Thursday, February 26, 2009

Let My People Go

One of my favorite things to do in Washington is attend presentations and panel discussions at think tanks. I get top notch continuing ed for nothing, hear leading political and social thinkers in person and feel really smart in the process. Best of all, I get to watch people. There are those who are present because they are students of the topic or experts themselves. There are retirees who appreciate the mental and social stimulation. There are interns and research assistants who sneak in for the free food. There are characters who manage to get their names into mailing lists for the free food. And there are those who come determined to hog the mike and pontificate as soon as the audience is invited to ask questions.

At a Brookings Institution event entitled Immigration, Politics and Local Responses, I was not disappointed. The presenter and panelists included top immigration researchers and a noted practitioner. I certainly learned a whole lot. And yes, there were those who came to talk. About themselves. But one bested them all.

She patiently bided her time, the entire hour and a half, legs crossed, left arm slung on the back rest and right hand propping up her chin. With her thick, luscious black hair, Frida Kahlo eyebrows, off the shoulder full skirted black dress (think Catherine Zeta-Jones in Zorro but without the rapier), black leather stiletto boots and black bangles, she was ready for the bespectacled gringo y gringas presenting their quantitative findings and analyses about her people. The floor was opened. She raised her bangled hand. She caressed the microphone.

Five minutes later we knew her story and her mission. She was born in Mexico, is highly educated, married an American and immigrated to the United States, all along struggling, always struggling. Six year ago, she had an epiphany that her job was to save her fellow Mexicans, especially the undocumented, get their documents. But then somehow, somewhere along her rocky path, she realized that it was all for naught because it has been so difficult, always difficult, oh so difficult. She now thinks Mexicans should be sent back to Mexico, that they shouldn't come here, that they should stop coming here, that all Mexicans should be kept in Mexico. It is all McDonald's fault.

The microphone was eventually freed as were the rest of us. But the woman had a point somewhere in her elocution. Why, in the first place, do Mexicans and other immigrants leave their families and homelands, sometimes even risk their lives, and come to the United States? As a panelist pointed out, people don't want to leave their families, homes and everything they know. They do so because they need to feed and house their loved ones. This simple fact has policy implications. Immigration policy certainly, but foreign policy as well.

If Mexico and other Latin, African and Asian countries were able to employ its citizens, provide them with a decent standard of living and ensure basic freedoms, I doubt that there would be as many of us foreign born folks here in America. If the United States and the rest of the developed world were able to support and encourage economic growth, prosperity and freedom among developing countries then the dreaded influx of strangers might be stemmed. But that's assuming that having us come is not a good thing.

And with the current global recession, this might be all moot. I should have gone for the mike .

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