A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, March 16, 2009

Give me your tired, your poor?

This economic crisis is not only a calamity, it's also having a nasty ripple effect: pushing other important problems onto the back burner.
One of them is immigration reform. There are between 13 and 14 million undocumented people in this country, and politicians traditionally vie with each other to see who can be cruelest to them - despite the fact that our economy would come to a crashing halt without them.
The ACLU of Northern California's Berkeley/North East Bay chapter is co-sponsoring a forum with the Richmond Public Library on March 26 to try to bring a little common sense to the discussion. Among the participants: Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and San Pablo Mayor Leonard McNeil.
"How could I and my colleagues on the City Council possibly be fulfilling our responsibilities to the people of Richmond if we ignore this suffering of the immigrant people of Richmond, who constitute one in four of our residents?" McLaughlin told a congressional committee.
She told me she's heard countless horror stories from her constituents about ICE (short for Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids that are tearing families apart. When the parents are deported, the children - many of whom were born in the U.S. and are legally American citizens - confront a horrible choice: either go with them or stay here and try to survive on their own.
I can verify what she's heard. I used to teach first, second and third-graders in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, and a number of my students were in this situation.
They were among my most eager and brightest kids, but they were scared to come to school each day. They were afraid that when they got home they'd find an empty house because Mom and Dad had been rounded up while they were at school.
This is way more stress than any little kid should have to handle. And the price they pay doesn't stop there.
"When people are ill they're afraid to go to a doctor; when they're victims of crime they're afraid to call the police," says McNeil. "And they're extremely vulnerable to exploitation by employers because they can't speak up for fear of being reported to the authorities."
Clearly, something has to be done; but what? Opponents of immigration reform call it amnesty for lawbreakers, and they say it's unfair to people who played by the rules.
But I can think of two people who disagree: John McCain and George W. Bush, who both took considerable political risks by lobbying for a liberalized immigration policy.
"Call it a banana if you want to," said McCain. "To call it amnesty frankly distorts the debate, and it’s an unfair interpretation."
There must be a middle way between deporting 13-14 million people (which is impossible, anyway) and giving everyone a free pass. That's what the forum is going to discuss.
In addition to McLaughlin and McNeil, the event will include an immigration attorney and a representative from Congressman George Miller's office, who will update everyone on the latest developments in Washington. It will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Richmond Public Library, 325 Civic Center Plaza. For more information, call 510-620-6561.