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Government is all over immigration problem - uh oh

April 30, 2006|By TIM ROWLAND

I'm tired of talking about the immigration problem, I for one am finally going to stand up and do something about it. I'm going to learn Spanish.

This doesn't mean I don't share a lot of the same concerns many of you do about the issue. It doesn't mean I believe that how we're handling it today is the best we can do. And it doesn't mean I won't listen to new ideas.

But I'm not optimistic. So rather than get my stomach tied up in knots over something that is out of my control, I figure it's best to accept the trend largely as it is and try to better myself in the process.

Government struggles to succeed even over the most simple of issues. Immigration is complex, and is exactly the type of issue - the ones with no correct answers - that turns government machinery to Jell-O.

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This doesn't mean it shouldn't try. National cultures are worth a degree of protection. Norway, for one, found out the problem with welcoming everyone with open arms. Some of the "everyones" turned out to be very bad apples, and suddenly since perhaps the first time since the Vikings, Scandinavians found themselves with something to which they were unaccustomed: a crime rate. And anyone who has traveled south and west of Colorado knows that, likely as not, an English-speaker will be unable to communicate with someone he meets on the street.

But immigration is largely a social issue, and from Prohibition to sex to religion, we've all seen what a bang-up job the government does with social issues, particularly hot-button social issues, which most of them tend to be.

The most sensible piece I've read on immigration came not from a think tank or a nationally known media pundit, but from Tom Niederberger of Boonsboro who wrote a letter to the editor in yesterday's Herald-Mail.

Being an issue about which people feel passionately, immigration attracts politicians like J-Lo attracts paparazzi, politicians who wouldn't know policy from a peanut, but are aces at fashioning whatever 10-second sound bite will win them the most votes.

As Niederberger - who is a construction worker who deals with immigrants daily - writes, as long as we substitute sound bites for sound policy we will get nowhere. He suggests the U.S., Canada and Mexico share responsibility equally, standardizing withholdings and sharing the costs for services to allow for a free flow of people and capital that equalizes accountability, protection and opportunity. I won't suggest that Niederberger run for office, because nothing ruins a good man like politics.

But the letter is instructive for one other reason: Those who interact with immigrants seem to demonstrate a far greater tolerance of them than those who don't.

Some of the strongest opinions against more open immigration policy come from people who seldom, if ever, come in contact with immigrants - outside of overhearing someone speaking Spanish at the mall. I suspect President Bush is more liberal than his party on immigration because he hails from a border state. Through experience, he knows Mexicans are people, not devils.

This is pretty standard. I received a call this week from a mother in an interracial family. She said the kids are fine at school, where classmates are used to color. It's the adults who are the problem, to the point of forcing the family from their neighborhood.

There's nothing like a gay family member to change a lot of opinions about homosexuality, nothing like working with someone of another culture to change opinions about immigration - this phenomenon even extends to Congress. We hate everyone else's congressman, but districts keep electing their own congressman again and again.

Juries go lighter on defendants than the public at large, because they've been in the courtroom and seen the defendant in person. Perhaps they've heard his voice, seen fear in his eyes or identified with a shared nervous habit.

It's the universal element of humanity, and once we gain familiarity we lose our fear. A dog's first instinct at seeing another dog is to bark. That's what we're doing now - a lot of barking. But then curiosity takes over. I believe the greatest part of the problem is solved once the American dogs have sniffed the Latino dogs and concluded that we're all pretty much just dogs, so let's go play.

Of course this is easier to say this far north, where immigration is still more of a trickle than a flood.

But even so, it takes some of the pressure off knowing that there is little we can do about the situation. We can be angry and scared and it won't change a thing. So why not be curious instead?

I live next door to a wonderful family of Romanians whose customs can be, in a word, baffling. Could I be angry that I live next to people with accents? I suppose. But maybe it's just my bad luck that I find foreigners fascinating. I want to know why this family disappears for two months every year. And I want to know what in the dickens that critter was that they lugged to the grill last fall. So I take them tomatoes in the summer and we chat a little.

I hear someone speaking Spanish and I want to know where she's from, what her home was like and why she's here.

That's why I want to learn Spanish. I want to ask. Answers can't hurt us, but a lack of answers can - if even only in our own heads.

Besides, I've always believed it's a good idea to keep an open mind to prepare for whatever may lie ahead. For all I know, my next boss may be Roberto Maginniso. And I can live with that. People who live happily can live with just about anything.

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