The Face of Illegal Immigration

Posted on August 7, 2011


In the complicated calculus of how to treat illegals, we often lose sight of the human being. We throw statistics at each other, claim the high ground of law or call upon Christian compassion. We argue from the point of view of economics, tradition, honor or patriotism, and sometimes even throw in the Constitution, thinking ourselves high-minded in our attachment to great principles.

Or, perhaps we make the plea on behalf of the fruit and vegetable farmers of Florida, or Georgia or California who will watch their crops wither and die without illegal farm workers.

This issue may be the most important one our country faces in the 21st century, although its origins are found deep in our history. Although terrorism, global warming, debt and social dissolution all have a valid claim on our attention, none is more important than coming to grips with who we are.

One Sunday afternoon in June 2010, my wife Louise and I were on a motorcycle ride.

As we rounded a hill near Coker and looked down the highway, it was cluttered with flashing lights and emergency vehicles. Something bad had happened.

We slowly rode past, but I glanced at the wreck and saw faces I recognized as Hispanic, probably Mexican or Guatemalan, the two principal streams of Hispanics into our neighborhood here in Alabama.

I slowed to a stop.

“Want to go see what happened?” I asked my wife. “Maybe they need translating.”

“Yes,” she responded quickly. Neither of us thought much about it. You help people if you can when they need it. I am bilingual. I grew up in Lima, Peru, speaking Spanish with my Chilean-born mother.

The driver of the car, José, had fallen asleep. José had been working long hours the week before, and he was tired and probably full from lunch and woke up in horror as his car plunged down into the deep ditch.

They whole family, including his wife and three children were strapped in. The older girl and boy were hurt and scared, as were their parents, but the baby’s car seat broke loose and turned into a projectile in the wreck. She was hurt badly. A nurse who lived nearby gave her emergency first aid before the EMTs arrived.

Once in the ER, I moved from José to his wife Maria to the two older children, a boy about 6 and a girl about 8. The baby Anna Maria was so badly injured that she was flown by a Medevac helicopter to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham.

In all of this, I sensed nothing but compassion and professional diligence on the part of everyone; from the first responders to the physicians we met later in Birmingham. The family was in pain, scared, worried and helpless, really, from injuries and shock, and the medical community surrounded them with affection and care. I don’t remember anyone asking “Are they illegals?” They are human beings.

A few days later, Louise and I took Maria to visit her baby in Children’s Hospital. She had suffered traumatic shock to her head. She was not expected to live.

How does one deal with incipient death, especially of a small innocent angel as Anna Maria, barely 4 months old? Her head, grotesquely swollen from the injury, slowly returned to normal after a few days. But the doctors and nurses — kind as they were — were right.

She died after a few days and we grieved for her, along with a large part of the Hispanic community, in a service held at Holy Spirit Church. But it wasn’t just Hispanics — legal or otherwise — who gathered around the family that day and over the weeks following the accident and death.

The lady who owned the trailer park where José and Maria lived enfolded them with love. José’s employer kept his job open while José recuperated. The nurse who first came to the accident stayed in touch.

The depression and despair that Maria suffered finally almost led her to suicide. In spite of treatment at the University of Alabama, she never recovered fully. She took her children and returned to Mexico to be with her parents.

José is back at work. We see him occasionally. He is an illegal, but I don’t see an illegal. I see a man without his family, and deep down, a man who lost his baby and who still lives with guilt.

I understand the political and economic dynamics of the large illegal population in this country. We are a nation of law- abiders, and they came here by breaking the law.

Those laws need to be altered to reconcile the needs of the country within the reality of who we are. We are, like it or not, a nation of immigrants. We are, as the columnist Paul Greenberg reminded us in this newspaper on July 4, also a nation born in freedom.

In fact, to keep their freedom our Founding Fathers were law-breakers: They broke with the law of empire and created a revolution. Abolitionists of the 19th century were law-breakers. Martin Luther King Jr. landed in a Birmingham jail because he broke the law.

My point is that some laws have not withstood the test of time and morality. We cannot blindly claim “it is the law,” without testing that law. Nazi Germans claimed they were simply “obeying authority and the law” in the mass extermination of Jews during World War II. They were found guilty, not of disobeying the laws of their land, but of crimes against the larger law of humanity.

There has to be a service or restitution that illegals in this country perform or pay for disobeying the law. Blanket amnesty is no more the answer than blanket arrests and expulsion. Immigrants have come here from all over the world over the course of history, drawn by liberty and freedom.

Immigrants have, and continue to, renew the vigor and work ethic in this country. We need them, but they also need to come under a body of law which recognizes our history. That law needs to come from the national government, for this is a challenge transcending the states.

The great question is that, as Edmund Burke phrased it, and Greenberg explored in his column, “a great empire and little minds go ill together.” We have a great empire, but do we have the great minds to govern it, with liberty and justice for all?


Posted in: immigration