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Immigration debate misses human angle

For me — and for millions of others — it's personal



I had a baby this summer. Exhausted and overjoyed after giving birth, I sat in a hospital bed holding my newborn son as close friends and relatives came by to offer their congratulations. I smiled for pictures, debated about whether he looked more like me or his dad, and introduced him to his older brother. It wasn't until several hours later that I felt physically able to get up, walk a few steps to the bathroom, and take a quick shower.

Isaide Serrano also had a baby recently. On Nov. 29, she gave birth to a boy just after 5 a.m. at CaroMont Health Gaston Memorial Hospital. But unlike my post-partum experience, Serrano had to leave the hospital and her newborn mere hours after giving birth. By 10 a.m., she was inside a federal administrative court building on Albemarle Road, asking an immigration judge for a chance to remain in the country.

Two years ago, Isaide was stopped by a police officer for driving with her high beams on. Although she had lived in the United States for almost 20 years and had five children who were U.S. citizens, our country's broken immigration system never provided her with an opportunity to adjust her status. As an undocumented immigrant in North Carolina, she could not obtain a valid driver's license, and when the officer saw that she'd been driving without one, he arrested her and began deportation proceedings. Isaide had never been in trouble with the law before.

Her story has a happy ending. The deportation was cancelled and she will be allowed to remain in the United States. The judge ruled that sending her back to Mexico would put her family through extreme hardship.

Still, there is something seriously messed up with the way we treat immigrants in this country when a woman is so fearful of being deported that she's willing to leave her hours-old newborn and put her health at risk.

Motherhood isn't the only thing Serrano and I have in common. I too immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago. Unlike Serrano, however, I came from Cuba and benefited from the Cuban Adjustment Act. Fortunately, I've never had to live with the fear of deportation. I didn't do anything special to qualify for my American citizenship, and I certainly didn't stand in that illusory line that is so often mentioned when talking about immigration. As ironic as it may sound, I was simply lucky to have been born in a communist country.

Although the political situations in Cuba and Mexico may be different, I believe that Isaide and my parents made the decision to immigrate to the United States for the same fundamental reason — the chance of a better future for themselves and for their children.

When she speaks of this decision, my mother always recalls a conversation she had with my then 3-year-old brother while we still lived in Havana.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" she asked.

"A foreigner," he responded.

At 3, my brother didn't know about communism or capitalism, he didn't know about Castro's human rights violations, he didn't even know that my dad had to move heaven and earth just to put food on the table. But he'd already perceived that life was better for those who were not citizens of the Caribbean island.

While I'm sure that politics, economics and basic freedoms played a role in my parents' decision to leave, their main reason was personal. They, like most immigrants, left because they knew that staying would rob their children of a bright future. They left because, like most parents, they wanted the very best for their kids.

Unfortunately, this personal, human perspective doesn't come up in the national immigration debate very often. We like to talk about immigrants in terms of numbers and assign them value based on money and taxes. We think of them in absolute, black and white, legal vs. illegal terms. In reality, the issue is much more complicated. Immigration is fluid, it's gray; it's human.

So, while I'm encouraged that both Republicans and Democrats have been touting the need for comprehensive immigration reform since the election, I am concerned that — once again — the conversation is lacking a human component. Immigration has not come to the forefront because politicians have finally realized that there are 12 million people in this country who live in constant fear. Immigration is on the radar because politicians realized that they can't win elections without the support of Latino voters.

I'm not going to lie — as a Latina, it's pretty nice to have my vote be so coveted. It kind of feels like I just got upgraded to VIP seats at a concert. However, when I realize that my undocumented friends are being used as political pawns, I get a bad taste in my mouth.

Immigration reform is not just the politically correct thing to do; it's the morally correct thing to do. My precious Latina vote will be going to the candidates who can demonstrate that they understand the daily struggles of undocumented immigrants. I'll be voting for those who push immigration reform for the right reasons.

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