Thursday, July 05, 2012

Chip Boy

On one of my favorite radio shows a few days ago, a prominent philosopher/historian discussed the essential freedoms that built our nation. Each freedom brought with it an accompanying responsibility. I was most struck by the statement, "Freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to listen." In a world in which volume and dismissive insistence have become the norm, listening has become viewed as a sign of weakness rather than the proof of power it embodies. Every major issue we face today would benefit from a good round of listening. One of those issues much in the news and much on my mind is immigration. Given the holiday we celebrate this week and the history of the nation, the timeliness could not fall much better. Friday night I went to one of my regular hangouts - mostly because I wanted chips and queso. As is common in the food service industry, the staff has mostly changed since I first started going there regularly about ten years ago. I thought about one of my favorites, who I referred to as "chip boy" because his job was to bring the chips and salsa to the table whenever new patrons came into the restaurant, when the new "chip boy" started my evening. With the former server we ate so many chips just because we wanted him to bring more chips to the table. Over the years, I only had the chance to talk to him once beyond asking for more chips. He was in the same bar as I was one night and we had the chance to sit and visit a while. I actually learned his name (but in the ensuing years have forgotten it again). The conversation we had, though, stuck with me because it was so different than what I expected. Given his job as the "chip boy," I did not know what to really expect from him. I did not know his level of education or his career aspirations. I did know I liked him to bring me chips. As we visited, he began to share his dreams of returning to Mexico with all he had learned by working in a restaurant in the United States so that he could open his own, successful restaurant. That revelation stunned me. As much as I have enjoyed the trips I have taken to Mexico, the idea of someone wanting to go back (and open a restaurant) floored me. The message so often delivered in the media and by immigration opponents is that the immigrants only want to invade the country and raid the wealth. Yet the only wealth this young man wanted was a wealth of knowledge so he could be a better businessman when he returned home. I have always claimed to seek justice for immigrants which I took to mean a rational immigration policy that allowed those who could and had the will to come take the jobs available for them. In my mind, that translated to permanence. That was my thinking and in its own way proved as inaccurate as the fear mongering promoted by those who oppose immigration. Chip boy and many subsequent conversations have proven me wrong. The United States is not the eternal refuge our own vanity holds it to be, but merely a stopping point on the journey for many. Continuing the conversation toward a meaningful and workable policy means including those who have come here using legal means, those who have come here in violation of the law, and those who would yet come here - and not just those from south of the United States, but from around the world (undocumented persons speak hundreds of languages, not just Spanish - some of them are even white). We do our nation immeasurable harm when we rely only on our own knowledge which is, as I found out personally, often based on our own assumptions rather than reality. No matter what the political affiliation, we all know we have to do something about immigration; automatically demonizing anything the other side suggests as an idea will never solve the problem. Neither does leaving the voices of those most affected out of the solution. If history has taught us anything, it should be those lessons. As we celebrate Independence Day this year, let us reflect on those things that have worked to build the nation, none of which are found it the partisan battles fought over fringe ideology (of which BOTH sides are equally guilty). The freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to listen. Immigration is only one policy, brought to the forefront of my mind as I remembered Chip Boy, but one that could definitely benefit from our exercise of the responsibilities built into the freedoms we celebrate.
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