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Isolationism and Entitlement -- Step-sisters in the Immigration Debate

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Wednesday, July 25th, 2007 — Ray has been cleaning our house every other Wednesday for nearly 30 years. Ray came from Mexico 40-plus years ago. He has his own business, owns a home and speaks perfect English. He is a U.S. citizen.

Ray loves life. We have shared many stories over the years. He keeps trying to teach me Spanish whenever possible, encouraging me with his unique grading system: "200 percent if you get these all right, 100 percent for half right."

But when Ray showed up on Wednesday, the 4th of July, I was miffed that he was opting out of the Independence Day spirit. A little self-righteous, I thought he was being unpatriotic dare I say ungrateful to this country?

In a pinched, accusatory voice, I asked Ray why he was working, saying this is his holiday, too.

"Gotta work to eat," he shrugged.

I was taken aback, mortified. Of course. How simple, basic. I should have told Ray ahead of time that he could take a paid day off from cleaning my house. To make up for this oversight, I paid him overtime.

But there is another lesson in this, too.

For many like Ray, Independence Day has a hollow ring. Legal immigration into this country, especially for Mexicans, is all but impossible. Families are being split up and the future of U.S.-born students is in jeopardy, as occurred in Palo Alto this spring.

Many who are here, legally or illegally, work jobs of insanely hard manual labor, 12-hour days, six or seven days a week just to care for their families and maybe send something each month to relatives left behind.

And if that is not bad enough, immigrants are talked about as if they are numbers and quotas instead of people with real lives. This is hardly the grist for patriotic pride. Ray and I respect each other, but that morning in the kitchen one might have thought we were caricatures of the two step-sisters of the immigration debate: isolationism and entitlement I the overbearing ubermeister and he the ungrateful wretch.

The immediate consequence of Sept. 11, 2001, was the further closing down of our borders. New requests for visas and citizenship were backlogged while illegal residents were apprehended and sent back to their home countries.

Isolationism and suspicion were on the rise. Now, after four years of involvement in a war that seems to be going nowhere and with no end in sight, this impulse to circle the wagons has left its tragic mark on the cause of immigration.

Fear. Fear is a state of mind that can be addictive. Fears about safety gave way to fears about the economy and loss of jobs. We fear for the future of our schools, neighborhoods and health care system.

Eventually many called for the same sort of broad strokes used by Homeland Security after the bombings of 9/11 to combat the costs of illegal immigration. Build the fences. Stop the visas. Send illegal residents back.

But nothing ever happens in a vacuum. While the prevailing sentiment became anti-immigration witness the uphill battle and two-time defeat of the Immigration Reform Bill many would claim that immigrants themselves have adopted a feisty, often in-your-face sense of entitlement.

During the "Day Without Immigrants" rally of 2006 we heard things like, "There is no such thing as an illegal alien. God doesn't make anything illegal." Technically this may be right, but it doesn't win friends or help one's legal standing. Neither does not learning to speak English. Immigration without integration only leads to polarization and a hardening of feelings.

Entitlement is just as much a form of muscle flexing as isolationism. Both give way to mistrust and resentment, the roots of prejudice and hate. And in the end, both isolationism and entitlement limit our freedom. Both mental attitudes erect fences around our hearts fences that need to come down before we can begin to find a just and equitable way to deal with the fences at our borders.

Immigration is a growing humanitarian crisis that will require the investment of significant resources. Both sides need to give in order for there to be solutions.

Ray and I kid that in our next lives he'll be my boss and I'll be his cleaning lady. I hope his to-do lists are not too long. Somehow, I suspect that he will give me a day of paid vacation sooner than I gave him one.

Immigration cannot be reduced to a debate about numbers and quotas. We are talking about the people with whom we live, and on whom we depend in so many ways personally and as part of our state and national economy.

Our outcomes are linked in this life or the next. To a large extent, the quality of life for all of us will rise or fall on the basis of how we resolve this issue.