By now, every immigrant reform advocate in the U.S. has heard about the murder on a San Francisco pier allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant.
Questioned a few days ago, the parents of the young woman who was killed were asked if they supported stricter punishment for immigrants who break our laws.
They responded affirmatively.
I would not expect them to answer otherwise.
I understand and respect their sentiments – though I disagree with some of the rationale underlying the options presented to them.
Unfortunately, the public discussion on this emotionally excruciating issue has not attempted to reconcile differences of opinion, or tried to outline a balanced and enlightened solution. Instead, much of it has been rude not reasoned, inflammatory not insightful.
As often happens on immigration issues, the social discourse is being swayed by political demagoguery. Those who want to be our leaders fail to exhibit the maturity, much less the aptitude or desire, to forge a consensus.
And not solely from one side of the political spectrum.
Meanwhile, the pro-immigrant community has been relatively silent. They have failed to fully grasp the civic significance of the moment. They have overlooked a golden opportunity to turn the table on their opponents and confront hate head on.
They have missed the chance to take leadership on the national healing which should have already begun.
Luckily, there is still time.
The Flip Side Of Immigration Law
To date, I have been reluctant to speak my mind on the shooting.
It hit too close to home.
By a group of young undocumented immigrants.
When I learned the news, he was in San Diego. I was in Riverside. He laid in a hospital bed.
I cried. I prayed.
I could not rationalize my feelings.
I had already lost my father and mother. Their deaths had sucked my fortitude to overcome personal grief. I doubted the strength to survive the absence of my oldest child.
My feelings went beyond shock, fear, and sadness.
I was angry.
Rage, fury, and confusion dominated my emotions.
The foundations of my life purpose were shaken.
I had spent my career defending immigrants, including some of whom had committed barely defensible acts. I subscribed to the view that all persons deserved second chances.
I was raised to believe none of us have the right to cast the first stone.
Yet, what had happened turned my sense of right and wrong inside out. Compassion and commitment gave way to disorientation and turbulence.
Forgiveness and sympathy were pushed aside by feelings of animosity and retribution.
I stood on an abyss of moral uncertainty.
Questioning my work’s value, I contemplated walking away from immigration law.
My son’s condition called into question the basis of my lifelong commitment to helping immigrants win the right to live and work in the United States.
Having spent my legal career defending immigrants, my commitment had often been criticized by friends as well as foes.
Far too often, news stories told about immigrants who performed bad acts. Even relatives and colleagues questioned my principles when such events were reported.
I had long understood, and minimized, their perspectives.
As the child of multicultural parents, I had seen the positive aspects of immigration in my own life. From my perspective, the good which flowed from immigrant families outweighed the bad.
Still, the harm done to my son stopped me in my tracks. The possibility of his death caused a fresh set of inquiries about my dedication to deportation defense.
This time there was a major difference. I was the examiner.
The ugly realities about immigration and our society, which, for me, were way out there – were staring back at me, closer than ever before.
My Immigration Law Practice: A Tribute To My Parents
Ultimately, my family history revitalized my commitment to immigration law.
My dad was an immigrant. My mother had roots in two different countries and bloodlines to five different cultures.
My parents were laborers with little education.
My father had spent the early part of his life here as a farm worker, the latter as a dishwasher and kitchen helper for a Chinese restaurant. My mother worked in factories until her bad back forced her to move into housecleaning. They made positive contributions to American society.
They were unsung American heroes.
Like many immigrants, my parents brought a solid moral foundation with them. I was raised to use good manners, to be polite and courteous, and to respect my elders.
I was taught to do my best at all times. I was encouraged to study hard, to work hard, and to help others.
I was taught to obey the law – and not to harm others.
I had chosen to practice immigration law, in part, as a way to honor my parents for all they had bestowed upon me.
In addition, the more I pondered the immigration landscape, the more I realized how fortunate my career had been. The vast majority of individuals who sought my assistance shared similar characteristics and values.
Over the course of the next few weeks, these reflections trumped my anger and uncertainties.
Of course, these are not experiences most members of the American public have known.
However, the richness of the ethical standards from which the actions of most immigrants flow, we can and should share with them. In my view, it’s a prerequisite to winning the immigration reform war.
The Impact Of Bad Acts On Immigration Reform
As part of my internal rumblings, I acknowledged some of the youths who stabbed my son probably felt left out of the American mosaic. It didn’t excuse their actions.
I conceded these types of misguided actions, committed by either citizens or immigrants, destroy the fragile fabric of society.
My thoughts went deeper.
For many immigrants, striving in all the right ways to be accepted into the American community, the negative effects of such behavior are magnified when other immigrants are the bad guys.
Those who harmed my son did nothing to change the good that my parents accomplished.
But they do undermine the efforts of new immigrants who, like my parents many decades ago, simply want to earn an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.
One consequence of such heinous behavior is the call for stricter immigration laws.
There are no exemptions.
Worthy immigrants who would benefit from immigration reform are forced to continue hiding in the shadows of American communities.
In stabbing my son, these thugs stabbed all immigrants.
Fortunately, my son survived.
As my anger subsided, I turned away from my momentary rage and resumed my efforts as a Riverside immigration attorney to make the world a better place, one immigrant at a time.
Real Reform Requires Real Compassion
I do not expect the parents of Kathryn Steinle to react in a similar manner. They share neither my multicultural history nor my professional experiences. Their daughter passed away.
Nonetheless, I strongly feel all reformers should do their best to comprehend the Steinle family’s agony and support their recovery.
It’s the right thing to do whether the alleged shooter is eventually deemed guilty or innocent.
After all, the moral circumference of the incident is larger than whether the victim’s parents support or oppose immigration reform measures.
A human being was killed in an act of needless violence.
All immigrant advocates who proclaim the need for compassion towards immigrant families, need to exemplify and model such compassion towards the Steinle family.
We need to express our collective condolences.
In the vacancy of such behavior, our words become empty and hallow.
Consider, for example, two events of the past week.
- In Chattanoga, Tennessee, Muslims joined an interfaith memorial service at a Baptist church held for the victims of a shooting, allegedly committed by a member of their local church.
- In Los Angeles, during a forum about law enforcement policies, a group of immigrants went outside, blocked a traffic intersection, and began chanting “No papers, no fear, immigrants are standing here.” Some disobeyed sheriff instructions to leave the intersection and were taken into custody.
The Chattanoga response illustrated compassion for the fallen, which went over and above the identity affiliation of the alleged killer.
On the other hand, the poorly thought-out Los Angeles actions demonstrated a sense of disregard for the San Francisco shooting victim.
Towards A Strategy Built On Compassion
A few months ago, I wrote that real immigration reform requires more than a few electoral victories. It rests upon winning the hearts and souls of the American public.
I discussed the strategy of educating the uneducated. One glaring necessity is to neutralize the false images our opponents perpetuate about immigrants.
This requires, at minimum, a campaign against hate, a campaign based on compassion.
The immigrants in Chattanoga, without knowing the alleged shooter’s guilt or innocence, took a clear public stance against hate and for compassion.
The folks in Los Angeles did not.
For that matter, the entire immigration reform movement has missed an opportunity to demonstrate our compassion for all to see.
Rather than merely go round after round with those who engage in misleading political pandering, reformers need to promote the healing of the American public following the San Francisco murder.
It’s not too late.
As a nationwide coalition of immigrants, we need to emulate the Chattanoga model of compassion for the young victim in San Francisco.
I’m hereby challenging all my immigration reform friends to pull it together.
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics