A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


It was a different world that Juan Padilla leapt into when he waded into the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River and swam over to the American side.

And a “different world” was exactly what he was counting on.

Born and raised in Spain, his life there had been . . . well . . . complicated (I won’t go into detail, but it was a lot of dysfunctional family stuff – think “Desperate Housewives” meets “Man of La Mancha”).  I guess things weren’t much better in Mexico, although to be honest I don’t know a lot about that.  I just know that on one day during the first half of the 20th Century, Juan Padilla came to America – uninvited and undocumented – looking for a different world.

It took a while for U.S. Immigration to catch up to him in California, by which time he was married and had six children.  When they threatened to deport him, his wife said: “That’s fine.  Deport him (evidently Juan was not easy to live with, which may explain . . . you know . . . the whole “Desperate Housewives” scenario).

“I just want to know one thing,” Juan’s wife continued.  “Who is going to provide for me and my six children?”

The Immigration folks figured it would be less of a hassle to grant Juan citizenship than to try to provide for his family in his absence.  So . . . case closed.

Of course, that was a different time in Juan’s “different world,” when immigration wasn’t such a hot button issue.  Juan has long-since passed on, and his posterity now reaps the full benefit of American citizenship.  Many have served in the military and made significant contributions to the communities in which they live.  Others, not so much (that’s sort of the way it is in families, isn’t it?).  The Padillas cherish their Spanish heritage, but they consider themselves first and foremost Americans, and America is a better place because they are here.

Especially MY America, since my wife, Anita, is one of Juan’s granddaughters.

And so you would think that Anita and I would have strong opinions on the current wave of immigration awareness that is sweeping across the country.  And we do.  The problem is, we have strong opinions on both sides of the issue.  This current controversy cuts to the very heart of who we are as a nation – and who we have been.  It takes cherished ideologies and valued historical perspectives and pits them against each other in occasionally gut-wrenching ways.

For example, it has been said that we are a nation of immigrants.  And that is true.  Historically we have embraced the concept of “the melting pot,” and we have invited the world to give us “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.” 

On the other hand, what we experienced as a nation on Sept. 11, 2001, changed us a little.  Maybe a lot.  Whereas we once “lifted our lamp” to “your wretched refuse from your teeming shore,” now we’re more inclined to use a searchlight and ask to see your papers.  Given the horrifying impact of terrorism around the world, one can understand this heightened desire to protect our suddenly vulnerable homeland from . . . well, everyone.

Do you see the conflict of those two perspectives?  Or is it just me?

Similarly, I believe we are a compassionate nation.  We are the first to help in any crisis, anywhere in the world.  I believe that is right and proper, given our position as the wealthiest and most powerful of nations.  We should be the first to care and the first to share.

But we also believe in the rule of law.  It is what keeps us strong and focused and civilized.  How can we hope to have impact on what is going on in the world if we can’t control what is going on within our own borders?  When you travel on an airplane, the flight attendant always tells you that if the oxygen masks pop down, you should put on your own mask first before you try to help any children who are traveling with you.

OK, maybe that last part didn’t make any sense to anyone else, but at 2 o’clock. in the morning it seemed like one heck of an argument to me.

The point is, there are good points everywhere in this discussion.  There is much to be said for both lifted lamps and for searchlights, for compassion and for the rule of law.  The important thing for us as a nation, I think, is to remember that this isn’t an episode of “Law & Order.”  It took a long time to get to where we are, and we’re not going to solve it in an hour or two.  It’s going to take patience, perseverance and pluck – all good, solid American virtues – to find answers for a different time in a different world.

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— © Joseph Walker

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