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Scene Seen on a Sunday Morning

Living in what may be the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the world has given me an interesting perspective with which to view the immigration debate raging in America.
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The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.

I have the pleasure of living in what may be the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the world: Jackson Heights, NY, in the borough of Queens. Immigrants from North America, South America, Eastern and Western Europe, South, Central and East Asia and a smattering from North Africa make for a community filled with specialty clothing, food and music shops, ethnic restaurants that draw jaded diners from Manhattan and Long Island for eating experiences that they can't find anywhere else.

Scrabble, arguably the most challenging board game in English, was invented in Jackson Heights, but these days you're just as likely to hear Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Thai, Mandarin, Korean, Tagalog, Pashtun, Spanish, with occasional traces of Quechua, Italian, Polish, Russian and Arabic. On Sunday, October 14, I was walking west on the south side of Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights' main street, coming home from my gym and looking forward to a cup of coffee from the nearby Dunkin' Donuts.

One block into my walk I was ordered by the police to cross to the north side of the street. Upon crossing I looked to the south and saw what must have been at fifty police blocking off a stretch of about two blocks with temporary fencing, including the Dunkin' Donuts I planned to go to for my coffee. It didn't matter; I was transfixed along with the hundreds of immigrants lining this large commercial strip's sidewalks. I walked further along and saw more young men with their hands bound behind them and heads down. I knew that this was not an immigration enforcement raid. The windbreakers on the jackets of the law enforcement authorities had NYPD, New York State Police and Secret Service on them. I kept walking: a total of thirteen blocks (and two more Dunkin' Donuts on the wrong side of the street), most of which had the south side of the street cordoned off and the north side filled with spectators.

Based on the nature of the officials making the arrests, I guessed that it might have to do with fraudulent driver's licenses and green cards and my guess proved to be correct. What I remember most about that day, however, were the looks on the faces of the spectators, most of whom appeared to me to be immigrants. It was a combination of fear, curiosity and pity, the reasons for which were self-evident.

I felt much the same way. I'm the son of one immigrant and the spouse of another. Twice, when flying to Brazil, there have been deportees on my flights. It would take a cruel, cruel person not to feel some sympathy for them. I remember distinctly there were several immigration agents with him, accompanying their every move, handing their documents to the purser on the flight and staying at the airport not merely until they entered the plane, but until the flight was wheels up off the ground. I found this one when the flight I was on had to return to the gate and we were met by the same immigration agents who escorted the deportees on board.

There are two distinct issues in play that Sunday that are relevant to the 2008 elections. One, is the issue of national security and the dangers inherent in the use of false identification and the other, of course is a reasonable immigration policy that addresses the needs of the nation as well as the needs of immigrants. With regard to the former, there seems to be little debate that use of counterfeit forms of identification should be actively discouraged. The question is how best to prevent it.

While Governor Eliot Spitzer has received a great deal of heat for his plans to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants, the one government agency that has not objected, according to Newsday, is the Department of Homeland Security. This seems to make a great deal of sense as it certainly seems to cut out the market for a significant portion of counterfeit forms of identification. One hopes that cooler heads will prevail on this issue.

As for the central issue of immigration, that will require some imagination and compromise and is not likely to be resolved in the caustic atmosphere in which most political discussion is held these days. While some may believe it is feasible and reasonable to send all undocumented immigrants packing (and some have made light of the result to humorous effect), I can assure you that my neighborhood would be devastated economically, with vast numbers of businesses closing not merely because their employees would be gone, but also because most of their clientele would be gone as well, with scant likelihood of their being replaced in the near term.

So on that Sunday, I had to give up on my coffee from Dunkin' Donuts. It was just as well. I went to my local Uruguayan/Colombian Bakery, Café La Nueva for a better cup and delicious churros that made me glad that I live where I live and wouldn't change a thing.

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