July 18, 2015

Thirty or so years ago I was defending the teenage driver in accident case. Big damage case, with inadequate insurance to compensate the injured parties.

Counsel for one of the suing parties wanted more than the total policy limit. “Bob,” I recall asking, “You do know you want more than I’ve got, and there are two more injured parties?” And I’ve never forgotten his response: “I do, and I may only get a portion of the limit. But I have a $1m plus case here, and the longer I see it that way, the closer I’ll come to that number.”

Bob’s client only got a share of the total limit. But he was a great attorney, and often got amazing outcomes for his clients. And that brief exchange explained, at least for me, why. Bob was an optimist, and a man who put all of himself into what he did, looking for every angle and opportunity. His efforts did not pay off in my case, but they surely did in many others.

I thought about Bob Friday afternoon, listening to Welcoming New Americans on Arizona Public Media. The story focused on a citizenship ceremony in Tucson, at the Evo DeConcini Federal Courthouse. U.S. District Judge Francisco Zapata—his dad was an immigrant from Mexico, and his mom’s people were here before Arizona was a state—presided. His words about citizenship and America brought tears to my eyes, as did the words spoken by some of the new citizens, including Georgina Lupito, a woman born in the Philippines on February 22 and named for George Washington.

So, my friend Bob and a citizenship ceremony. The connection? For decades I have wondered why America does not strive to make itself a home for all comers. We are the world’s beacon, and the poster child for how well immigration works. So why not walk the talk we got from Emma Lazarus, etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I’m no fool, for sure. As Judge Zapata noted, “we don’t want criminals coming into the country … and we don’t want people who are coming into the country to harm us.” Truth be told, though, the number of people who fall into those categories is small, relative to the whole. And we are the United States of America. If we’re as exceptional as many who favor sharp limits on immigration tell us we are, we ought to be able to sort out the good and bad people.

I also know we can’t simply open our country to everyone who wants to be here, even if we exclude the undesirables. We don’t have the infrastructure to meet immediate needs, and we don’t have an economy which is ready for that shock. But I also know, as Bob did in the world of personal injury cases, that if we focus our energies on immigration policies that reflect our stated values, we’ll get closer to the goal.

We have hearts and minds. Hearts that can be generous and full, wanting to share with others the opportunities we have because someone in our past got to America. And minds that can be creative, figuring out how we can make the dream work better, not only for those who are here and struggling, but also for those who want a chance for the better life so many of us have gotten in the United States of America.

Today, the immigration conversation is a mismatch. One side talks about what we can’t do, playing on fear, prejudice, and some legitimate practical concerns. The other side talks about how immigration will play in 2016. In the middle we’ve got President Obama, with Executive Orders and a lofty speech on November 20 of last year.

We can do better!

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