Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

An immigrant debate

Uh-oh. I've seen this kind of thing before. Damn it, I grew up with this kind of thing.

When a crowd of mostly Latino students came down the street at a trot, quickly surrounding a couple of women with signs telling illegal immigrants to go home, it seemed a bit like deja vu to me.

When I was their age, the issue was black and white. And it was practically on the front lawn of my school where it broke down into what the paper called a "race riot" the next morning.

It starts with shouting, and moves to name calling, and then somebody gets shoved, and it gets ugly fast. Nobody ends up winning anything.

I'm so white I'm practically see-through, but I grew up in the blackest neigborhood in town. I learned there in a hurry that people are people, if you are good to others they are usually good to you, and each color comes with its share of saints and sinners.

When things started to go bad on that day back in high school, I was trying to grab a couple of my outnumbered friends and drag them out of there before fists started to fly. I'm a coward, quite frankly, and have never been a great fan of seeing my own blood on the wrong side of my skin.

I didn't work out right, somehow, and after being caught right in the middle of a melee, there was some fancy explaining to do at the police station afterward.

I was a student journalist at Iowa State during the first of the VEISHEA riots. The next year, my wife and I got out of Dodge that weekend. I've had to report of a few confrontational situations in various places over the years, never happily.

But it was that high school brawl, about nothing beyond the color of people's skin, that flashed in my mind on Friday. This could get ugly, I thought. Again.

When people started to press in on where I was stationed against the front of Congressman King's office to take photos, in a concrete corner with a couple of cops and the two women who were receiving some heat staring out at 140-some yelling people, I was taking note of the locations of a few bigger, unhappy looking dudes with hoods over their heads in the back, and ticking off in my head which of the smaller and younger people in my part of the crowd that I'd haul out of the mess with me if need be. Old habits, I guess, die hard.

I could have skipped the habits and the stereotypes and the concern, as it turns out.

In fact, I was so proud of the students and how they handled themselves in that protest situation that I had to shake some of their hands as things broke up later. They did it right. And to the two women on the other side of the issue, I applaud your courage.

They kids impassioned and loud, true, but they were also reasoned, informed and peaceful. When people were pressing forward and screaming and waving signs, one girl in particular, who said she had been brought here originally in a non legal family herself, stuck out one brown arm as if she was parting the red sea. She said it quietly into a wall of sound, but I heard her. "Don't," she said. "Don't be the stereotype."

Everyone took a step back and became a little gentler.

If you are reading this, young lady, consider this a hug in ink.

A tall, slim young man with his black hair pulled into a pony tail at one point stepped up through the milling crowd and spoke softly of economics and the desire to better one's family, with all the skill of a master statesman. He finished by addressing his opposition: "Any time you would like to step across [the sidewalk] to our side, you will be welcome," he said.

I'll point out that there were caucasian and Asian type faces out in the crowd too - one of them belonging to the high school principal who obviously cares a great deal for his charges.

Everyone on both sides made what could have been a riotous scene into an interesting and insightful - if noisy - debate, which just happened to happen on the sidewalk out in front of a Congressman's office instead of a podium in a fancy room somewhere. And that's how it is supposed to work.

There is nothing wrong with protest - in fact, there's something very real and important about it, as long as it is peaceful and respectful. Perhaps it has been too long since we've seen an issue that captured the attention and inspired the involvement of so many young people.

Immigration is such a personal and passionate issue that no matter how an individual feels about it, there may be little that is going to change their minds.

But every student who experienced that rally is going to remember it for a lifetime. It may inspire them to be a little more proactive, a little more informed, a little more involved through their lives in the human issues of the world around them. And that is a very good thing. We're going to need them.

Personally, the Dream Act they chanted for seems like a place to begin for me - allowing students who have been in the country for years to continue their education, to seek to earn a college experience and achieve citizenship.

They were brought here as children - no matter how you feel about illegal immigrants, it is hard to justify seeing them as criminals at fault just for existing here, trying to learn.

As I looked around the young faces in the crowd, telling their stories and shouting their political opinions with such bright-eyed belief in the country that now is their home, it struck me what a loss it would be to have such youthful promise taken away from us now.

Peace, all.