Remembering Our Shared Humanity

If you believed the hype emanating from anti-immigrant fear-mongers, you might think that every immigrant was Latino, every Latino was undocumented, and that all of them had criminal records and was intent to do us harm – or at least to sponge government benefits. These stereotypes have become a fixture in our national immigration debate, entrenched in the collective imagination by constant repetition, truisms that have little to do with the truth. Yes, there are 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United States, mostly from Latin America. Yes, some among them have criminal records.

These stereotypes and truisms obscure the larger truth: immigrants from around the world come here for the same reasons our forefathers and mothers did: to escape starvation, poverty, government corruption and oppression – to start life over again in the land of opportunity. The xenophobes won’t tell you that the vast majority of immigrants work hard and play by the rules, even if they overstayed their original visas or sneaked across the border initially. The fact is: nobody wants to be sent back to where they came from, once they’ve gotten here.

We have never condoned illegal immigration, whether someone entered without inspection or overstayed a visa; there is a lawful process for entering the United States, and the law must be respected. That said, we reject the notion that the initial trespass by illegal immigrants somehow gives citizens the right to treat them as something less than human. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Likewise, the fact that most undocumented immigrants are from Latin America does not give us the right to treat all Latinos as probable illegal immigrants. This is racial profiling.

Stereotyping and racial profiling are the worst kind of mental shortcuts, whether taken out of haste or laziness or spite. These reflexive responses keep us from dealing with the messy complexity of the world as it is, and obscure more than they reveal; they keep us from understanding people and situations in their concrete particularity. We fixate on a particular attribute – like a person’s race or ethnicity – and slot them into that familiar mental cubbyhole, even when it doesn’t fit.

A recent piece in the New York Times magazine should serve as a reminder to keep our minds and our hearts open to people who may look different or sound different from us. Over the past year, writer Justin Horner tells us, he has wound up at the side of the freeway with car troubles including a blown tire, blown fuses, and an empty gas tank. In all three cases, he reports, most motorists whizzed by him without stopping to help. In all three cases, the drivers who DID stop to help were Mexican immigrants who didn’t speak English. (See The Tire Iron and the Tamale, by Justin Horner, New York Times, 04.Mar.2011.)

According to the Times article, one guy stopped to help, and Horner ended up breaking his tire iron, trying to get the wheel lugs off. The man’s daughter drove off to buy a new one, and refused to take payment for the replacement. They gave Horner a drink of water, and a tamale for his lunch. He learned that the family was from Mexico, and in Oregon temporarily to pick fruit. Horner comments, “This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.”

Horner reports that he now stops – routinely – whenever he can, to help people stranded by the roadside, noting, “I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.” [One is reminded of the concept in the movie, Pay it Forward (2000).] And he does this because he was shown such kindness by Mexican immigrants, the very people most maligned by xenophobic rhetoric, most subject to our fear and suspicion. Horner’s article challenges all of us to rethink our assumptions.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.