Friday, August 22, 2008

Op-Ed Encourages us to Embrace Our Common Humanity

While pandering persists, withhold votes

DURHAM - I picked up the paper on a recent morning and felt I was in a time warp. I grew up in North Carolina back in the 1950s, when state Democratic leaders were proud to ally themselves with the racist policies of the day. And yet there it was -- the Democratic candidate for governor, actively leading the charge to ban the admission of "illegal" immigrants to state community colleges, in spite of advice that such a ban is neither legally required nor wise.

That very same day, I saw television ads sponsored by Beverly Perdue's campaign, and that of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kay Hagan, touting their commitment to target "illegal" immigrants. Apparently some in the Democratic party and two of its lead candidates feel this is an opportune time to jump on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. They hide behind the excuse that they are just enforcing the law. This is a familiar and tired refrain.

History has not been kind to those who proclaim the virtue of following immoral and unjust laws. We look back with a sense of shame and disbelief on the Trail of Tears and the devastation of the Cherokee people, the Jim Crow disenfranchisement of African-Americans and the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.

That these policies were in fact lawful at the time does not make them any less dishonorable. We make the laws of our land. Someone deemed "illegal" today could easily become "legal" tomorrow; in fact we have made this shift many times in our history.

All of us were immigrants at one point, with the exception of indigenous people and nations and those forcibly brought here for slavery. Newly arriving immigrants, whether "legal" or not, often come because of government policies, in this case NAFTA. The free-trade agreement has devastated the economies of our neighbors to the south.

Throughout our nation's history, those in power have passed laws and manipulated public opinion to demonize immigrants. Meanwhile, they have used immigrants for their labor, often in inhumane conditions, to create wealth for "legal" citizens.

The state Democratic Party, Perdue and Hagan know all this. They must know they are pandering to our worst instincts, appealing to our fears of people different from us, rather than to our common humanity.

History also shows that to remain silent is to be complicit. I made the decision that I will not vote for or give money to any Democratic candidate (or any candidate at all) who targets immigrants as a focus of his or her campaign.

To that end, I drafted a letter stating these intentions. I realized that others might want to sign on. In less than a day, 50 people asked to add their names.

In an atmosphere where all that seems to matter is winning, it is easy for Democrats, like their Republican counterparts, simply to revert to weighing the pros and cons of what will bring votes. To those candidates, our power lies in simply withholding our votes and our money. In a close election, our refusal to vote may well make the difference.

We are tired of a politics of fear, for it has no future in the global community we are becoming. What we really want, in fact what we yearn for, is a Democratic Party, any party, and leaders with the courage to actually lead, to help us envision a country, a world, where we are guided by the understanding that we are all human, we are all in this together.

(Tema Okun is a teacher who worked for many years with community-based nonprofit groups.)

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