05/02/2013 12:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Close the Distance Between Washington and the Reality of Immigration

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Last week, an exchange between Jeff Flake, Janet Napolitano, and Chuck Schumer exemplified all that is wrong with the way in which immigration gets discussed within Washington and how far removed the beltway is from the daily reality and aspirations of people who are marching for immigrant rights this week.

When the topic of immigration enters the beltway, it gets reduced to an issue and divorced from the people whose lives hang in the balance. The dehumanizing view of migrants promoted by people like Sheriff Arpaio and Jan Brewer in Arizona finds a home inside the Capitol. At the Senate Judiciary Committee witness table, nativist "experts" share tables with self-identified undocumented Americans and continue to call them 'alien.' But it isn't just the xenophobes intent to block reform who attempt to deny migrants' humanity.

Recalling the so-called "Gang of 8" visit to the Arizona border, Sen. Jeff Flake openly mocked a woman who was apprehended by Border Patrol. While the senators joked about her arrest, I wondered what the woman's name was. What was her story? What family did she leave behind, and to where did she hope to arrive? But through the eyes of the Gang of 8, the group charged with rewriting our immigration laws, she was seen solely as an issue. Not even just an issue; she was a joke, an object of ridicule.

As someone who made the same journey as that woman myself and for anyone who knows anyone who has gone through the Hell of leaving one's family, facing uncertainty, and overcoming the adversity of the desert because lack of opportunity or the threat of violence has driven you from your original home, I can tell you that there is nothing funny about the plight of the woman the senators found so much to laugh about.

But in Washington, we are told that we're lucky just to be discussed, and we should be grateful that we have made it onto the legislative agenda. Let us be clear though: Immigration reform is on the agenda because of immigrants. Arizona day laborers who stood down the hate of armed vigilantes and their uniformed counterparts with the love of our culture and community; immigrant youth who put on caps and gowns and forced congresspeople and the president to make the inconvenient decision of having them arrested and potentially deported or supporting their cause; men and women who labor every day to keep this country running without receiving equal rights; innocent people who have been caught in the deportation machine Secretary Napolitano brags about but who have refused to go quietly into the night. Immigrants are the reason Congress is debating reform, and immigrants will be the determining factor if and when immigration reform makes it to the president's desk.

When looked at from outside the beltway, it becomes clear that the immigration debate can be defined as courage versus fear. On one side are the nativists who will stoke up any fear to kill progress. On the other side, are the courageous voices of migrants who fought for their families and are now fighting for an equal opportunity for citizenship, the same as generations before us. And then, there is the so-called "Gang of 8," the senators who believe they're in the middle, staffed with armies of paid lobbyists, constructing a bill they say is in the center.

But when the humanity of migrants is recognized and we understand the debate as between courage and fear, rather than "left" and "right,", the position of the "center" begins to fade. In essence, it is a debate between those who want to end our exclusion and those who want to see it continue. It is a decision between those who want to alleviate the suffering of those thousands of families torn apart by deportation each day and those who see misery as part of a strategy to restrict immigrants' place in society to toiling in the margins.

The debate changes when it becomes about political equality, and it is won by 11 million people who call this country home speaking for themselves, asserting their right to citizenship. In those terms, the mandate for immigration reform becomes obvious. And it will be fulfilled when, instead of dehumanizing, we ask the name of the woman caught at the border, when we stop to learn her story, and when her story becomes our country's story.