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Empathy for Hispanic Immigrants, Documented or Not

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Thirty years ago in East Texas, my father befriended a man from Mexico who was in the country illegally. Or maybe, given how much love and care the man extended to our family, it was the other way around.

At first it was awkward having them as part of our family gatherings, from a single man to husband and wife to a family of five. Language barriers and cultural differences were pronounced and always present. But what became obvious was the deep friendship between him and my father, and the loyalty they shared to each other. I believe the common thread was the bond of two blue-collar men who wanted the best for their families.

In those three decades our friend obtained citizenship, saw his son and daughters graduate with honors from high school and college, and shared in the care of my parents as they grew old. He would ultimately stand next to me as a pall bearer at my father's funeral.

When I read the many articles and op-eds deploying statistics and crying for regulation of immigration, I cannot process the cacophony without looking through the lens of personal experience. What seems to always be omitted is the human drama, the compassion for individuals and families.

I am guilty of driving to the "corner" where men stand, hoping to find day labor. Yes, I have hired them and paid them generously. But I have also driven to that intersection to simply share food and a hot cup of coffee with them before they go to work in the mornings.

I listen to their stories and there are common themes that rend the heart: here to work, to make money and send it back home, anxiety over separation from family, doing the jobs no one else will do, unscrupulous employers, fear over deportation, and the unspoken evil of predation by their own.

It reminds me of the scenes in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," when Irish immigrants would be led from the docks to enlist into the US Army to fight in the Civil War, or crime lords would round them up to vote, holding the threat of housing and employment over their heads constantly.

Slumlords today who pose as responsible citizens bear a striking resemblance to those of the 19th century, holding their tenants' fate through fear and overcharging for substandard housing. The nightmares of eviction, withholding medical attention, and extortion for guiding them to employment are underbellies to this drama that never make the news. Immigrants are victims in the very nation that prides itself on offering civil liberties and justice. But not for them!

And yet they keep coming. By the millions they come to our nation for work, for opportunity, for independence, for the right to improve, live, and sustain themselves and those they love.

It is amusing when some unenlightened soul suggests that they must embrace our language and patriotism. Not only is that thought naïve and comical, for the proverbial cat is way out of that bag; but from all practicum, what have we as their co-inhabitants of our communities shown them that would warrant either a loyalty or desire to embrace?

In the underbelly of this huge Latino subculture are the same seeds of the future that has defined the American experience since the inception of our nation. What family heritage is void of an immigrant, legal or otherwise, that came here hoping for more, for better, for freedom? What family history is void of victimization, challenge, and sacrifice?

Those who got here first made the rules, broke the land, created the opportunity, and put up the fences. When someone comes along later to scratch out a space, we cry foul and believe our security is in jeopardy. We want to burden the government with tomes of rules and laws to protect us from the interlopers that are acting in the same spirit of our forefathers. We dehumanize and lean on the rhetoric of the privileged.

But when our roof needs repair or our foundation needs to be poured or our weeds must be pulled, we do not question the makeup of the workforce.

Look at a photograph of the Earth from outer space and something is missing. Boundaries -- lines and fences, walls and barriers -- are missing. What one sees is one system, one globe of cohabitation. I wonder from this view point if a clearer sense of a common humanity is the parable we need to embrace?

I am a Christian. I am a pastor. And with those two words come the ease of dismissal. But it is from that platform of grace that I view the passion of the plight of immigrants, be they documented or undocumented. And from the vantage point of friendship that was modeled in my home, I hope and pray for empathy to be the guiding principal while seeking solutions that guarantee the dignity of Hispanic families that come to the same country my family came to long ago.

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