The President spoke the other night and, for me, one of the saddest thing about it was the degree to which everyone seemed to focus on the idea that the President was “measured”. Again and again they noted that his speech was not delivered in the confrontational, accusatory, and self-aggrandizing style that has troubled so many over the past weeks. How sad, that the fact that the President of the United States spoke in a manner that was measured and restrained, should be newsworthy much less praiseworthy. That should be the least we would expect — if not demand — from our leaders. But the bar has lowered. If the President doesn’t insult perceived enemies and offer one suspect “fact” after another to buttress a string of outrageous assertions, we are relieved and even hopeful — perhaps a corner has been turned.
We all know, however, that words, no matter how measured one day, can be offset by midnight tweets the next. And even as the administration opted to hold off for a day or two on the new executive order on immigration in order to get more mileage from the “big speech,” the actions that continued to unfold on the streets of our nation remain so deeply concerning that I don’t feel I recognize this America.
In his speech the President again chose to highlight criminal acts — heartbreaking acts for the victims and their families — committed by individuals in our country illegally. We all understand and share in the pain that those acts caused. I can understand a call for justice, recompense, or protection from such acts of violence. But I also know that similar acts are committed every day by native-born Americans who also murder, rape, and steal. It defies logic to believe that suddenly our nation will be dramatically safer or less threatened if we round up every criminal here illegally — our homegrown villains will remain and will still perpetuate violent and horrific acts.
If crime is the issue that concerns you; if you see our nation as a dark and scary place, then we can work together to address the real issues that underly such concerns. We can explore how to strengthen or improve law enforcement or the criminal justice system and we can consider how to change the social or economic or educational factors that drive crime. We can strive even harder than we already do to bring to justice those who commit these acts, irrespective of the type of ID card they do or do not carry. There are so many issues about which we can make reasoned policy choices. But, as far as I can tell, these are not issues in which the nationality of the perpetrator or their legal status in our country is a primary concern.
There are millions of undocumented aliens who are our neighbors, co-workers, and friends. They are part of the fabric of our society and contribute constructively to it. I worry that if we allow our national engagement with them to be shaped by a narrative of fear then we will begin to lose our own identity as Americans — as people who engage the world, whose hearts are open and who know that diversity is a source of strength. Are we really ready to subscribe to the idea that our future will be better if only we defeat those frightening folks that we are seeking to deport or ban, and whose skin — conveniently — always seems to be brown or black or whose faith is different than ours? Do we believe that the answer to what ails us is to drive them from our shores or deny them entry? We do not make our nation greater when we demonize others, but we do make it a more troubled and sadder place when reality gives way to a more politically palatable fiction (for some) in which the fault always rests with someone else.
Yes, words can be made more measured and the tone of public remarks can be made less combative. And that, overall, is good. But actions, as the saying goes, count far more than words. Words may say that “we’re only focused on criminals.” But actions say otherwise. Yesterday Daniela Vargas, a young “dreamer” was detained just after speaking out publicly about the detention of her father and brother. Handcuffed. Hauled away. Do you feel safer now? Did the deportation of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, the mother of two children, both American citizens, restore your faith in America’s greatness? How much better and safer are we now that , has been deported because she was a “felon” who had used a fake social security number to get a job at a water park to help support her family. Me…. I don’t feel safer. I don’t feel better, and I don’t feel relieved because we’re “taking back our borders.” I don’t feel we are greater. I feel we are diminished.
My paternal grandparents came to this country from Sicily. They believed that this was a land of opportunity. Of hope. Of compassion. Of respect. For years that is how I have spoken of our nation. Will I be able to do so tomorrow? With ICE agents raiding homes, handcuffing young dreamers, and deporting mothers and fathers who have paid taxes, lived as good neighbors, and who have contributed to our nation, I’m not sure of the answer. I know that there are legitimate issues for us to discuss about immigration, and I believe we should have those discussions as engaged citizens and I would hope that our leaders would lend their voices to measured thoughtful debate that brings us to consensus, preserves our values, and allows us to tell our nation’s story with pride.
Roundups and raids, in response to fears fanned by reckless words, are not a substitute for a real policy shaped by bipartisan dialogue. Such dialogue, however, sadly, seems to have become ever more difficult for our leaders on either side of the aisle to engage in.