A lost voice in the immigration debate

In spending much of last week in New Mexico, I heard a great deal about Arizona’s immigration debate. Each day a new story appeared in the newspaper. Each night the television news would run another piece. When I finally got home late last night, I hopped in a cab, pining for my family. But no sooner did the cab pull away from the curb, than the conversation with my Pakistani cab driver began. His voice is nowhere to be heard in the raucous immigration debate. It should be.

I remember working with the Orange County Register back in 1994 when they were covering Prop 187, also known as “Save our State,” which called for the screening of all individuals and families before receiving health care, education and other social services, in order to keep out illegal immigrants. Ultimately, that law was struck down by the courts. But, at the time, one of the things the Register editors told me was that they had regretted their coverage of Prop 187 – which they said merely mirrored the cartoonish debate between opposing sides, and failed to illuminate the underlying issues.

I always admired the Register folks for their forthrightness and dogged honesty; and their coverage of other tough issues over the ensuing years proved to reach their aspirations. But, now, during the Arizona debate, we could all take a lesson from the Register. Where are the voices of people who do not fall squarely at either pole of this debate, who are wrestling with the competing values and issues involved, and who are in search of a solution that reflects the best of America?

I found one of these voices as my cab pulled away from the curb. At first, my cab driver and I “talked” about the best route to get to my house. We disagreed some, but finally reached some accommodation. It’s possible.

Then, our conversation turned to his children. I don’t remember exactly why or how that happened; no matter, the story that unfolded was moving and engaging and reflected something rich and enduring about the American experience. My cab driver has five kids. One is now a lawyer who attended Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and has clerked for two judges; he let me know that he has counseled her to pursue a legal profession in which she can “do right.” He has another daughter, also a VCU grad, who just received her MBA. His son, a twin, is going off to VCU in September. And yet another daughter is a graduate of VCU as well. Four out of his five kids will be VCU grads. As we talked, I leaned over the front seat, and said to him, “You know, your children are living out the American Dream.” He smiled, and with the inflection of a proud father, said, “That’s right.”

I then asked him what he thought about the recent immigration debate. He said that people should keep coming to America, but that they must also follow whatever rules are set up. We talked for a good amount of time about this. He recounted that he came to this country 19 years ago, following the path of relatives already here. This country had offered him everything, he said (including a double shift that day). At one point, I asked him if he planned to return to Pakistan. He told me how he wanted to go back to care for his ailing mother. But, then he said, “But this is my country.” Slowly, he looked at me and asked, “Is it alright that I say ‘my country?’For that’s how I feel.” Our eyes met, and I said, “That’s great you feel that way. That’s how it should be.” And he said softly, “Yes, that is how it should be.”

The immigration debate is a complicated one. There aren’t any easy answers. And my intention in recounting this story is not to suggest there are. Nor is it to promote one policy position over another. Instead, what concerns me today is that the debate ought to reflect the best of us – not the worst. It ought to be about what kind of country we want to be, and, yes, the rules such a vision requires. In that process, we must not fall prey to demonizing others or pushing one another into a corner. Indeed, let us demonstrate respect for the people among us, like my Pakistani cab driver, who came to us as immigrants, who are contributing greatly to our country, and who now bless our nation.