How we discuss immigration reform — the caliber of our national conversation, the sting or the courage of our words — matters.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation by the end of the year.
With a solid bipartisan bill approved by the Senate last summer — one that strengthens border security and provides a difficult and costly but eventual path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants — the president’s pitch is only sensible.
Yet the thought of what’s coming made me shiver.
You see, I stayed up nights watching the Senate hearings and debates on C-SPAN.
Some of the talk by our elected leaders was so ugly, so hurtful and repulsive to anyone who was born elsewhere but has come to love this nation dearly — and to anyone, really, with a healthy dose of humanity — that I found it hard to sleep, much less wake up with a sense of hope for the future.
And now, as we face another predictably contentious showdown, I’m reading the chilling Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town by Columbia University professor Mirta Ojito, an award-winning former New York Times and Miami Herald reporter.
It’s a meticulously researched account of how seven teenagers came to murder Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero, 37, after they came upon him on a casual Saturday night stroll in November 2008.
In the suburban town of Patchogue, in central Long Island’s Suffolk County, attacking Hispanic immigrants had become a sport for teenagers.
“Beaner-hunting,” they called it.
What makes Ojito’s reportage necessary reading is that these seemingly ordinary teens may have never come to develop the anti-Hispanic feelings that propelled them to murder had it not been for the anti-immigrant sentiment running through the town like a vicious virus.
During the year that Lucero was killed, for instance, six anti-immigrant bills had been introduced in the Suffolk County Legislature. And no one paid attention to the fact that the children of Patchogue were growing up in an ambiance of fear-mongering, pejorative labels and antagonism, particularly against Ecuadorians who had come to the area to work in the construction industry.
Armed with facts and history, Ojito delves deeply into what we know instinctually as parents: Our children are listening closely. They’re watching us, taking notes, building their own life narratives from our conversations and our actions — or lack of action.
If we hate, they will carry that burden deep in their hearts.
“What we say at the dinner table often finds its way to the schools and beyond,” Ojito tells me. “We need to stop connecting immigration to illegality. These boys were taught to dehumanize immigrants — by the media that called them ‘illegal aliens,’ by elected officials who tried to stop the ‘invasion’ with ill-conceived measures, and by members of the community in general — adults who projected their fear of the ‘other’ on the young and innocent.”
I ask Ojito if the people of Patchogue would do things differently if they could turn back the clock.
“Yes!!” she readily answers. “School administrators and parents would have paid more attention to what was happening in the high school, which was pretty horrific. It was pretty much a divided school, with the non-Hispanic kids mercilessly mocking and humiliating the Hispanic kids. All of the youngsters involved in the attack were in the same high school, Patchogue-Medford High School. Interestingly, of the seven, only one [who was new to the school] said he had never been ‘beaner hopping’ or ‘beaner hunting’ before.”
And had Patchogue known then what they know in the aftermath of the murder and the teenagers’ convictions, the police would have been more receptive and responsive when people called to report the attacks.
“It is a fact that often the reaction was a lame, ‘It’s kids. There is nothing we can do about it. They’ll be out of the police station or the courtroom in no time.’ In other words, no punishment.
“They didn’t take it seriously enough, and the Justice Department has said as much. And, lastly, local elected officials would have been more careful with their words.”
Lest any of us think we’re off the hook – “This is not Patchogue,” we’re quickly tempted to say – Ojito puts the anti-immigrant feelings that have prompted similar attacks around the country in the context of our reality.
One stunning statistic: By 2060, one of three people in the United States will be Hispanic.
Whatever Congress ends up doing, the timbre of the immigration reform discussion will leave footprints on the souls of these new Americans — and on all of us. Whether it’s through immigration reform or by the passage of time that extends family lines, grudgingly out of necessity or lovingly out of conviction — the undocumented’s children and grandchildren will be Americans.
The only question is what kind of Americans our words will encourage them to be, and what kind of human beings all of us will raise in the process.
How we discuss immigration reform matters — if only because our children are listening.