The argument goes something like this: If you don’t live in Arizona, you have no business meddling in its immigration problems.
After all, what’s it to Midwesterners if Arizona makes it a crime not to carry proof of immigration status? Why should East Coast residents care if a new law in the Southwest targets people of color? What right does anyone living somewhere else have to criticize a law in Arizona that directs police to demand proof of documents from people who trigger “reasonable suspicion” that they are illegal?
The message, often steeped in a vat of vitriol, is clear: Mind your own business.
I’ve been hearing this a lot in the wake of my recent column criticizing Arizona’s new immigration law. The response has been overwhelmingly negative and often profane. Some insist that the number of opposing viewpoints on Cleveland.com alone proves I’m not only wrong but also defeated. As an American whose gender had to wait 144 years to wrestle the right to vote from those convinced of their superiority, I find such claims of conquest by cacophony humorous. Not laugh-out-loud funny, mind you. Call it a giggle.
On Monday evening, on the campus of my alma mater, Kent State University, Rep. John Lewis brought it all home.
Tuesday was the 40th anniversary of the Ohio National Guard shootings that left four students dead and nine wounded. As part of the commemoration, I was honored to introduce the civil rights hero, who proceeded to remind the packed ballroom that sometimes justice calls the lucky among us to engage in “necessary trouble” for the benefit of not-so-lucky others.
In the 1960s, Lewis was repeatedly beaten and imprisoned for his nonviolent efforts to gain voting rights for African-Americans in the South. On “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, he led a march across the bridge from Selma toward Montgomery until Alabama state troopers fractured his skull and then threw tear gas into the peaceful crowd. It’s a miracle he wasn’t killed.
Forty-five years later, John Lewis stood on a stage in Kent, Ohio — still fighting, still encouraging nonviolent dissent as he encouraged the mostly white crowd never to give up in the fight for others.
As Lewis pointed out, the students who were killed and injured at Kent State in 1970 did not have friends or family in the war that sparked the campus protest. They showed up anyway.
“They got in necessary trouble,” Lewis said. “These young people didn’t die in Vietnam or Cambodia. They died right here, in our own country … because people had been denied the right to protest, the right to speak out.”
Lewis gently reprimanded those who think someone else’s unjust hardship isn’t everyone’s burden.
“You have a mandate to follow in the footsteps of those brave people who went before you,” he said. “It is your turn. It is our turn to build a beloved community.”
What does this have to do with immigrants in Arizona?
I do not live in Arizona. I am not an immigrant. I was born in America, the child of white working-class parents whose sacrifices and hard work launched a life of advantage and privilege for me. “To whom much is given,” my mother always said.
We are called the United States for the best of reasons, including a willful insistence that every person who resides in our country is a human being. And that includes every person who lives in Arizona.
Our country has an immigration problem, and we need to fix it. There are more than 12 million undocumented immigrants here, the majority of whom came from the poorest parts of Mexico.
The solution is not to terrify every person with color in his face or an accent on her lips.
The solution is not to rip apart families and deport children whose entire identities have been forged in this country, which they love even as some Americans make clear that they hate them.
The solution resides in the hearts of those Americans who know we are capable of so much better — and who are willing to say so to the people of Arizona.
Connie Schultz is a columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and essayist for Parade magazine.