The good, the bad, the ugly in battle over immigration

May 15, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- "Life is beautiful, the world is marvelous, and I love everyone!!!"

My 7-year-old niece - 7 1/2 , she insists - e-mailed me that message a few weeks back, a reflection of the boundless enthusiasm only a small child is able to muster.

At the time, I hardly shared her cheeriness. Listening as the rhetoric surrounding immigration grew coarser - with unmistakable signals of an unwholesome nativism, if not outright racism, seeping in from the fringes - I worried that her future wouldn't be as bright as I had hoped. You see, my niece, Maria Irene Vazquez, is a multi-ethnic child - a "black-xican," as I call her. My sister is married to a man who was born in Mexico.

My e-mail box had been crammed with messages describing illegal workers from south of the border as "criminals" who bring down property values in respectable neighborhoods, grifters who exploit social services that rightfully belong to taxpaying citizens, and gate-crashers who refuse to learn our language or customs. One of my e-mail correspondents includes the word "wetback" every time he writes me on immigration. Others sprinkle enough uses of "they" and "them" and "those people" in their missives to remind me of the rhetoric used by white Southerners who resisted desegregation in the 1960s. I wondered if Irene's multi-ethnic heritage would only expose her to multiple demeaning stereotypes.

There are clearly legitimate worries about the burdens of illegal immigration. Communities with a huge influx of newcomers have struggled to accommodate schoolchildren who speak little English, to provide health care to uninsured pregnant women, and to enforce housing codes in areas where undocumented workers crowd together in tight quarters.

But those legitimate concerns can be drowned out by the bigoted messages of xenophobes such as D A. King, who has emerged as one of the loudest critics of illegal immigrants in Atlanta. Though he insists he supports legal immigration, he rails against cultural change and warns that his state is going the way of ethnically diverse California; "Georgiafornia," he calls it.

Mr. King could easily be speaking that dismissively of Irene's family; her paternal heritage includes a history of illegal labor and immigration rules flexed and bent, if not shattered. Her grandfather entered this country on a tourist visa in 1983 but stayed on after the visa expired and worked in construction.

Though his English is less than fluent, he is now an American citizen because he was given much-derided "amnesty." He works hard; he loves baseball; he frequents the Home Depot. What could be more American than that?

Repeating the pattern of earlier immigrants - Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese and others - his children and grandchildren have taken to this country and adopted its values. One grown son is a high school-educated construction worker; another, a grown daughter with three children, one in college, is a teacher's assistant who hopes to eventually complete her own college degree; another son, my brother-in-law, Jose, was graduated summa cum laude in engineering from the University of Houston, later earning a Ph.D. He is the newly minted CEO of a small naval architecture consulting firm in New Orleans.

Little Irene, meanwhile, is much like any other indulged child of the American middle class. She attends a trendy private school; she competes in chess tournaments and takes gymnastics classes; she has Crocs, a portable DVD player and a passport. Call me biased, but I don't get the impression she and her paternal kin are ruining the country.

As it turns out, neither do most other Americans. A newly released New York Times/CBS poll shows that most of my fellow citizens reject the exclusionary rhetoric of the D. A. Kings, along with the harsh sanctions proposed by right-wing Republicans in the U.S. House, who would make illegal border crossings a felony. Sixty-one percent of poll respondents said illegal immigrants who have been in the United States at least two years should be given the chance to apply for legal status; 66 percent oppose building a fence along the southern border.

I was heartened by those views. Irene may yet grow up in a world that embraces her mixed heritage, that encourages her bilingualism, that endorses her unique contributions to America - a world as marvelous as she believes it to be.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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