Immigration Gridlock

Humanizing the issue is the first step toward moving forward

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Commentary

by Leslie Wylie

There are some interviews that, as a journalist, you never forget. There are conversations that move you, there are exchanges that enlighten you to alternative ways of thinking, and there are conversations that chill you to the bone.

A year and a half ago, while working on a cover story on immigration, I found myself on the listening end of several of the latter.

One was with the leader of the California Minutemen, who spent months of his year camped out on the U.S. side of the Mexican border in RVs strung with American flags, keeping watch for border-crossers through his binoculars. â“California is no longer a part of the United States,â” he said. â“We're an occupied territory of a foreign government.â”

Another was the president of the Texas Minutemen, whose deep voice brightened when he spoke of how the border-crossers would scatter like ants into the night when his men flipped on their spotlights. Lost in the desert, it wasn't uncommon for the immigrants to then die of heat exhaustion or dehydration, which didn't seem to bother my interviewee.  

Closer to home, there was the Hamblen County commissioner who used the descriptors â“Hispanicâ” and â“illegal alienâ” interchangeably, and the Anderson County bricklayer who told me, with exasperation in his voice, â“These aliens, they'll work with you, work beside you, and the next thing you know they're taking your job.â”

It was through these conversations, and others of similar tone, that I realized just how strongly some Americans feel about the keeping our nation's borders tightly sealed. Immigration is an emotionally charged issue, one that calls into question our nation's most fundamental ideologies. So it came as no surprise when, last Friday, a compromise-driven immigration bill stalled in the Senate, falling 15 votes short of the 60 needed to limit debate and allow a vote.

As the bill was brokered by about a dozen senators of both parties, it would have paved the way for citizenship for an estimated 12 million immigrants: Those in the country before 2007 would have the opportunity to receive renewable four-year visas after paying fees and fines, and a two-year guest worker program would also be created. Both programs were contingent on the passage of certain security benchmarks, including tighter border security and harsher punishments for hiring illegal immigrants.

But the plan wasn't enough to convince some Senate conservatives, who contended that the legislation guaranteed amnesty.

On Tuesday of this week, President Bush encouraged lawmakers to push forward with the legislation, which some see as the centerpiece legislation of his second term. So the question becomes, what will it take to convince immigration hardliners to vote for a compromise bill that's never going to make everyone happy, but is at least a step in the right direction?

There's no easy-fix answer, because the root problem is grounded in a mindset that's not easily reversible. For some legislators and too many American citizens, illegal immigrants are seen as numbers, as dollar signs, as aliens, as threats, as anything and everything except the reality of what they actually are: human beings. Human beings with names, families, needs and dreams.

That's a hard reality to see, though, if you're staring at said illegal immigrants through a set of binoculars in the desert or, while trying to determine their future, are blinded by the rhetoric of powerful, mostly white and affluent politicians in a room on Capitol Hill.

For the rest of us, though, the issue of immigration is an issue we more or less deal with on a day-to-day basisâ"a statement that's no longer applicable only to the residents of Arizona, California and Texas. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Tennessee showed the fourth-fastest immigration growth among the states for the years 1990 through 2000. The Tennessee Department of Health's projections show Hispanic populations growing exponentially in most Tennessee counties over the next 10 years.

At this rate (and immigration rates seem unlikely to plummet anytime soon), and with the election year fast approaching, legislators can't afford to sit on an immigration bill much longer. Now's the time to work together rather than argue, to slice through the political haze and get the job done, preferably in a way that is respectful of both the Hamblen County bricklayer and the immigrant bricklayer against whom he perceives he is competing for work.

It's not an easy order. Talking to the Minutemen last year, there was nothing I could have said that would have prompted the groups' leaders to rethink their individual missions. Their minds were, at least regarding illegal immigration, made up; the issue was closed for discussion. We can only hope that our legislators won't make the same mistake.

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