The Immigrant Song

In 1992, I was invited to go on a deep sea fishing trip off the coast of Mexico. We were to fly from Los Angeles to Guadalajara. Even though at the time one could travel to Mexico with just a driver license or birth certificate, I had a bit of a problem: having been born in Dublin, my birth certificate was written in Gaelic. I was advised to apply for a passport, just to be safe.

My parents had moved to America when I was three, willing participants in the diaspora of the Irish people seeking opportunity and a better life in America. They eventually became naturalized citizens. With their citizenship, my brother and I became citizens too…..or so I thought. My first application for a passport was quickly rejected. I did not have an American birth certificate. I needed my parent’s naturalization papers. The problem was that my parents had divorced decades earlier and my father’s whereabouts were unknown to me. So I resubmitted my application with a copy of my mother’s citizenship papers. It, too, was rejected. To qualify for a passport, I needed papers from both parents. No one bothered to explain to me what would have happened if my mother had immigrated to America without my father. It didn’t matter. I needed his papers, too.

Surely, I argued, you must have them on file somewhere. Can’t you just look it up? No can do, I was told. We need his originals. For crying out loud.

Unable to attain them, I did what I thought to be the logical thing. I wrote to my former elementary, middle and high schools and had them send me copies of all my school records (which only served to dissolve my personal mythology that I had been a good student. I’m surprised I even graduated.) Look, I appealed, I have lived in America since I was three and attended school here. My mother is a citizen. I’ve paid income taxes since I was sixteen. I'm a registered voter. Give me a passport. No dice. None of it mattered. Without my father’s naturalization papers, I was technically not a citizen. Even though my brother, a year older than me, had been assigned a number in the draft lottery and could have been shipped off to Vietnam, we weren’t capable of leaving the country voluntarily. By a long series of luck and happenstance I was, with the help of relatives in Ireland, able to locate my father, who fortunately still had his papers over forty years later. I finally received a passport in 1998. It had taken six years. My father died the following year.

Those six years in citizenship limbo were eerie. I had revealed myself as being technically illegally in America. I was informed by an attorney that if some technocrat at INS woke up on the wrong side of the bed and wanted to create havoc in someone’s life, I could potentially be deported. I had unintentionally outed myself.

These thoughts and more ran through my mind recently as I drove to Allen to attend a panel discussion conceived of and moderated by Adryana Boyne, National Director of VOCES Action, a leading organization committed to communicating the conservative message in the Hispanic community where, of course, immigration is a sensitive topic. She also sits on the advisory council of the Texas Faith and Freedom Coalition, which facilitated the event. Along the way, I thought of what might have been if my father had died a year earlier and I was still in legal limbo. I thought of Arizona’s “show us your papers” law and what would have been the outcome if that had ever happened to me. Of course, that would never have happened to me during my “illegal” phase. I never would have been asked. I am Caucasian.

I wondered what had created this schism with the Hispanic community. Having lived in both California and Texas, I had never thought of Latinos as somehow being anything other than mainstream Americans, no different than Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans. The Hispanic culture is a vital thread in the fabric of American life, so much so that it is hard to imagine an America without it. From where had this rift come, this feeling by Hispanics that they are not welcome in a land where their contributions to American society predate most of those doing the unwelcoming? Surely such a feeling exists, or I wouldn’t be driving 50 miles to attend a panel discussion on the subject.

I came not to speak but to listen. The seven panelists – Dr. Daryl Boyne, Dianne Costa, Silvia Guzman, Dr. Alex Mandes, Dr. Mike Pocock and Edward Retta - were all conservative, Republican-leaning (though exasperated) and Christian. Their objective, if it can be called that, was to save the Republican Party from itself. Hispanics, I know, share classic American values. While no group or ethnicity is monolithic, Hispanics can fairly be described as family-oriented, followers of Christ, deeply patriotic, pro-life, hardworking, industrious and conservative. In other words, Republican. Yet 72% of them voted against their own values in the most recent presidential election. How are Republicans being so successful at repelling what in a sane world would be such a natural constituency?

That’s a question that every conservative who is concerned about the future of this country must ask. Often I hear, “Hispanics share our values. Why do they vote Democratic?” That’s not the right question. The answer we must seek is, “Why do we offend them so?”

One must only hear the arguments from some on the right regarding the current debate on immigration reform. One of the most insidious and destructive is that Republicans shouldn’t support some sort of legal status for undocumented residents because they won’t vote Republican anyway. Really? Is that truly a valid response to what is a humanitarian issue? They are here. They are people. Talk such as that, talk of rounding them up and deporting them (or self-deporting, as a spectacularly unsuccessful recent presidential candidate intoned), simply drives a stake between Republicans and the fastest growing constituency in America. Talk such as that will merely accelerate the GOP’s headlong rush into irrelevancy.

A telling moment came in last year’s Republican primaries, when Governor Rick Perry was roundly pilloried when it was revealed that Texas allows in-state tuition for children of illegal residents. Even though the law permitting it was a decade old and nobody’s life had been turned upside down because Juan paid the same tuition rate as John and had been for ten years, the outrage was deafening and could well have been the moment Perry lost the nomination. Deafening, that is, to all but the Hispanic community, who took notice that Republicans did not care about their children.

Republicans seem to think that parading politicians with Hispanic surnames on stage is a viable strategy, as evidenced at the RNC convention in Tampa, which at times resembled an Hispanic minstrel show to the delight of a nearly exclusively all white, middle-aged and older audience. Just look at our diversity! Never mind that Hispanics, like anyone else, find it insulting and demeaning that they would vote for somebody based upon their last name and not a shared life experience. They still voted nearly three to one for Democrats in November.

Why? One reason of many is that whether they are related to an illegal resident or not, whether they support amnesty or not (most don’t), they view Republicans as being hostile towards their race, their people and their culture. Whether you agree with their perception or not, whether you cry foul and say, “I don’t think that way” is immaterial. That’s the perception and as long as Democrats treat them as victims of Republican meanness, as long as Democrats coddle them and offer them protection, as long as Democrats immerse themselves in their communities and befriend them and Republicans do not, they will continue voting for Democrats, ideological differences notwithstanding. Once it becomes a generational habit, Republicans will forever be relegated to minority status, begrudging the 11 million newly deputized citizens who will never cast a vote for them. Deal with it. The time to act is now.

Sometimes, often times, doing the right thing means doing the unpopular thing. Viewing human beings as political pawns or economic speed bumps is not the right thing. We are all, in a great sense, immigrants to this land, even those fortunate to have been born here. Achieving the American Dream should be encouraged for all people, regardless of the borders wherein they were born. That is the essence of America. Relegating 11 million people to having no status whatever is un-American.

Rather than positioning itself as a stalwart defender of white people, which is the not-too-incorrect perception of minorities, the Republican Party should promote itself as a party dedicated to success, to lifting up all people and holding back none, regardless of status. We talk of individual initiative and then say, “Jump this hurdle first.” Rather than talking about a pathway to citizenship, we should be offering a pathway to achieving the American Dream. If a person becomes successful, thrives in business, creates jobs and wealth, contributes to the community, do you really care that once upon a time he crossed the border at Juarez?

As I listened yesterday, I thought of something that may or may not catch on. No one needs reminding that this country is in very deep trouble and much of what we know and love about America is changing. That is inevitable. We can either be the agents of that change or the victims of it. I believe to have a positive impact on a changing world we must have FOCUS: Faith, Opportunity, Charity, Unity, Success.

There will be a similar panel discussion in Fort Worth in the near future. The most important thing we can do at this time is to listen. Not argue amongst ourselves or dig in our heels. Just listen.

It’s amazing what you can learn.



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