Tacos and the Politics of Immigration

On Thursday, January 17 a slightly shorter form of this column was broadcast as part of the Perspectives series on KQED FM, San Francisco’s NPR affiliate. On Monday, January 21 it was the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum. An audio version of the KQED broadcast of this piece appears at the end of the text version, thanks to  my friend, JJ Chacon. Speaking of JJ check out the photos of a dream meal in Florence from on JJ’s website. Who’d like to join me for a meal like that?

In the coming weeks, as the primaries swing to the South and West, immigration will play a growing role in the drama of presidential politics. The candidates will be proposing immigration policies in an effort to capture the voters’ fancy, but before any of our would-be presidents has the opportunity actually to set immigration policy, I’d like for them to visit me in the barrio where I live in East San Jose.

When Americans talk about immigration, too much of the conversation is driven by fear. We are afraid that newcomers will hurt our economy by pilfering American jobs and by taking advantage of too many American social services. We are afraid of balkanization, afraid that we might be foreigners in our own land as more and more people speak languages other than English.

Pandering to American fears around the impact of immigration, politicians are proposing a long list of policies and projects aimed at keeping immigrants—particularly those who have crossed our borders without proper documentation—out of the United States. All of the major presidential candidates are calling for tighter security along the US/Mexico border, and most favor greater punitive measures against those who hire undocumented workers. The Republican candidates, with the exception of John McCain (who, being from a border state, probably knows better) all favor the construction of a fence from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific ocean. On the campaign trail there is talk of biometric identification cards and high tech spyware for the observation of possible border crossers.

Some of those ideas may be just fine, but I doubt it’s ever a good idea to allow fear to drive public policy.

Looking at the demographics of my neighborhood, one might think it would be a place where such fears are realized, but it is not. My barrio is a wonderful place to live, and I’d like for immigration policy to reflect not what we fear but what is beautiful and hopeful in immigrant communities.

People in my neighborhood come—with and without the official permission of the United States’ government—from all over Latin America and Asia, but the dominant culture is Mexican. Most of the businesses cater to those who speak Spanish. The Catholic church across the way from my home is named in honor of Mexico’s patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe. From its sanctuary on most Saturdays mariachis serenade brides and grooms and girls on their fifteenth birthdays. On cold evenings, if you’re lucky, you can find a street vendor selling fresh churros; and the tacos are proof of God’s abiding love for humanity.

My neighborhood isn’t perfect: the schools are sub-par and we have a graffiti problem, but people get along where I live as well as they do anywhere. There is a solid work ethic in the community. Small businesses are thriving. My neighborhood is not a scary place. The future it represents is a bright one.

I realize that my experience living among immigrants in East San Jose doesn’t tell the whole immigration story, but it tells an important part of the story, and everyone running for President should come and see how good life can be in a community of immigrants, preferably while eating tacos and with mariachi music from a nearby quinceñera dancing through this very American barrio.

UPDATE: Here is the audio.


3 thoughts on “Tacos and the Politics of Immigration

  1. Hey Ben: Good seeing you on Sunday. Also, I just added a copy of the audio above at the end of the post. One day, I guess I should show you how I add it. Until then….all our best to your family — all 6 of you. — JJ

  2. Pingback: Politics » Tacos and the Politics of Immigration

  3. Ben, we must live in the same neighborhood. Ten years ago, we moved out of the rarified air of La Jolla to the multi-ethnic mix of inner-City, San Diego. It was a move that brought us into relationship with our neighbors for the first time since we moved from Mendocino in the early 80’s. Affluent suburb residents don’t need to be in relationship with their neighbors; they are self-sufficient units. The thought of borrowing a cup of sugar or a roll of toilet paper, simply doesn’t happen.

    And the place where it shows its greatest enrichment is at Church. No longer are there pews full of look-alikes; diversity of ethnic origin and language and color really do revive the Church of Acts 2 that confronted Peter so long ago. And when the Church makes music, it is accessible to those who congregate. Here we find not only tacos and stirfry, we also smell curry and chili accompanied by an occasional dolma. And kids…they are everywhere. The Sunday Schools are full of a rainbow of colors. I rejoice in the Heavenly “Migra”, Who comes, with the Baptism that makes everyone acceptable.

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