When the chance arose at the New America Alliance to address the economic value of immigration in a personal way, I was quick to volunteer my story. After all, I have been a typical American community banker and corporate lender, and later, an entrepreneurial CEO who made what is statistically considered a low level of wealth, but wealth nonetheless. Not bad for a penniless Cuban exile whose parents never achieved great economic success in their new country but who did make it their business to bring me and my sister Patricia (a banker and education advocate of recognized achievement), at the age of 9 and 7, to the land of communism-free opportunity.
Their philosophy was simple: we got you here and kept you healthy through legal adulthood (18 years of age), now make something of it. Everything is possible in this great country. It's up to you. Did I mention that they never collected a cent of public help, not even the temporary exile stipend that was available to all Cubans at the time in 1960? But we did receive something else of incalculable value: the priceless complement of globally coveted, American treasures: a fine public school education, a magnificent infrastructure -- in a free and open society -- with many roads to upward mobility through hard work, and the jewel in the crown, American citizenship.
In our perennial state of gratitude, my sister and I alone have contributed millions in economic and civic value to our beloved country, in addition to taxes, which we pay happily. Trust me -- we are not unusual at all. We are the norm. But our parents also taught us to look out for each other, and by each other they meant everyone we could help, even if they looked different and spoke differently from us; and, most especially, if they were vulnerable in some way. That may well have been an even greater gift than bringing us here.
I was certainly intellectually prepared to make the rational, economic argument for immigration on behalf of this unique NAA organization. I was not prepared by how personal and passionate I would become. The statistics are clear: immigrants are more likely than the native born to start their own businesses -- no doubt proof that necessity is the mother of invention; many are the revered job creators who grow beyond the billion dollar revenue threshold; they complement the labor markets at all points (professional, entrepreneurial and low-skilled); they do not "steal" jobs, they fill in the gaps; they balance an aging demographic. It's worth remembering that there are natural, global immigration flows to High Development Index countries (consider Germany, France, Australia, Canada and Great Britain); not to mention the political ramifications of past and present occupations, supported insurgencies or outright aggression. There's plenty to learn from the West's roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Cuba, Nicaragua, Viet Nam, The Philippines, Mexico, Puerto Rico, India, swaths of North Africa, ad infinitum, and the migratory consequences of our actions.
Yet closer to home, how can 11 million U.S. residents be deported without huge economic and diplomatic consequences worldwide? Or how does forcing them to live in the shadows of our economy and society promote progress or American values? They are not all peasants who crossed the borders naively believing Emma Lazarus' words, not that I would blame anyone who did. Many just overstayed tourist visas taking calculated personal and economic risks because Lazarus' promise appealed to that universal human impulse to evolve, progress, and contribute. The original dreamers came to these lands even before it had a name. It has always been thus. So how can we ever separate families and deport children and young people educated here, who are willing to die for us in service, to countries they do not know, with languages they do not speak and still call ourselves the Beacon of anything?
Besides the Native Americans, who, exactly, were not immigrants? The Spaniards who brought Christianity to the New World? The British who followed? The violently abducted slaves used to build wealth in an economy dependent on debased human trafficking? The Germans? The French? The Dutch? The Italians? The Irish? The Chinese who help built our railroads? The Jews from Eastern Europe? I can think of countless Americans from all these ethnic origins whose contributions have made this a better country and a better world.
We Latinos, along with many of Asian lineage, are only the latest wave; although a case can be made that Hispanics have had a presence here since the late 1400s. And while American history books have given the short rift to our significant contributions spanning the whole of the American narrative from inception, we can be thankful for modern search engines that set history aright for our children -- if not our leaders -- with a click or two.
No one at the New America Alliance is in need of amnesty. We are proud, engaged, American Latino citizens, active in both parties, and by definition, successful enough in our business and professional endeavors to be able to give back to our communities and our country. We have decided to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform because we believe that it is the right course of action and a matter of critical national importance on all fronts.
One would think that by now I would be desensitized to the often cynical, hostile and hateful tone of the immigration discourse, especially when it comes from our national leaders. And I am still constantly amazed at the lack of historical, economic, political, humanitarian, moral, and just purely factual context of most discussions. It is almost as if it is assumed that the rest of us -- 40 million or so American citizens and permanent residents -- are not listening and not feeling what is being said. The often-cited sleeping giant is not awake yet, but it's being harshly poked. Its stirrings are becoming increasingly noticeable. Time will tell if it is filled with any kind of resolve. Will our $1.2 trillion in buying power amplify our voice?
In order to keep calm and not fall prey to despair when watching national broadcasts, I have developed an engaging mental exercise for myself. Depending on what's being said, I respond to my screen interlocutor with relevant facts or additional data. For even when they are coming from a place of intended kindness, they often speak as if none of my NAA colleagues, or anyone else like them, exist in this country.
It goes something like this:
S: They do not understand how our laws work.
R: Ask attorneys Roel Campos, Manny Sanchez, Frank Herrera or any of the more than 45,342 Latino lawyers in the country.
S: Sometimes they open up small restaurants.
R: Not to mention McDonald's franchises like Frank Sanchez.
S: They look after our children.
R: That sounds right considering 57,000 Hispanic physicians and surgeons; 202,000 middle school teachers and 284,000 firefighters.
S: They will end up costing us because they do not understand finance.
R: Ask Maria Contreras-Sweet, Founder & Chairwoman of ProAmérica Bank or Valor Private Equity Managing Director Juan Sabater.
And on it goes...
Yet beyond economic and logical arguments as a matter of rational national action, there is something else at work here. And I might surmise that there are many who feel as I do. My heart hurts. My soul is most uneasy. Since childhood, my vision of the promise and the greatness of the United States of America has always been embodied in the Statute of Liberty, The New Colossus, "a mighty woman with a torch... and her name Mother of Exiles." And just when I think my soul is done with me, this bit of scripture comes to mind "Truly, I tell you whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." It is then that my heart begins to break. Because I cannot even conceive of my country turning away from these two fundamental principles.