Immigration. What does the word mean to you? If you live in the southern United States, it might conjure up an image of Mexicans crossing the border in the dead of night. If you’re Italian or otherwise European, you’re probably thinking of the 20,000+ Tunisians who have landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa during the past few months, and who may be landing in your neighborhood soon. On the other hand, if you come from Mexico, Tunisia, the Philippines, or sub-Saharan Africa, you might look at immigration from the other direction. The other side of the fence, as it were.
I’ve looked at it from both sides of the fence. I come from San Diego, where the benefits of immigration (to me) were tangibly present everywhere in the number of mouth-watering Mexican restaurants. Fresh tortillas? Guacamole? Silky-smooth refried beans? I still dream about them here in Tunisia, where pinto beans are an unknown quantity, avocados are a rare import, and flat bread is just not really that flat.
For a year, I also worked as a paralegal in the office of an immigration attorney, helping people navigate through the treacherous labyrinth of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In case you didn’t know, immigrating to the United States legally is not easy. While I worked there, a new Stephen Spielberg movie came out, in which Tom Hanks (as an unsuspecting traveler from a fictional Eastern European country) is permanently stuck in the JFK Airport, and dogged at every step by an immigration officer who’s really out to get him. If you’ve never worked in immigration law, The Terminal may or may not be as ruefully funny to you as it was to me. But it certainly does highlight the feelings of frustration and helplessness that come from being caught in the vast and often unfriendly no-man’s land of immigration.
I guess I see it pretty poignantly from the “other” point of view, since I’ve been an immigrant too. My first experience trying to immigrate was in Italy. Click on the “Italian Red Tape” label on the sidebar, and you’ll find countless descriptions of my untold hours at a dozen or so different government offices in several Italian cities explaining, cajoling, begging, pleading, or just waiting in interminable lines. Even after a year of work, prayer, and desperation finally culminated in Tony’s acquisition of Italian citizenship, I still had many hours ahead of me getting residence permits and sundry paperwork. Although we left Italy four months ago, the residence permit I applied for when I first arrived is still “in process,” rendering me unable to travel within most of Europe until such time as it is granted.
I don’t mention this to complain, only to express my solidarity and understanding. My immigration woes are nothing compared to the tragically life-blighting consequences that current immigration policies and attitudes in Europe, America and elsewhere cause to some of the most vulnerable people in the world. How did my Moroccan and Nigerian neighbors in northern Italy feel when Lega Nord vilified them as the source of every societal ill? How can my own country proclaim values of equality and brotherhood when people are being sneered at or pulled over on the road for having darker skin and speaking Spanish?
While the human toll of the bigotry and racism that so often permeates the heated debates on immigration is serious enough, some of the most devastating consequences of the prevailing attitude are those that affect families. Guest workers who are undocumented or whose host countries don’t permit them to bring their families often go decades without seeing them. How many marriages can survive a permanent separation? And how many children are growing up motherless or fatherless so they can have the necessities of life?
I realize that doors and borders can’t simply be flung open, but more can be done than many countries are doing to humanize the issues. When we use words like “alien” and “clandestino,” we’re talking about human beings, with just as much intrinsic worth as somebody whose family has lived in the United States for seven generations, or Italy for twenty-seven.
That’s why I was so happy to learn last month that Utah had taken a step toward moderate and compassionate reform by enacting several bills based on the Utah Compact, a principled proposal for injecting humanity back into the immigration debate. The Utah bills, which focused on both reasonable enforcement and measures to keep families together, came hot on the heels of an unprecedentedly draconian immigration bill in Arizona. I was delighted to find that what really turned the tide in conservative Utah was the strong support of the Utah compact by my Church.
The pain of the “immigration problem” can be felt from one perspective or another in just about every country in the world. But what we need are not smear campaigns against entire nationalities and races, or harsher criminalization of people’s efforts to find a better life for themselves and their families. I, for one, stand with the writers of the Utah Compact, who envision a solution that pairs respect for law and government with commitment to families, free markets, and civil and humane society.