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Mother knows best 

Was anyone really surprised that so many high school students, even here in San Luis Obispo County, suddenly marched out of their classes recently and into the streets to demonstrate against a proposed House bill that could turn illegal immigrants into felons? I sure wasn’t. And I also wasn’t surprised that so many locals were vocally upset at the students’ zealous display of Mexican flags to get their point across.
 
Why wasn’t I surprised? Because my mom told me so. She was as outraged as many of you were at the students’ behavior. “What a bunch of stupid kids,� my mother, the daughter of illegal immigrants from Mexico, bellowed. “They should have stayed in school. If they want to show the Mexican flag, why the hell are they here in the first place? Send them all back to Mexico!� Mom and I have had this continuing argument because illegal immigration hits so close to home. Some of my closest relatives are illegals. My father, who fought the Japanese during World War II, was illegal. So were my two grandmothers. A grandfather, who never saw Mom grow up in the U.S. because he died so young, was one, too. Some of my mom’s brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces are illegal, too.
 
In fact, after 25 years of reporting on the issue as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I learned what most residents of Mexican descent in the American Southwest already knew: Just about every Mexican family in the U.S. has a family member who is an illegal.
 
And frankly, I think illegal immigrants, like my relatives, have contributed to this nation’s economic vitality, its cultural diversity and the values of hard work and fair play that many new arrivals exhibit when they get here. And the conversations in those homes may be no different than the ones I have with Mom. My 79-year-old mother has been firm in her opposition to illegal immigration since the passage of Proposition 187, the anti-immigrants initiative overwhelmingly approved by California’s voters in 1994 and was struck down later as unconstitutional in the courts.
 
The fact that close relatives could be deported made no difference to her. She also saw no irony in the fact that she could have been deported under 187’s provisions if she had been in school at the time. (Under the measure, the children of illegal immigrants could be deported even if they were born in this country.) “I see no irony at all,� she argued. “That was then and this is now. We have to protect the borders of the United States.“
 
While I agree about defending the U.S. border, I think Mom is wrong about the rest of it. Why shouldn’t the illegals of today get the same chance that my mother got when her parents came here illegally as the Depression gripped America?
 
So, when the marches began to protest the House immigration bill, authored by influential Republican conservatives, I figured I was in for another round of arguing with Mom. “Walking out of school was a stupid thing to do, � she said the other day on the phone, pointing out that their protests hampered their education because state aid to public schools decreases when the kids are not in class.
 
In her mind, the students should be in school speaking English, showing allegiance to the U.S. flag and learning about American democracy. When I suggested, for example, that the students’ protest seemed proper because they were afraid their own parents could be deported under the House bill, Mom cut me off. “They have to work within the U.S. system,� she insisted. “If students are illegal, they should be deported. If their parents are illegal, they should be deported. Making them legal residents [which is possible under the Senate’s version of immigration reform] makes no sense. “If they want to be here legally, let them go home and apply for a green card to be a legal resident.�
 
Mom is right about this. After all, her youngest brother did that to legally enter this country after living in Mexico for virtually all of his 65 years. But she suddenly stumbled when I mentioned all the relatives who illegally entered the country and eventually showed up at our front door in Los Angeles, asking for help.
 
Mom didn’t turn them away. She helped them with advice, money and maybe even a night’s lodging. She didn’t call the Border Patrol to turn them in. The helping hand is something every well-off relative would do for a less-fortunate family member. You want to help your own. When I reminded her of this, she demurred for a moment, admitting that the issue does cut close to home.
 
This was my chance to score a victory in my running oral battle with Mom. I bought up my grandmother, who illegally entered the country in 1926. If she were still alive today, should she be deported if the current House bill becomes the law of the land? “No,� she said softly. What about Dad? No answer. I ticked off several other relatives, who illegally entered the U.S. and still live here. No answer from Mom. I thought I had finally won the argument with her.
 
But then she broke her temporary silence. “If they go around showing the Mexican flag while trying to protest for rights to stay here, “ she finally countered, “forget about it. Send them back to Mexico and let them fly the flag over there.� As I tried to counter her argument, she got in the last word. “I love you very much,� she told me in a motherly tone, “but you’re wrong about this.� ∆

George Ramos is chair of Cal Poly’s journalism department. He can be reached at gmramos@calpoly.edu

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