Sunday, November 30, 2008

Illegal Immigrants Flow Home from U.S.

Today's Miami Herald front page story is about the economy and how illegal aliens are heading home.  It is Sunday and I don't have much to say today except this:

Immigrant labor, legal or illegal, is like any other commodity and affected by supply and demand.  The unskilled workers who are the bedrock of much of a healthy U.S. economy by filling the jobs Americans don't want cross the border illegally to make a buck because they have no way to legally work here despite the demand for their services; when their labor is no longer needed, they go home.

Instead of demonizing these workers, why not establish visa categories which permit them to work legally when the economy has recovered and our hospitality, manufacturing, and construction sectors again need them?  If we can have visas for foreign "professional workers" despite the loud rumbles of the health-care, IT, and various other U.S. labor lobbies...what is the rationale for not permitting similar temporary visas for those jobs which are so rarely filled by U.S. workers that labor lobbies for them simply do not exist?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Cheryl Little Gets Well-Deserved Award

Every since I started private practice in 1990, Cheryl Little has represented everything that is right with the immigration bar.  In 1996, she founded the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center and for the past 12 years her tireless work on behalf of refugees, immigrant children, and others who could not afford private representation has made her a star in our very diverse community.

Last week, Ms. Little recieved the prestigious 2008 Morris Dees Justice Award, which is given annually to an attorney "who has devoted his or her career to the the public service and pursuing justice."  In receiving the honor, she displayed the same humility which has always made her such a successful leader.  Quoted in the Miami Herald, she said:

"'s the FIAC staff that generally does the heavy lifting.  I think [the award] is recognition of all the work that the staff at our agency does every day."

Congratulations to Cheryl Little and the folks at FIAC for making Lady Liberty proud on a daily basis.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Modest Proposal #2: How to Help the Auto Industry AND Consumers

This one is simple, though the relevance to immigration is, uh, vague:

-The government is giving the auto industry $25 billion dollars
-There are about 200 million drivers in the U.S.
-That breaks down to $125 per driver
-Let's hypothesize that a driver buys a new car every 5 years and forget that many drivers do not own cars
-Multiply $125 by 5 = $625

Instead of giving the cash to a failing industry, lets offer $625 vouchers available on a first come first serve basis, with a six month expiration, only valid for U.S. manufactured vehicles.  The consumer cuts his/her best deal without divulging the voucher and when they are ready to sign, the voucher goes to the dealer.

This not only gets the money in the hands of the consumers, it stimulates demand AND allows free market dynamics, i.e., the money ends up in the hands of the U.S. companies which are most attractive to U.S. consumers.

Guys, this isn't that hard! (-:  Jose

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Best of America

Tarun, who lives in India, is a good friend of an old fraternity brother of mine.  This is an excerpt of what he wrote this the other day.  I asked Tarun if I could share this with you and he said "sure".  Here you go...and thanks, Tarun. Jose
"This is the America that the world
loves - one that is driven by idealism, inspiration and enterprise. That was the
America that won last night. There is another America that the world loves to
hate - one that is driven by consumption, greed, arrogance and manipulation. The
fight between the two Americas is not over by any means just that for the moment
the better America has taken an upper hand. For the sake of the world I hope
that the more loved America wins more often..."

On the Price of Intolerance [originally written in 1999]

[Dear Readers:  my business partner Jaime Kuklinski sent me a very painful powerpoint reminding us about the horrors of the Holocaust; having just visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C. several weeks ago, the topic is fresh on my mind during this time of great change in our country.  I am republishing this in Immigration Insider for those of you who might be interested in reading it.  Jose]

MAUTHAUSEN, AUSTRIA- The snow is blasting on the windshield as Leah
pulls the rented VW Passat out of Mauthausen, onto the road which leads
us back to the beautiful village of Enns, with its funky medieval
storefronts. It is 1 p.m. but the car's very cool blue dashlights are
aglow, casting a strange hue on our faces. The car is very quiet as we
head eastward, the not-so-blue Danube, broad and mighty, alongside the
road. The sky is gray and so is the mood in the car. The boys sit in
the back, blankly staring out the window. We are supposed
to be heading west, toward Linz, the provincial capital of Upper
Austria, for a final day of sightseeing. But the plan has changed. We
pull into the first and only McDonald's for some pommes frites (yes, I know, but that's what they call them here, too...) and reflection.

That Friday was our last day in Austria, on our first trip to that
beautiful part of Europe. My little business trip had turned into a
week-long family vacation with three days of skiing the Austrian Alps
and two action packed days of sightseeing. The snow had been sublime,
the bed and breakfast arranged for me by a client, outstanding. As
usual, I was the oldest snowboarder on the mountain, but the kids were
far more polite to me than the helicoptering, megapierced lunatics
airborne in the great American West. In fact, we were the only
Americans in a part of the Alps so remote that all the other tourists
were German and Austrian...met one other American in an entire week in
the country.

We had three days on the mountain, and the snow was so heavy that we
didn't see the moon, the stars, or the sun for the entire week. My
Caribbean soul found this a bit disconcerting, what with my nightly
habit of greeting Orion, the Pleides, and the Moon, but, hey, the snow
was soft and forgiving and my spectacular wipeouts went unpunished.
Besides, it was only a week. For the other two days, we had to choose
carefully: picking two, day-drive destinations in Austria is like
picking an ice cream flavor at Baskin-Robbins or a cigar at Mike's in
Miami...too much good stuff to choose from. We settled on Salzburg, the
birthplace of Mozart (among many other things) and Mauthausen, a
preserved concentration camp which, in World War II, was amongst the
most notorious Nazi camps in all of Europe. Like responsible parents,
Leah and I told Alex and Danny that it was important for us to see
first-hand what the Holocaust was all about, and that another day of
skiing was not more important.

Our trusty Frommer's Austria Guidebook described the trip
to Mauthausen as "a sobering outing."
The trip from Vorderstoder, high in the Alps, to Enns and across the
Danube to the camp took about an hour and a half. (Incidentally, until
reading the history of the camp, I had no idea just how much Austria
had cooperated with the Third Reich when the Germans came in. However,
as Leah noted, what could a bunch of rural farmers do to resist at that
stage? To Austria's credit, they have faithfully preserved the camp and
memories, acknowledging the responsibility that comes with having this
place on Austrian soil.)

We prepared the boys by telling them that the things we had all
learned in school about the murderous Nazi's, their delusional desire
to "cleanse the race," and their atrocities would now come alive in
images we would not soon forget. We told them about intolerance, about
the arrogance of presuming racial superiority, and about the human
tendency to create "us and them" dichotomies. We talked about how
Judeo-Christian teachings emphasize the Golden Rule, treating others
the way we wish to be treated, and about how the American forefathers
perceived accurately that "all men are created equal." We discussed how
things in Europe had gotten out of control, how one madman's political
agenda had turned into genocide, and wondered how people had agreed to
the underlying "logic." We talked about the politics of hatred and the
strength of such frightening bonds.

We were one of about four cars in the parking lot. We made our way
through the snow and ice covered entrance, through the great gate and
stone footings. The vast camp was a virtual killing field for the
Nazis: in addition to murdering thousands of Austria's Jews, thousands
of "undesirables" including homosexuals, gypsies, Spaniards, Russian
war prisoners- you name it- were put to death within these walls. The
total number of Nazi murders within these few acres: about 200,000.

We toured the grounds and museum and an attendant led the four of us
to a screening room where we sat and saw the English-language version
of the story of Mauthausen. I then led Leah and the boys, with our
little English handbook, through the camp and we saw it all. All of us
cried at one point or another. We saw:

  • the photos of the naked living skeletons denied, women, and children...

  • the gas chambers where they were herded by the dozen, and the
    fingernail scratches on the stone ceiling, and photos of those killed
    there left by family members.

  • the custom built gallows for quick hangings.

  • the "medical" office where prisoners were told to line up facing the wall to have their height
    measured, and a bullet was fired into their forehead.

  • the mass graves

  • the photos of men dangling, dead, on the concertina and barb wire

  • the brothel for the camp's commanders

  • the human experimentation records where atrocities were committed in the name of "science"

We heard in the video various recollections of liberation day, when the
U.S. forces came in through the front gate. Several freed prisoners
recalled the day with the precision and cold description that can only
be delivered by someone who has faced the demons every night since, and
who has somehow found a place to file it all away and stay sane. Not so
with one of the American servicemen recalling that day. He starts off
calm and then breaks down and cannot stop, describing what the people
looked like, how they continued to bury hundreds per day after the
liberation, because the dying were too weak to eat. Because, as he put
it, we were too late.

We saw it all, but what we saw most were numbers. Numbers of
prisoners from each country. Number of homosexuals. Number of deaths
this month and that month. Numbers of days chalked on a cell wall.
Numbers of bodies buried or cremated at the virtually 24 hour a day
crematorium, where workers were ultimately killed by the Nazi's in an
effort to keep them from ever telling anyone what they had seen. Death
and snow everywhere you looked. Two hundred thousand lives.

I know what you are thinking right about now: that's SOME vacation
for your kids, Jose. But my kids are learning about the world, and
their vision is clear. The visit was devastating to the four of us but
it was necessary. We're back in America now, where the U.S. Congress is
proposing a moratorium on immigration. Although the chance of passing
is very remote, it certainly is an indicator of the thinking and mood
of the American public. And it all uncomfortably ties together in my
head...the proposed immigration moratorium, Mauthausen, the dragging
death of the black man in Texas, the shooting of the unarmed African
man in New York...what does it all mean?

If you ask the sponsors of the Moratorium Act, I can tell you the
catch phrases: "control our borders," "protect American workers,"
"control population growth"...all admirable goals and very real in this
day and age. I'd be a liar if I didn't tell you it bugs me to enter a
store in Miami and realize that no one speaks English...I'm as guilty
of that as the rest. But, as a Hispanic male living in America, I
wonder if there is more to it. I wonder if all of this is, perhaps due
to the fact that America is becoming less "white," like Hitler's
Germany was back then...

If a single thing is memorable from Mauthausen, it's the
documentation of the Nazi's last minute, hysterical efforts to conceal
their atrocities. As the Allied forces were approaching, the gas
chamber was disassembled, documents were forged, bodies were buried en
masse. To me, it says a lot. Despite all of Hitler's propaganda,
despite the Master Race crap, these bastards were ashamed. Instead of
running for their lives, they had to try and cover their bloody tracks,
as absurd as it must have seemed at that time. They didn't want the
world to know what they had done.

Today, once again, we hear about the neo-Nazi movement worldwide,
and we see the tightening of immigration laws in Europe and the U.S.,
and we intellectually discuss the respective economic issues and
impact, trying to come up with "rational" policies. We think there are
too many Nicaraguans in the U.S. but our housekeeper is the exception.
We berate the Mexican migrants who picked the vegetables we buy at the
produce section of Safeway. And, as a nation, we cringe at reading the
statistics that show that the black, Asian, and Hispanic populations
are growing far more rapidly than the "white" population. Why is this
an issue if "all men were created equal?" Why should any of us care --
Hispanic, black, white, or otherwise?

As we sat there that Friday, at the Austrian McDonald's, eating our pommes frites,
drinking Cokes, discussing what we had seen, our family forever
changed.. My cocky 10 year old Alex expressed his appreciation for
America and the freedom we have. My sensitive 7 year old Danny was
hugging me, telling me he loves me...I saw in his eyes he understood
what he had just witnessed. My wife, tough as nails and our family's
glue, said that she would never take our lives for granted again. Me, I
still see the looks in the eyes of the people in the pictures and I
wish I could turn back time. Two hundred thousand lives, dreams, hopes
and prayers...

Seems to me that as we craft the future of our nation, it behooves
us to take a "sobering" look at the past and we must remember: never

Copyright 1999, Jose E. Latour

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

There IS No Such Thing as a "Latino Voter"

If I read one more article analyzing the election results in terms of "Latino Voters"...I'm going to probably finish reading it anyway.  That's because as silly as this hyperinterpretation of what this election has meant to the country, it is still pretty cool to read about the numbers of Hispanics who went out and voted.

And that's another thing:  I don't call myself a "Latino" me that is a West Coast word.  Cuban Americans more often than not call themselves "Hispanic"...but what does it matter?

What DOES matter is that our new government must understand the distinct and contrasting opinions within the Hispanic/Latino communities in the U.S. so that instead of homogenizing a complex group into a tidy demographic bundle, the distinct needs and values of each group are considered.  While immigration is a concern to ALL Hispanics, the concerns vary dramatically:

  • Mexican-Americans want increased visa availability permitting long-separated families to unite; Cuban-Americans want the benefits of the Cuban Adjustment Act to remain in place, while acknowledging the disparity in treatment given to Haitian refugees.

  • Cuban-Americans and many other naturalized citizens who immigrated from South America lead toward more conservative views and are generally more concerned with taxation and foreign policy issues than are their Central American counterparts, who seem to vote more based upon "bread and butter" issues historically advanced by liberal care, education, etc.

Barack Obama did indeed conquer the Hispanic vote, but we must understand that this was not a war but a series of battles to transform constituencies and bring them together.  Mexican-Americans elected him for one set of reasons; Cuban-Americans, many of whom still will not admit they voted for a Democrat, voted for him for different reasons.  (As a Cuban American myself, and as someone who has struggled to eliminate pure party-line thinking from our very indoctrinated pro-Republican community, I must say that I am very proud of how we voted)

As the Barackophobic emails from my brother-in-law and his uber conservative friends slow to a trickle, Hispanic/Latino Americans seem to agree on thing: it was time for a change.

How Free Trade Reform Can Solve the Problem of Illegal Immigration from Mexico: A Modest Proposal

I will begin by stating that as I pleased as I was with
myself for concocting this inspired if long-winded title, I now regret my
decision.  The title might be appropriate
for, say,  a white paper…but not for what
I have to say today.  But I can’t think
of anything more terse or pithy.   So I will continue say what I have to say
without further apology, and if you made it past the ostentatious title,
perhaps you’ll read on.

    Let’s start with a few fundamental facts with which I
believe most of us can agree:

1-     The
various North American trade agreements of the past two decades have contained
specific language relating to immigration as an integral component of free

 2-     While
the spirit of these agreements has consistently invoked the notion of a
fundamental equality between signatories, Canada and the U.S. have received
trade-related immigration benefits which have been denied to Mexico.  For example, U.S.
and Canadian professionals have a painless, no-petition treaty visa process; but
those same professionals from Mexico
have it as tough as any H-1B.

3-     Although
Mexico has at times demanded equal trade-related migratory access for its
nationals, the U.S. and Canada have effectively vetoed this, fearing that the
availability of such access for Mexican would trigger uncontrolled migration to
the detriment of U.S. and Canadian workforces.

Now, this next one you may or may not agree with, but I
believe that:

4-     Human
resources are the single most important shared component of multilateral trade
agreements…yes, people.  Why do I say
this? Because while we can battle with the Mexicans over tomato tariffs or
bicker with the Canadians about pulpwood exports, the one shared trade component of all commodity and service trade
agreements is the workforce upon which production and delivery depend.

Looking at this reality, and looking at the success (albeit
with many continuing struggles) that the European Union has achieved in facilitating
worker mobility between member nations, is it so far fetched to believe that
the one element keeping the proverbial “whole” (i.e., all three partner
nations) from being “greater than the sum of its parts” (i.e., each nation’s
independent trade success without a trade agreement) is an intelligent solution
to market-driven workforce mobility?

My goodness…what a big sentence that was.  Terse and pithy I’m not today.

Even if you accept that forth premise I am proposing, the
issue of the 12+ million illegal immigrants in the U.S. today – the vast
majority of them Mexican – would seem to suggest that in granting Mexico the
same simplified work visa process it has granted Canada, the U.S. would face a
flood of Mexican workers all to eager to displace Americans, right?

Wrong, and here’s why: Mexicans are economic immigrants, and
they come to the U.S.for economic reasons.  Mexicans like Mexico and prefer to live in their magnificent
country, but they come to the U.S.
to make a buck.  And while we can't suddenly fix the Mexican economy to create opportunity for these folks, we must understand how it all ties together: despite the convoluted,
totally distorted U.S.
policies which turn a boatload of Haitians around while welcoming any Cuban
lucky enough to land with dry feet…there
IS a difference between “political” migrants and “economic” migrants
Political migrants are driven from their
homeland and cannot return because of persecution…but economic migrants from
politically stable, free nations go back home…especially if “home” is a cheap
Greyhound ticket ride away.

Mexican workers have been the backbone of the U.S. agricultural economy since the Emancipation Proclamation abolished
slavery.   Like Filipino nurses, IT
professionals from India,
and the enumerated professions which, via NAFTA, permit Canadian professionals
to enter the U.S. swiftly,
Mexican workers have historically come to the U.S. for one reason: to make money to support their families back home.  Come work the season, get the cash, go back home. 
That, in fact, is the underlying logic of the temporary visas which
permit Argentine ski bums to work seasonally in Colorado
ski resorts and U.S.
farms to bring in seasonal agricultural workers for harvest.  They come, they work, they go home.  (When I was a visa officer at the U.S.
Consulate in Juarez, Mexico,
I can’t begin to count the hundreds of wrinkled old men I met who were heading
back to California with their seasonal visas
after six months in their little village deep in Mexico.  Proudly they would speak of their decades of
this rhythm of life, often starting with the bracero program decades ago…it worked and it worked well, for them
as well as for the U.S. farms they returned to loyally year after year.

So here’s my question: 
what makes an campesino tomato
picker any more of a visa security risk than a Canadian RN?  In fact, it is downright weird when you think
about it: despite the lobbying of U.S. healthcare and IT labor organizations, the U.S.
demand for these professions is self evident and so the Canadians can get hired
in the U.S.
and get busy in a matter of days.  When
was the last time you heard of a U.S. farmworkers’ labor union
protesting the arrival of Mexican farm laborers?  Truth be told, there just aren’t a whole
bunch of U.S.
citizen farm laborers these days…unless you count Aunt Betty’s heirloom tomato
garden out back.

So why not do this:

1- Revisit the migratory policies associated with free trade
and give Mexican agricultural laborers –
AND Mexican professionals in the same classes as Canadian professionals – the
ease and speed of treaty visa classification
pursuant to existing trade

2- Utilize the biometric technology that we’ve had for 20+
years (I was stoked about it in 1987, when biometrically-secure border crossing
cards were discussed and abandoned) and the lessons learned form the TWIC
fiasco (the transit worker biometric effort that has cost each U.S. taxpayer
thousands per card issued…don’t get me started on that one) to create a truly secure biometric treaty visa
card which implements the same intraagency and international security crosschecks
via existing DHS and shared international databases,
allowing the movement
of these workers to be dictated by U.S. economic demands, without bureaucracy
impeding the U.S. companies who need time-sensitive labor deployment

3- Take the massive airport DHS workforce and establish a secure U.S. EXIT inspection
– at ports, borders, and airports – to insure that those who come in leave on
as most other nations have been doing for decades.  They clock in at inspection when they arrive
in the U.S.
and they clock out when season/assignment is over and they depart the U.S..  Unlike our current I-94 paper card fiasco which
does nothing to trace those who arrive and never leave, an exit procedure would,  and those who overstay – banker, lawyer, or
farm laborer – would not ONLY be barred from re-entry, but their FAILURE to
leave would notify ICE, and we would actually know who is in our country and
needs to be located.

4- Utilize the
establishment of truly fair trade visa guidelines as an opportunity to
renegotiate some of the more ill-conceived U.S./Mexican tariff rules
which have
unjustly decimated certain agricultural sectors of the U.S. economy.

Nutshell: if Mexican workers can come and go as U.S. employers
need them as can Canadians, they will come, they will work, and they will go
home.  If we establish both entry AND
exit controls via TRUE biometric technologies and enforce strictly overstay
violations, Mexicans, as economic migrants, will comply. 

I’ve spoken to thousands of Mexican workers over the last
twenty years and the fact is that when they overstay, it is because they are
afraid they won’t be able to come back for the next season.  Eliminate that fear and, I believe, we will stem most
illegal migration from Mexico.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Way of the Peaceful Warrior

I am in Mexico,
a little less news-connected than when I’m home, but I’ve read enough in the
past 24 hours to see that those very pundits who were dead wrong over how this
election would pan out are back  at it.  
The theme this time is “he’s not tested”, and Biden’s honest remarks
that the U.S. WILL be tested if Obama is elected are being used in an effort to
start the divisiveness AGAIN.

Here’s the deal, folks: Biden is probably the sharpest
foreign policy cookie in a half-backed city, but he is hardly Nostradamus for
predicting this, as evidenced by the Russian’s party pooping response to Tuesday's world changing events.  Of COURSE Barack Obama will be tested.  The REASON he will be tested is simply
because the formulaic, rote responses of the Bush Administration can no longer be relied upon by the enemies of America…and this new President seems to be considerably better intellectually and emotionally equipped to deliver what all bilateral relationships demand.

Just as the whole Red State/Blue State blather looks today like 3 day old guacamole, so does the fundamentally flawed notion that we can make America better
by fomenting divisiveness.  It’s “checks
and balances”, not “seek and destroy”, and remember: "divided we fall".  So don't buy a blatant attempt to rack up ratings as valid political analysis, because it isn't.

So therein lies the supreme irony: this whole effort to create an “us
and them” mentality, such as the horrific lies fabricated about our President Elect by his opponent's team in the final weeks of the campaign,  fear DOES NOT WORK when people care enough to engage in dialogue.  Why do you think Russians have their Kremlin panties
in a bunch?  They are TERRIFIED because they don't know what to do about Barack Obama...and the global response to his election has just completely thrown their KGB-styled world order out the window. 

Fact: change induces fear in those who rely upon a polarized view of the world for their empowerment.  Eliminate divisiveness and
those who use fear to retain power lose control...and characterizing the past 8
years as demonstration of America’s
“strength” is, well, embarrassing.  The world never had problems with Americans and, except for the various extremist nutcases who hate us, we are loved deeply still today....despite the havoc our nation has recently leveled upon the world.  the Truth be told, diplomacy has been all but nonexistent and the United States has lately been
governed like a steaming warship piloted by
a reckless group of drunken semi-sailors.  The world needs America
to lead it and folks, we have BLOWN it.  But they still believe in us, now more than in a very, very long time.

This is what global strength for America means: it means the ability to
protect a nation, build a homeland consensus, and make the world better through
leadership, vision, and human compassion. 
It means sending out the troops when we have no other choice and when
our sights are clearly on the enemy.  It
means sitting down with other nations and galvanizing support among our partners when nations go
rogue, resulting in the creation of international sanctions which have teeth and actually WORK.  It means using your brain
and integrity, a deeply-rooted desire to make the world a better place because you actually buy into the Constitutional assertion that "all men are created equal".  That is what a strong America looks like.

So don't waste a second analyzing the second guessing of the readiness of our President Elect; don't buy what the fearmongers are selling.  Barack Obama is ready.  He will soon be taking office with a cadre of
the brightest minds and most seasoned experts in America and they will be a loyal and
powerful resource, united in purpose and, yes, full of hope...because they have a Chief Executive who inspires them and who can lead them.  Despite what we've been told these last few years, hope does not equal vulnerability.   Colin Powell and a millions of others of our nation's best minds agree, and even Condy shed a tear or two on Tuesday.

New game, guys.  I will leave you with this, an excerpt from a
forthcoming book called “CONQUERING FEAR: THE HEART OF SHAMBHALA”:

Warrior’s Weapons

“If victory is the notion of no enemy, then the whole
world is a friend. That seems to be the warrior’s philosophy. The true warrior
is not like somebody carrying a sword and looking behind his own shadow, in
case somebody is lurking there. That is the setting-sun warrior’s point of
view, which is an expression of cowardice. The true warrior always has a
weapon, in any case … The definition of warriorship is fearlessness and
gentleness. Those are your weapons…



Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Palin Goes Home

[My readers:  I have edited this original article considerably because after reading it the day after I wrote it, I realized that some of my comments were sarcastic and gloating, and that is not how I wish to express myself.  I have modified the article so that it still expresses my opinion but does not treat Sarah Palin inelegantly.  We've had enough of that and as our President Elect has shown us, the high road is the best road.]

Perhaps this is harsh, but as I listened to Sarah Palin discuss her future plans a moment ago on CNN, I couldn't help but suddenly view Alaska in a different light.  In my life, I've met perhaps four or five Alaskans...without exception they have been very amazing people.   Yet as I come to understand the clear intellectual limitations of this decent  woman, I could only wonder on how McCain's team vetted her and concluded that she'd make a great VP.  The U.S. has SO MANY brilliant women in politics, many Republican, and Ms. Palin was their choice?

I realize that hindsight is 20/20 but, honestly, I just don't get it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Margarita Latour Votes for Change

[I will begin by telling you that I asked for her permission before writing this article, and my mother obliged.]

My mother came to the United States in 1966, via the Cuban Adjustment Act.  She, my father, my Asturian nanny (today 81 and more ornery than ever) and I arrived in the dead of the night at the west terminal of Miami International Airport, among the last of those fortunate enough to benefit from the generosity of the Freedom Flights the U.S. provided to those of us fleeing Castro.

My father died shortly after we arrived in the U.S., and over these past 42 years, Margarita and I have worked to push our lives forward, acutely aware of how blessed we were to be received in America.  As soon as the requisite time had passed, my mother took the U.S. citizenship examination and soon we both were U.S. Citizens…they even made me raise my right hand.

As a Cuban-American, my mother registered as a Republican - it was a given in our community.  She has faithfully voted along party lines for the past 4 decades.  These last years when she has been confined to a wheelchair for road trips, I’ve taken her to vote.  My own views changed over time, particularly as a result of an immigration policy I found to be increasingly inconsistent with the story of our nation; although we spoke of my opinions, I never pushed them upon her.  Besides, I’ve never talked the woman into anything in 48 years, so what was the point?

When I first heard Barack Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention, I was transfixed.  Much has been said about his great speaking style, and that is irrefutable.  But I sensed something deeper…an integrity and concern that reflected my own convictions about the tragic mistakes which have cost our nation so much loss of credibility with both the international community and, far more importantly, our own citizens.  in the months that would follow, I read everything I could about the man and by the time he won the Democratic nomination, I was convinced that Barack Obama was the only possible person who possessed the formidable intellect, unshakeable faith, and personal passion to reunite our nation.  That faith has only been cemented amidst the barrage of false accusations aimed at him, only intensifying in both vulgarity and absurdity in these closing days before the election.  The McCain I have always respected seems to have himself "gone rogue" as far as the decorum and fairness for which he has long been known, and the shrill politicking and travesties launched at Obama are, frankly, embarrassing.  So, to me, there has only been viable one presidential candidate for a long, long time.

But this isn’t about me, it’s about Margarita.

Beginning early summer, my mother started bantering with me about politics and the upcoming election.  Getting her news from Miami’s Cuban American media, she is not generally well-informed about the facts; these guys make Fox come off as the BBC.  But  one topic which has been near and dear to her heart kept coming up in our little political debates…that of Cuba.  Like most Cuban-Americans, old or young, my mother is intelligent enough to understand that the failed policies of the past four decades have done nothing to change Cuba’s regime; but unlike most elderly Cubans (sorry, Bela, you may be a jovenzuela to me but at 86 you’ve earned that moniker you so dislike, hehehe) my mother has the chutzpah to call it as she sees it. 

We discussed the fact that a one-nation embargo, such as what we've had against Cuba for the past 40+ years, is ineffective, and that even as U.S. citizens are not allowed to trade with or even VISIT Cuba, the rest of the world is building and investing on the island.  We talked about the Diaz-Balart brothers and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the dynamic hyphenated trio who have collectively controlled the Cuban-American boat in South Florida for many years...and how nothing had changed to improve things in Cuba or, for that matter, for the Cuban Americans on this side of the Florida Straits worried sick about their elderly relatives on the island.

But change is a scary thing, and scarier if you are embedded in a community which will all too often adhere to vague philosophical phobias versus educating themselves about the details.  (Then again, that is probably an accurate if harsh assessment on many U.S. voters, isn't it?) Being a good Cuban-American immigrant, Margarita did what many disillusioned Cuban-American voters have expressed they intended to do in this critical election: not vote. 

Having always voted and having always been committed to the process, I was upset.  I reasoned with her, reminded her of what she'd always said to me and, eventually, she cracked: she would vote.  So there I was, in all my lobbyist glory, and I had accomplished one thing: another vote for McCain, despite her expression that he was not the best person for the job.

I resigned myself by remember that "every vote counts", and just because I disagreed with her choice, I had done the right thing...the concept of exercising our rights in a democracy trumps any political agenda, and the massive voter turnout in this election is precisely the manifestation of that fundamental truth about America.  Imagine my surprise when, she asked me again WHY she could not go to Cuba one last time to visit her only living semi-sibling, her first cousin – 88 year old Claudina.  I sighed, having gone over this many times, and I explained once again:

“You cannot visit Claudina because George W. Bush changed the rules and Cuban Americans can now only visit their siblings, children, or parents. Claudina is your cousin so I can’t take you there again.”

This time – and only God knows why it was this time – she looked over at me…and I could see she grasped the full meaning of what I'd been telling her for the last few years.  She remembered our prior trip to Havana before the law had changed as well as our prior discussions and it all came together: the Republican President she has faithfully supported despite what she believed to be an unprovoked war and a million other bad decisions for the country was the SAME Republican President who tightened already restrictive travel rules for Cuban-Americans wanting to visit their relatives in Cuba.  She was quiet for a bit and then wanted to discuss that more, and she asked me about Obama, his ideas, and why I believed so much in his vision.  I pointed out that even the famously hard-headed Cuban American National Foundation is completely unhappy with the Republican’s Cuba Policy and had actually written an opinion piece in the Washington Post last week calling for open travel to Cuba.  Before I left, we confirmed a date for last Wednesday so that I could take her to early voting.

The lines were long but with her in a wheelchair, it took us about an hour to get to the polling machine.  She was glad to be there and thanked me for persuading her to vote.  When it was her turn, I began to assist her with the ballot.  With me hunched over her in the wheelchair, we started, and she asked me to explain the language on the long referendum items.  But at the top of the ballot was the choice for President.  She told me to mark "Obama/Biden". I asked her if she was sure, and told her that she needed to vote for herself, not for me, and that I would soon be casting my own vote when I returned to Gainesville. It took us about 15 minutes to get through her ballot but I have to tell you: never in my life have I felt more hope in my heart than when we inserted the ballot into the box and I looked at her and said “YOU DID IT!”…and I got a high five and a big smile.

As we headed back to her assisted living facility, she laid down the one post-vote rule:

If I tell ANYONE that she didn’t vote Republican, she will VERY upset with me.  She did NOT wish to become a pariah amongst her friends and despite the knowledge that she had voted with both her brain and her heart, she was squeamish about sharing that fact.

I laughed and promised I would not but as I was leaving her apartment, I thought about it.  I said this to her (translated from Spanish):

“Mom, today was an extraordinary day for both of us.  You were able to see beyond the status quo and vote with your mind, exercise YOUR opinion in this amazing election.  I, on the other hand, witnessed all these changes in you these past months.  I think we need to share this amazing day with the readers of my blog, because the theme of this election is “HOPE”, and you have restored mine fully today”.

So, with Margarita Latour’s permission, here it is.  PLEASE GO VOTE!!

[Below is a picture of Margarita, a/k/a Bela (for abuela) and me about a year ago]

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