Ruben Navarrette

Children of Immigrants Dominate the Olympics

SAN DIEGO -- Now that the flame has gone out on the Olympics in Beijing, it's worth taking a moment to applaud the U.S. Olympic team. Not only for dominating so many events and winning the most prizes overall -- 110 medals, 36 gold -- but also for winning the argument back home over the contributions of immigrants and their children.

The immigration debate has digressed from how to keep out the undocumented to how to keep out those who have documents as well. After all, the real concern is the changing culture, and millions of legal immigrants have helped spur some of those changes.

Still, immigrants don't come empty-handed. They bring their hopes for a better future for their children and a work ethic that often puts natives to shame. And they apply these things to a million different pursuits, including Olympic gold.

Thirty-three U.S. Olympic athletes for these games were immigrants, a number of others were the sons and daughters of immigrants.

Among the immigrants: Sudanese refugee and 1,500-meter runner Lopez Lamong, who served as the flag-bearer for the U.S. in the opening ceremony; beach volleyball player Phil Dalhausser, who was born in Switzerland but now lives in Ventura, Calif.; and gymnasts Nastia Liukin, whose parents brought her from Russia in 1992 and who now lives in Parker, Texas, and Alexander Artemev, who was born in the Soviet Union and now lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo.

Children of immigrants included: gold-medal decathlete Bryan Clay of Kaneohe, Hawaii, whose mother immigrated from Japan; gymnast Raj Bhavsar of Houston, whose parents came from India; and Kevin Tan of Fremont, Calif., whose parents fled China for Taiwan and then California.

But for my money the best U.S. immigrant story of these games belonged to 21-year-old wrestler Henry Cejudo, all 5-feet-4 and 121 pounds of him. Cejudo, who was a long shot to win any medal in Beijing, won the gold in freestyle after defeating Japan's Tomohiro Matsunaga. Cejudo celebrated by breaking into tears and -- after family members in the stands tossed him an American flag -- wrapping himself in Old Glory and parading around the arena.

The road to that victory lap was long, hard and uncertain. The son of illegal immigrants from Mexico, Cejudo was born in Los Angeles but moved around the American Southwest. Raised by his mother after his parents separated when he was 4, he grew up poor and eventually looked to wrestling to save his life. It did.

So did the United States of America. In his moment of glory, Cejudo didn't forget that. He proclaimed his love for his country and settled the question that pokes at so many immigration restrictionists -- that of alleged divided loyalties, the same suspicions that made life difficult for German-Americans and Japanese-Americans in the 20th century.

"I'm proud of my Mexican heritage," Cejudo told reporters. "But I'm an American. It's the best country in the world. They call it the land of opportunity, and it is."

Cejudo had one advantage: his mother, Nelly. She didn't coddle him or tolerate excuses. Instead, while working two and sometimes three jobs, she pounded into his head what it took to be successful in this country.

"I never played the victim," Cejudo said. "My mom taught us to suck it up. Whatever you want to do, you can do, and that's what I did."

That's my kind of mom. And Henry is my kind of American. This country could use more folks like these. As it is, we have an overabundance of people who have more advantages than they realize, but who blame others for their failures.

Those who want to seal off America have a crass term for the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. They call them "anchor babies" who help keep their undocumented parents rooted here. Some restrictionists even want to amend the Constitution so that, in the future, children born in this country to illegal immigrants would be denied U.S. citizenship in order to make it easier to deport them.

It's a dangerous and despicable idea. Besides, the activists miss the point. It's not the parents who are anchored in the United States. It's their kids -- people like Henry Cejudo. He made his choice. He's not going anywhere. And if you want to pry that American flag -- his flag -- away from him, why, you're going to have to wrestle him for it.

(c) 2008, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Self-Deportation Program Finds Few Takers

SAN DIEGO -- Have you ever seen a giant surrender? It's pretty pathetic.

That's the word that comes to mind when a gargantuan government agency with more than 16,000 employees and a $5 billion annual budget suddenly throws up its hands and gives up on one of its major responsibilities. In fact, when that agency is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there is even a name for the act of surrender: Operation Scheduled Departure.

We are now almost halfway into a 17-day pilot self-deportation program that ICE is trying out in San Diego and four other U.S. cities: Chicago, Phoenix, Charlotte, N.C., and Santa Ana, Calif. The program ends Aug. 22.

So far, not so good. There aren't many takers for the government's less-than-generous offer to allow 457,000 illegal immigrants without criminal records and who pose no threat to national security to voluntarily turn themselves in to federal authorities. Anyone who did want to schedule their own departure would be given 90 days to get their affairs in order and -- here's the part ICE doesn't advertise -- be outfitted with an electronic ankle bracelet to keep track of their whereabouts in the meantime.

The offer is being made to "fugitive aliens," people who have appeared before an immigration judge and been ordered to leave the country, but haven't complied with the deportation order.

That part isn't surprising. If the illegal immigrants are from Mexico, and the lion's share of them are, what awaits them at home isn't appealing -- the prospect of having to support their families on $6 per day when they could make 15 or 20 times that on this side of the border. Then there's the fact that, while ICE likes to project this image that it is roaming the countryside and "knocking on doors," I suspect that not that many doors actually get knocked on. In order to want to voluntarily leave the country, illegal immigrants have to have a realistic fear that they'll be picked up and that the process will be messier and perhaps more dangerous than the self-deportation route.

As it stands, most illegal immigrants are probably more likely to be struck by lightning than to ever be paid a visit by ICE. According to an ICE spokesman, last year the agency arrested about 30,000 fugitive aliens in the entire country. At that rate, it would take 400 years for the agency to clear through the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the United States.

Do-nothingism is a reputation the agency has worked hard to build. Just ask any local or state police officer who, having run across an illegal immigrant and done his duty by calling ICE to pick him up, waited and waited only to eventually realize that no one was coming. Or ask any of those who were picked up in the recent series of immigration raids -- deservedly so, I might add -- but who had to watch those who had employed them, and in some cases allegedly abused them, get off without so much as a warning.

Clearly, ICE is suffering a meltdown. It is the result of an overhaul that the Immigration and Naturalization Service got after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and now it desperately needs an overhaul of its own.

Of course, it's the future we're talking about. It's too late for the crew that is there now. Julie Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been a disaster ever since she was nominated in 2005 when she was just 36. She is the niece of Richard Myers, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and she is married to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's former chief of staff. Julie Myers got into trouble even before her Senate confirmation when a Homeland Security employee showed up at a staff Halloween party dressed in prison stripes, dreadlocks and dark makeup. Later, digital photos from the party surfaced, despite the fact that Myers had ordered them erased. That was embarrassing. Now, by signing off on this ridiculous self-deport program, Myers has made the agency a laughingstock.

The next president needs to make it clear that he's serious about immigration enforcement by finding a serious person to head what needs to once again be thought of as a serious agency. But who would want the job now? Say, why not take a page from the agency's playbook and ask for volunteers?

© 2008, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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