Op-ed: Immigration and the Human Thirst for Freedom

By: Danny Lopez, Executive Diretor

Ronald Reagan had no shortage of memorable quotations. One in particular sits up on my office wall and makes me consider my own perspectives on democracy and liberty. “Freedom,” Ronald Reagan once said, “is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit.”

Reagan had a gift for understanding the rawest of human experience; and it was this understanding upon which his unique brand of compassionate, common-sense conservatism was based that paved the way for two decades of prosperity in America. As a Cuban-American and son of political refugees, I know there is no greater motivating force than the desperation and hopelessness felt by those facing oppression and injustice. My grandparents and their generation were forced to make unfathomably difficult decisions, leaving relatives and property behind to ensure their children would stand a chance in life. Nothing more. Just to have a shot.

And this experience is not unique to Cubans. Since this country’s founding, groups of immigrants have come to the United States seeking that shot, fleeing hopelessness and desperately yearning for the freedom to provide their children with the very best. Indeed, immigrants have forged some of the most fiercely patriotic communities in America, living every day in appreciation of what many of us too often complacently take for granted.

So while the United States remains a country of laws, and while respect for those laws is central to our continued prosperity as a nation, we ought never to demonize families who — out of sheer desperation — are in the truly unenviable position of having to decide whether to risk their lives and freedoms or those of their children to seek a more stable future. Those who flee or overstay their visas often do so because they feel they are out of options; and while labeling them criminals rather than understanding and appreciating their motives may score political points, it does little to help create the kind of consensus needed to forge a long-term, comprehensive solution to our immigration challenges.

In 1994, 37,000 Cuban “balseros” decided that they were out of options, too, setting out on homemade rafts and inner tubes to traverse 90 miles across the Florida Straits to freedom. Thousands died, but all were willing to risk their lives for liberty in America. They left behind children, parents, friends. Just to have a shot.

I grew up hearing about this choice. My grandmother, who left behind her parents to bring her children to the United States, will never again set foot on her homeland or see the house in which she grew up. My other three grandparents died in America, leaving us only memories and old shoe boxes filled with black-and-white photos.

They all made choices to give their families a chance. Those balseros risked everything for just a taste of freedom. While political as much as economic in nature, these choices were not that different from those being made every day by undocumented individuals overstaying their visas or coming each year from Mexico and Central America. Desperation has driven them to this choice, and they have chosen opportunity.

There is no easy answer when it comes to immigration. Open, fluid borders are obviously not a possibility, and ensuring that our borders are indeed secure has to be priority number one for any comprehensive immigration plan. Allowing a continual flow of undocumented immigrants indefinitely is simply not sustainable and could have significant long-term consequences for our national security.

But the debate on just how to fix our nation’s immigration system has to be conducted with civility and compassion. Immigrants, documented or not, are not just numbers. They are real people, real families, real children. They are fathers and mothers who have often made choices infinitely more difficult than any of us could imagine. We have to be willing to concede that any long-term fix of the immigration system has to happen at the federal level and has to be comprehensive, addressing not just undocumented individuals but the various work and student visa programs, EB-5 infrastructure investment programs, and the numerous nuances within the law.

President Reagan understood that the thirst for freedom is basic. It is unquenchable, and as long as we are the greatest and most free country on earth we will continue to see waves of desperate peoples seeking something greater for their families. The fact that so many risk so much for just a taste of American liberty speaks volumes of the esteem in which we are held internationally. Let’s make sure, as the immigration debate rages on, we hold ourselves to those same standards.

Lopez is the executive director of the State of Indiana Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs.