Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #006. First published in the St. Cloud Times Jan. 22, 2008

It's an exciting time in politics — voters defy pollsters, racial and gender barriers tumble, pundits invoke the biblical story of Lazarus emerging from the tomb to account for unexpected surges. It's a good thing for the country that there is so much fluidity.

But amid this uncertainty, one thing is sure about the next several months: the issue of immigration will loom large, and it will get nasty. Emotion and reason will be tied in knots. Appeals to fear will escalate, and a tsunami of code words will submerge human reality.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty recently re-entered the fray by reviving a proposal he made in 2006 that would, in part, order Minnesota law enforcement officials to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The governor also wants legislation to prohibit city ordinances that limit local law enforcement officials' inquiries about immigration status.

The issue is certainly complicated. The complexity is compounded by the overlapping of federal and state and local jurisdictions. For me, the issue's intricacy is demonstrated by its being one on which I am in strong agreement with President Bush, with whom I differ on virtually everything else.

I would like to see some civil discourse on the matter of immigration.

My first proposal to "civilify" the conversation is to change the subject from "immigration" to "immigrants." The term "immigration" tricks us into thinking we know what we're talking about, but it actually homogenizes a myriad of groups and individuals, of histories and current circumstances, of family and communal networks, and when we start taking these human realities into account it's not so easy to be doctrinaire.

Once I start thinking about immigrants — ones I know and ones whose stories I've heard — and reflect on the role immigrants have played in the making of America, I begin to see that what is so often portrayed as a threat to our way of life is actually of the essence of our way of life.

There is precedent for a negative response — at various stages of our country's history those who came here from other lands were vilified and perceived as "un-American" — but we are who we are because of them. The past tells us that immigrants are not a menace but a resource.

Calls for comprehensive immigration reform come from many directions and include adjustments in quotas and streamlining of procedures. But clearly what generates the most invective is the issue of the undocumented, so often demeaned as "illegal aliens." The term "alien" suggests they're from outer space, and "illegal" implies criminal intent. Stories of undocumented immigrants are truly human, not alien, and their strongest wish is to live within our system, including its laws.

The figures you hear are 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United States, and about 65,000 in Minnesota. That's little more than 1 percent of the state's inhabitants, about the population of St. Cloud.

These people make an important contribution to our economy. They do not take jobs away from Americans. The taxes they pay and the money they spend help fuel growth, and they are especially crucial to the well-being of rural areas. Indeed, most of the stereotypes bandied about in public and private discourse are refuted by the facts.

A visit to the "immigration resources" section of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights Web site might change your thinking.

Now back to Pawlenty. Even apart from the fact that he wants the state to do federal work and the state to tell local law enforcement how to do its job, the governor goes sharply against a call for a "comprehensive immigration reform policy" issued by the Chicano Latino Affairs Council just days before his announcement.

The council is a statewide government agency, 11 of whose 15 members are appointed by the governor. Among the goals cited by the council are these: expand work visas for low and highly skilled workers, expedite family reunion, equitable access to education, health care and English learning, and pathways to earned legalization.

I respectfully request that our governor pay attention to his own advisers