immigrated long ago. They remember the secrets or the odd behaviors they couldn't explain -- a father who refused to speak anything but Italian at home; another who would never allow playmates to come to the house; a grandmother who never, ever talked about working as a maid in a rich part of town; an embarrassing German name they had to endure. They find, in thinking about those in the margins, they discover the hidden shadows of their own identity, their own histories.

Students, too, have their own questions and connections, which they bring to me. What will these girls do? Are they angry at their parents for breaking the law? How do you live with lies and secrets? How do you find hope for the future when a country doesn't want you? One day, at a school in Paterson, N.J., a young undocumented girl drew me aside, tears in her eyes, and asked, "Can you help me?"

Novelists are attuned to language, not political slogans. We traffic in character, not broad characterizations. When language is careless or incendiary, it does not allow the complicated truth to glimmer through. Phrases such as "jumping the line" or "dangerous so-called Muslim students" do not tell the whole story. They miss out on Peruvian women in long braids and ponchos standing in another line: rubbing chamois cloths on fenders at my local car wash. Or the young girl in a head scarf who told me all about fulfilling her mother's dream of becoming a doctor. None of this hardened language tells the story of how all those years, our bureaucracy, our visa slots did not keep up with the voracious needs of our country. We looked the other way because we could.

Granted, a workshop of librarians and teachers, an assembly or classroom of students, is not the most polarizing of environments. It's not the halls of Congress where sober regulations must be hammered out; it's not the tough, dry borderlands of Arizona or Texas.

Yet the work I do, the conversations I've in schools and libraries, do open up our powerful emotions around immigration. They reveal our bedrock connections, the very core of American identity.

It's time to remember, to tell stories, and find what we have in common. And it's time we faced our recent history and engaged in a thoughtful way about the best way to move forward. To take responsibility for the America we are becoming. Just listen. We are ready.