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Commentary: Greater Understanding Of Immigrants Could Be As Close As Next Door

Immigrants at a naturalization ceremony

Immigration is often described in broad generalizations.  But commentator William Holston thinks if we focus on individual immigrants, the discussion can look very different.

Over the last 30 years, I have heard lots of generalizations around the issue of immigration. Now however, the sheer nastiness of the rhetoric has reached an all-time high – rhetoric such as “All they want to do is come here and take welfare.”  

I think to myself, “Don't you know any immigrants?” 

But that’s exactly where there is a disconnect. People’s political opinions often seem to be in the abstract. Some proximity to individual human faces hopefully would challenge those ideas. 

The residents of West Frankfort, Illinois voted heavily in favor of a political candidate with a strong anti-immigrant platform, only to come out in protests of shocked outrage when a beloved local restaurant owner was getting deported. It had apparently not occurred to them the political policies they favored would affect someone they knew and admired as a neighbor. Abstract politics had turned personal.

Immigration is not an abstract thing for me. When we moved into our Casa View neighborhood, most of our neighbors were white. But over the last 30 years our street has become a very immigrant dominated-neighborhood. We have great neighbors. Many are from Mexico, but others are from Central America.  When someone generalizes about immigrants, by calling them rapists or criminals, I am personally offended. Are they talking about my Guatemalan neighbor who drove me to the ER, when I fell off a ladder? Are they talking about the man from Mexico, playing soccer with his kids in the front yard next door? Are they talking about the Nicaraguan woman who has cut my hair?

It hurts me to think how my good friend Hind Jirrah, who runs a domestic violence shelter and who has dedicated her life to helping others, must listen to some of the most vitriolic generalizations about Muslims.

How do we as a community foster those personal connections? My friend Jin Ya, herself a Chinese immigrant had the idea to invite two Muslim women, one from Syria and the other from Iraq,  to prepare a meal and invite a crowd of her friends. She called it, Break Bread, Break Borders. The invitation read, “We bring the community together to share food and conversation with some of our newest neighbors.” This dinner accomplished in a small scale, what our city could experience. We had a great time over the meal, and the Kibbeh was fantastic!

It's time for those of us who want our country to continue to be a welcoming place, to stand up for our neighbors. This isn’t politics, it’s simply friendship.

I recently put a sign in my front yard that reads:

“No importante de donde eres estamos contentos que seas nuestro vecino.”

It doesn't matter where you are from, we're glad you are our neighbor.

William Holston is executive director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.