08/29/2013 05:26 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

Immigration and the Promise of Freedom From Fear

I was walking my dog early on a Saturday morning. The sun was just up; the streets were pretty much deserted, except for me and one excited Corgi, trotting along beside me.

As we turned the corner, I saw someone else already up, stepping out of a slightly-beat-up-looking truck: two men with dark hair and tan skin wearing worn work clothes. They cast their eyes down when I walked by.

What must it be like, I wondered, to be someone trying to support a family, afraid of being arrested for showing up for work?

Then I had an epiphany: this is why Mitt Romney lost the election.

Romney had hired a lawn service, owned by a legal resident, which had employed undocumented immigrants. When reporters first confronted then-Massachusetts Gov. Romney about it, in 2006, his response was "Aw, geez." (

The immigration issue surfaced again in an October, 2011 Republican presidential primary debate, during which Texas Gov. Rick Perry chided Romney about the workers who had cared for his lawn.

Perry: "Mitt, you lose all of your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home..."

Romney: "Rick, I don't think I've ever hired an illegal in my life."

Romney's position was this: no path to citizenship, or even permanent residency, for the men, women and children in this country called "illegal." Romney won the Republican nomination but went on to lose the presidential election; he lost the Latino vote by more than 40 points.

What if, instead, Romney had said this: "Rick, I didn't hire 'illegals,' I hired people. That makes me just like the millions of Americans whose lawns are being mowed, and floors are being mopped, and children are being cared for, and food is being picked, by hard-working people like the ones I hired.

"If we had sensible immigration laws, those people would be able to live without the threat of arrest and deportation. They could do their jobs -- jobs we depend on them to do -- without having to stay in the shadows. They could contribute to our communities and our economy without fear. Their children could dream of becoming part of America's future. And if I become President, I'll do everything I can to make sure those sensible immigration laws get passed."

(That was never going to happen, right?)

The problem Mitt Romney had -- the problem facing Congress, which went on Summer break with the issue of immigration unresolved -- is the men with the downcast eyes. They kiss their children goodbye in the morning not knowing if they will return home to them that night.

That burden is unsustainable. There must be the promise that the artist Norman Rockwell's
"Freedom from Fear" evokes: The painting shows a mother tucking two small children into bed at night, and a father looking on with quiet, protective love. The peace and security of that scene belong to all.

One of my most tragic cases as a public defender involved a little boy who was crushed to death between two cars when my client, drunk, slammed into one of them. The boy's father and mother had to get up so early to go to work that they were dropping off their son at a relative's home at a time when the drunks were still out from the night before.

The devastated parents of the boy had wanted to bury their child's body in a cemetery, according to their faith tradition. They decided they could not, though, and so they had their son cremated and kept his ashes.

The reason: those parents, who had lived and worked in this country for years, were "illegal." They feared that if they were deported, they would be separated from their son. They would be in Mexico; he would lie in a grave in Chicago which they could never visit.

The time is long past for Congress to act on immigration. Yet already, there is talk of what should happen when Congress fails us once again: President Obama should use his executive authority to halt deportations which would separate families. That is not nearly enough, but it would be a good place to start.