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Living In Denial: The Unspoken Obstacle Preventing Amnesty

by Robert Gittelson

I have often written articles in the past that discussed specific proposals related to comprehensive immigration reform, and the feedback from readers inevitably boiled down to those readers that were harboring pre-conceived notions as to their feeling either for it or against it. Time and again, I've tried to reason with the detractors, and almost always it has been to no avail. Experience has taught me that good and well meaning people tend to react viscerally to this issue, and in most instances, no amount of intellectual reasoning is sufficient to persuade.

In this article, I'm going to explore the emotional ties that bind us to our beliefs about this issue, or more specifically to one part of this issue, and that is to the sticky issue of what to do with our undocumented immigrants, or, as the detractors have labeled the term, amnesty. The issue is sticky, because this is the issue that tends to be the deal breaker. At the risk of offending some readers, I'm going to delve into the realm of the politically incorrect, and discuss the taboo subject of racism, as it relates to the issue of amnesty. Please understand that there are various degrees of racism, some obvious and overt, but most are simply subtle byproducts of our individual life experiences. If one goes through life completely unaffected by their surroundings like a zombie, then perhaps they would harbor no pre-conceived notions based on race, color, or gender, but I've never met anyone that fits that description.

I can only use myself as an example. I don't consider myself a racist by any means. I've written numerous articles and letters speaking out against racism. I have extremely good friends that I love, and many of them are Black, or Hispanic, or Middle Eastern, or Asian. My best friend growing up, who eventually became my college roommate, was black. And yet, when Barack Obama gave his speech last month on racism, something he touched on struck a nerve in me. He talked about his Grandmother, who loved him with all her heart, but who admitted to him that she was scared of Black people on the street.

When I was growing up back in the 1960's in New York, I remember an experience that haunts me to this day. I was eight or nine years old, and I was running an errand for my uncle in the city one day. I was walking down the street, and three black teenage young men were walking towards me on the sidewalk. They were all much bigger then me. As we passed, one of the teenagers veered into me and bumped into me. He tried to pick a fight, shouting, "Hey, why don't you watch where you're going!" He aggressively started pushing me, and he scared me. Somebody broke it up before he actually hit me, but it was kind of scary for a white, Jewish kid from the suburbs of Long Island.

I bring it up now, because to this day, if I'm alone in an elevator with a large young black man, my guard goes up. It is almost imperceptible. Intellectually, I'm not scared, but somehow, someway, deep inside me, it's there. Does this make me a racist? Technically, I'd have to say yes. I have a pre-conditioned prejudice that goes beyond reason. The point is, that we all have been conditioned by our life experiences. That doesn't necessarily make us hateful or evil, just human. We're all different from each other in ways both large and small. I believe that it is how we deal with these differences that are what reveals one's character. Do we embrace and appreciate our differences, (viva la difference), or do we use our differences as a divisive wedge?

If we are to have a meaningful and thorough discussion about amnesty, then we are kidding ourselves if we don't bring up the fact that our cultural differences are, in some measure, an issue. People can talk about the "rule of law", and certainly that is also a legitimate issue. People can talk about setting a precedent that could encourage future illegal entry, and that is a legitimate issue. People can talk about the unfairness of "cutting in line", and that is a legitimate issue. I've written many articles that point out the economic benefits of legalizing our undocumented, and the economic perils to our country if we don't, and I believe that those are legitimate issues too. Still, why can't we talk about our "feelings" about these "different" aliens? We all have feelings about them, one way or another, so why can't we talk about that? Our cultural differences are to some degree affecting the debate, and nobody dares to talk about that honestly and openly. It is a legitimate issue, so let's bring it out into the open.

I think that many people can remember a time when they could leave their doors unlocked, and they knew everyone in the neighborhood because they all grew up together, went to worship together, went to school together, worked together, and trusted each other. It would be un-natural and unrealistic to assume that people would give that up without a second thought, or without a sense of loss. Strangers means change, and strange strangers makes that change uncomfortable and to some degree frightening.

The familiar will always be more comfortable then the unfamiliar, or even the less familiar. How else could one explain the phenomenon of how intelligent and predominately fair minded Americans have been voting in very measurable ways along racial and/or gender lines in this Presidential primary season. In many of the state primaries, we've seen 80-90% of black voters voting for Obama, while a similarly skewed ratio of female voters have voted for Hilary Clinton in the same races. The issues were primarily the same, as were the stances of the candidates on those issues. However, while the vast majority of the democrats who voted in those primaries agreed with the stances of both candidates on the issues that mattered to them, the blacks voted for the black candidate, and the women voted for the woman candidate. That is in no way coincidental. It is racial or gender bias that is measurable and very real. Therefore, we have to "out" this dirty little secret that is actually not a secret to anyone. Let's all fess up. To some degree or another, we pretty much all have biases or prejudices. That, in and of itself, doesn't make us bad or evil. On the other hand, to ignore our biases without addressing them or working through them to get past them makes us complicit, and that is bad.

We have to be brave. We have to be willing to embrace the future, even if the future will be different then the past. Change is not always bad, but it is always different. We have to be forward thinking, because that is who we are, and who we have always been in America. We can't rest on our laurels, because the rest of the world certainly isn't resting on theirs.

But what about the quality of life issue? What if we don't like all of the changes that 20,000,000 strangers bring to our society? I'm not so blinded by my personal bias toward reform as to not see that there will be problems in the assimilation of our undocumented immigrants. I guess the answer will lie in the balance. Do the pros outweigh the cons? Is that a straight up or down question, or do we also have to address a moral obligation on the part of the United States? Do we have a moral obligation to address the issue of the legal status of the undocumented among us? I would have to say, yes. I think that too often we think of moral behavior in religious terms, but, in fact, we have to examine the issue of our undocumented residents through the moral lens of human decency.

First of all, the 20,000,000 undocumented immigrants didn't just take it upon themselves to come here because they wanted to see the sights, and most especially and particularly I might add that they didn't come here for a handout of any kind. They came because they knew that there was good work waiting for them here, (comparatively speaking). They knew that if they could get past the token lax security at our border, our economic engine would welcome them with open arms. Certainly that was why the security was lax, because we needed these people, (and we still do). And we did. They came to us, and we thanked them for coming and gave them our most awful jobs, and they were grateful to have those jobs, so they started to make a life here. Do we now pull the rug out from under them? Their children are de facto Americans, (whether by birthright or by culture). Their dependants back in their previous home countries are, well, dependant on their income to survive, (which is part and parcel of why they often came).

As a humorous aside, I'm reminded of the story about one of my first ancestors that immigrated to this country just over 100 years ago. He was from a small village in Russia, and he was in love with a girl from the next village over. However, they were both too poor to get married. A match was made for my ancestor with a local girl from his village, whose father had money. The arrangement was that the wealthy girl's father paid for my ancestor to come to America, where he was to start earning money. Once he had enough money to send for the daughter, he was to send for her. Well, he came to America, worked hard, (as virtually all immigrants do), and saved up the money to send for.......the girl he was in love with from the next village. I digress, but I also have a point. Every single American has an immigration story in their personal history. We shouldn't lose sight of that fact, because it gives us all some much needed perspective.

The 20,000,000 undocumented immigrants, or economic refugees, might not be a fully integrated part of our assimilated society, but they most certainly are fully integrated into our workforce. We are, in fact, co-dependant on each other. We depend on the work that they do for us, while they and their extended families in the U.S. and abroad are dependant on the wages that we gladly pay to them. Does this co-dependence make us complicit in their presence here? Of course it does. We are fully complicit, and with acquiescence comes responsibility. We have to fess up to our responsibility, or we are being dishonest to ourselves, which is a crime of ignorance. However, we are also being unfair and dishonest with our undocumented residents, and that is a moral and ethical crime.

Even the most restrictionist politicians have publicly admitted that the mass deportation of our nation's undocumented is not only untenable and ill advised, but they have admitted on the record that is isn't going to happen. However, there is a disingenuous caveat in what they are not saying. By blocking through filibuster the passage of reform legislation, while encouraging stricter enforcement at both the federal and state levels, they are passive-aggressively pushing for the cruel attrition strategy proposed by Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.

This is a dangerous flirtation with a course callously created in abject folly. This caustic approach is a moral and ethical outrage. The scheme would by design withhold any ability for our 20,000,000 undocumented residents to survive here economically, thereby forcing them to self deport in an effort to survive starvation and the elements. This inhumane strategy would decimate what's left of our fragile moral authority in the world. Can you imagine nightly reports on CNN and other news channels for months on end, showing starving immigrants waiting in miles long lines for weeks, waiting to be processed for self-deportation? Twenty million people is a line that would make the outrage of the American Indian Trail of Tears seem like a vexing afternoon at the DMV. I certainly don't mean any disrespect to our Native Americans or their ancestors. The Trail of Tears was a shameful and disgusting chapter in our nation's history. However, it would be dwarfed in scale by the specter of what the attrition approach proposes, and the attrition approach would be documented and broadcast nightly for the world to see our shame. Talk about emboldening our enemies. The Hugo Chavez's and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's of the world would use this shameful spectacle unmercifully to undermine our image in Latin America and the Middle East.

Moral authority is a nebulous commodity. It can't be purchased or coerced, it must be earned through action and by deed. Might equals right, is a political, not a moral distinction. How we finally resolve our undocumented immigrant crisis will speak volumes in the internationally understood language of ethical leadership. However, before we can get close to the point of resolution on this topic, we must address internally all of the roadblocks that will require careful navigation to overcome. The sooner we address the roadblock of prejudice, the sooner we will be able to circumvent it. It will no doubt be a painful discussion. Feelings will be hurt, and emotional scars will be exposed. But through the agony, we will emerge a closer and stronger nation. Let the healing begin.

About The Author

Robert Gittelson has been a garment manufacturer in the Los Angeles area for over 25 years. His wife, Patricia Gittelson, is an immigration attorney with offices in Van Nuys and Oxnard, California. Robert also works closely with Patricia on the administrative side of her immigration practice. Throughout his career, Mr. Gittelson has developed practical, first hand experience in dealing with the immigration issues that are challenging our country today.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.