Christine M. Flowers: Our immigration prejudices and the spirit of ‘St. Louis’

First Posted: 4/12/2014

Jeb Bush made some very provocative comments about immigration the other day. They were red meat for a conservative base that thinks in broad brushstrokes about foreigners. Actually, they were more like a bullfighter’s red cape, or scarlet blood in the water.

Commenting on the wave of illegal bodies present in our country, this brother of one compassionate conservative president and son of another observed: “The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, they come to our country because their families — the dad who loved their children — was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table. … They broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.”

Frankly, those observations were a little too Jean Valjean for me. It is a simplification to say that everyone who crosses the border does so to provide a better life for his children (unless you believe that drug traffickers are also loving parents). But on the whole, Bush is absolutely right: The men and women who take a short-cut around the legal process generally do so for the most basic of reasons — desperation.

That doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands and let the floodgates open. Of course there needs to be order and, as the great Charles Krauthammer said, Americans have a right to decide who comes in and out of the country.

But this brings me to another point about the whole immigration debate. There is a mean-spiritedness that infects the discussion and keeps us from arriving at an equitable result. We don’t need the saccharine comments of a presidential hopeful, but neither do we need the vitriol spewed by some of the anti-immigrant groups who equate “the other” with disease, crime and a “brownification” of society.

I think we need to take a step back for a moment and understand the animating principles that define this country and undergird all the great religions. And, then, we need to remember a time when those principles, among them compassion, were horrifically rejected. I hope we can take some philosophical lessons from that tragedy.

Earlier this week, I listened to a radio interview with a man whose grandfather and uncle had been murdered in the Holocaust. The most wrenching part of the story was the fact that they could have been saved had it not been for politics and politicians. In 1939, a group of German Jews attempted to flee the Nazi regime on an ocean liner called the “St. Louis.” They sought admission at numerous ports, including the United States and Canada. Fearing the political repercussions, FDR refused to allow the passengers to disembark and, after having the door closed in their faces during a three week “voyage of the damned,” the ship returned to Europe. Not surprisingly, the majority of the passengers ended up dying in concentration camps.

We obviously can’t analogize the cross-border journey of a Mexican to the desperate flight from Hitler. The comparison is as ridiculous as Bush’s comments about loving parents: too gross, too broadly aimed, too discordant and polemical. But it’s legitimate to point out the similarity in the way that Americans have come to approach the issue of immigration, one that echoes the “not in my backyard” anxiety of 75 years ago.

Realistically, we cannot open our arms in a universal embrace. Emma Lazarus was a great poet, but she would have failed miserably as a diplomat. In a world of limited resources, we have to do human triage. I spent four hours the other day in front of an immigration judge trying to convince him that the deep scars on my client’s face and the shadow in his eyes had earned him a grant of asylum. The judge had the difficult job of deciding whether to believe his story and, even if credible, whether the tales of beatings and threats warranted a refugee’s welcome. It’s not an easy calculus to make, and I’m not one to second-guess judges or, for that matter, crippled wartime presidents.

Still, it does put things into a better perspective than any of the talking heads on television, the ones who might never in their lives have met a refugee or who think that turnstiles at the border are feasible.

When Bush started talking about the “loving” father, I knew he was firing the opening salvo for 2016. He might be sincere, but his timing leads me to believe that there’s a lot more politics in his comments than principle. And that’s OK, since even the most revered among us, the ones with our names engraved in marble and on coinage, are capable of selling our souls for a few votes.

But it would still be good for conservatives to soften the sharp edges of their tongues. And it would be good for liberals to remember that it was one of their own who padlocked the Golden Door.

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