The Rise and Fall of Immigration Reform: Language Had Everything to Do with It
I met him many years ago, but I've never forgotten our brief encounter. He was a taxi driver, with an unmistakable Russian accent. In his prior life, he was an engineer, but now he was working double shifts in a cab so his kids could know in America what he could only dream of for himself -- both in what was then the Soviet Union and in his new homeland. He was a strong, kind, gentle man, with a sharp intellect and a good sense of humor.
As we talked, the same words repeatedly came to my mind: "There but for the grace of God go I." Truth be told, he and I were more similar than we were different.
Sure, I was a professor and he was a taxi driver. I was a native-born American; he was a struggling immigrant. And I had experienced firsthand the opportunity we call the American Dream, whereas he held only a promissory note. My parents were first-generation college graduates, and my dad had become disabled when I was a child. So I knew what it meant to work hard for everything I had (which wasn't much as professor, at least financially, but a lot more than a rusting cab). No amount of rationalization, however, could shield me from the recognition that the only reason he was driving me home from the airport rather than the other way around was that my great-grandparents, Russian Jews like his, had the courage and good fortune to find their way to Ellis Island at the beginning of the last century. They were able to do for the great-grandchild they never met what I hope, as I picture him now, he will see with his own eyes for his children.
I gave him a twenty-dollar tip on a twenty-dollar fare. He looked at the crisp twenty with surprise, but somehow I think he knew it reflected neither ostentation nor charity. I felt a kinship with him. He could easily have been my friend, even though we had been separated by a century of history. I took his card and suggested we get together. I meant it, and looked forward to meeting his family.
I can't say for sure why his card stayed on my desk for months before it finally seemed that too much time had elapsed to dial his number. Maybe it's the same reason so many people's cards have sat on my desk over the years who I genuinely wanted to know better. There are only so many hours in the day. Or maybe it was our differentness, his life in a Russian enclave with people whose words I would have trouble understanding around the dinner table. Or maybe it was just the opposite -- our similarity, and the feeling I couldn't escape, that the difference in our circumstances wasn't fair. From what I understand about the mind -- and about my own mind -- I suspect it was all of the above, although I was scarcely conscious of any of it.
This is the story of immigration. This is the story of America. This should have been the story of immigration reform in America.
I wish I had taken the time to pick up the phone. And I wish our leaders had taken the time to lead.
We didn't have to go far to find the right words. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson invoked the faces of poor Mexican-American children to move the Congress and a divided nation to enact civil rights legislation with teeth the week after Bloody Sunday in Selma Alabama. We don't often think of Johnson as a great president, because he couldn't extricate either himself or our soldiers from Vietnam, but when it came time to extricate our nation from a centuries-old legacy of prejudice and oppression, he knew how to lead. Listen, as you play the video below that accompanies this piece, to what a real leader sounds like, one who understands how readily the sense of differentness to which we are all prone when a person's skin color is different from ours or whose language is foreign to our ears elides into prejudice, hatred, or contempt.
Throughout the debate on immigration, polls have shown that most Americans are not the raging xenophobes leaders on both sides of the aisle feared and many on the right courted and ignited. Most Americans just want an alternative story to "amnesty for dark-skinned lawbreakers who steal our jobs and want to say the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish." They want a narrative that has the ring of truth -- but comprehensive truth about comprehensive reform.
To be compelling, and to defuse the morality tale on immigration of the right and righteous, our story needs to begin with the most important truth, for which we needed no reminder this week from London and Glasgow, that the protection of our borders and safety is the first task of government. It then needs to steal the thunder from the right that readily reverberates through the middle by adding to the incantation, "If they're going to live in our country, they need to learn to speak our language," the simple, progressive, and quintessentially American phrase, "because if they don't, their children will never know the American Dream, and we will have done nothing for them but to relegate them to second-class citizenship."
And it should remind those of us who can sometimes be moved to hatred or callousness when it is intermingled with the language of terror or prejudice, but whose better angels will heed our call if only we summon them, that we were all once strangers in a strange land, and that when we look in the face of an immigrant who wants nothing more than to work hard for a better life for his or her children, we are looking in the mirror.