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The Long Game

Friday, 7 September 2012

Last week, the illegal immigrant my mother regularly hires to do odd jobs around her house was struck by a car. He was riding his bike on the side of the road in Cleveland, Tenn., and someone sideswiped him and kept going. (Why stop for a Mexican who shouldn’t be here in the first place, right?)

The hospital up there wouldn’t take him, so my mother drove up and took him to a local hospital here and filled out his forms. He had a separated shoulder, some ligament damage, bruised ribs and a concussion. A friend of my mom is letting him recover in her guest bedroom.

These two women are not, by any stretch of the imagination, wacky liberals. My mother still worries, just a little, that Obama might be a Muslim mole, for crying out loud. Her prejudices are almost always of those things and people beyond her direct understanding. "Love the person, fear the group," the saying goes of traditional Southern prejudices, and she constantly fights this tendency, but it's embedded in her upbringing.

Before a friend of hers referred "Juan" to my mom five years ago, she was staunchly anti-immigration. Mexicans were lazy, were breaking the law, and should work to make their own country a better place rather than jumping the fence to suck off our collective teat. Five years later, she just wishes it was easier for illegal immigrants to do things the right way, and she doesn't bad-mouth Mexicans anymore. She regularly defends them, in fact.

Make no mistake: even with her personal collection of ignorant fears and prejudices, she is still exponentially a better, kinder and more loving soul than I could ever hope to be. All of my open-mindedness doesn't instantly make me a grand  human being or philanthropist, and alas, I'm neither.

This man has seen his wife and two daughters a handful of times in a decade. Juan is in his early 50s but has the physique of an NCAA free safety. He lives in a tiny apartment with three other men in similar circumstances. At least 3/4 of every dollar he earns goes back across the border for his family. He has paid their way into college. He still lives here only because his second daughter is now attending graduate school.

Almost the only way his daughters know him is through the money he sends. His wife has memories of a time long ago, and that's about it. More than anything else, this is the reality of his life that hits me the hardest. It is the sacrifice I cannot fathom.

Juan despised having to call my mother. He doesn’t want anyone’s charity, and he works his ass off for less-than-standard wages without complaint. Whenever I see him working in the yard or in her house, he has this deep inner peace and outer happiness that baffles and humbles me.

Juan is the walking embodiment of John Adams’ memorable words: “I must study politics and war, that my sons (or daughters) may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry and porcelain.”

Juan is playing the long game. He fights and sweats and toils not for himself, not even for his children, but for his grandchildren. We get impatient when our Netflix movie won’t download quickly enough, and Juan risks his life for a future he’ll never even get to witness with his own eyes.

Juan better-exemplifies The American Dream than most Americans. Maybe that's why so many of my fellow countrymen despise him, demonize him, and fear him rather than work harder to find ways to let him be a real part of what we're doing here.

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