Guest Blog: Winning Hearts and Minds

I am proud to announce a new guest blogger at Standing FIRM. Robert Gittelson will be contributing consistently to the site and I'm excited to be collaborating with him. I feel like I've had less and less time to write as of late, thus I am thrilled to have another voice to add to the work on the site. Also, be sure to check out Robert's quick bio, after the full post.

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Over the course of the past few years, I’ve written many articles on the subject of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. It has been said, that when the facts are on your side, you should argue the facts. I, like many CIR advocates, have done exactly that. I have recognized that much of what the detractors on this issue have been saying about CIR, and the undocumented population in general, has been, for lack of a more delicate way of stating this, factually inaccurate. And, in a sense, I note that the “setting the record straight” method has been working, albeit slowly. Recent polling has suggested, in no uncertain terms, that our citizen population is not only for CIR, but that this majority of voters has been growing. And yet, I sense that this majority is sort of a silent majority.

They are in favor of a better approach to what they sense as a broken immigration system, including a pathway to eventual earned legalization of the undocumented, but they seem, if not exactly reluctant, perhaps somewhat tepid in their support. They understand the logic, but in a “Vulcan” sort of way. They are not emotionally moved.

However, I note that while most of my articles have argued the facts, relating to such issues as taxes, the economy, and national security, it has been the few articles in which  I’ve allowed my emotions to show that have garnered the most attention and feedback. This squares with my practical experiences. When I’ve spoken at, or attended immigration reform events, I’ve seen first hand that there is no substitute for tugging at our collective heartstrings, when it comes to motivating the crowd.

In person, I am somewhat emotionally reserved. I do not tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve. And yet, I do not hide the fact that when I attended Luis Gutierrez’s Familias Unidas event a couple of months ago, the tears were rolling down my cheeks. Actually, they were rolling down everyone’s cheeks. I defy the most hardened restrictionist to sit in a house of worship, listen to the tearful and terrified testimony of fellow citizens – children, mothers, and fathers - being torn apart from their loved ones, and not to be moved. In one of my articles, I wrote, “I believe that it is equally important for us to comprehend as a nation, that which I myself have personally come to understand; it is a moral imperative for us to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Financial concerns show us why we should pass this much needed reform, but compassion, forgiveness, and understanding show us why we must.”

President Obama, to his immense credit, has made the role of “empathy” a part of our national dialogue. Empathy, which is the ability to show or feel understanding, sympathy, and compassion for a fellow human being, is neither a Democratic or Republican emotion, nor does the United States have a monopoly on Empathy. It is a human trait, and in my opinion, a sign of strength, not weakness. However, in a political sense, the ability to comprehend the entirety of an issue, and to metaphorically put oneself in the shoes of another, is what separates the good from the great societies.

It is our national ability to overcome what divides us, and to embrace what unites us, that has been one of our greatest challenges, but also has ultimately lead to our greatest successes. Unfortunately, our ability to grow through and past our divisiveness to ultimately achieve national unity has proven to be an extremely arduous and incremental process. Yet, we do march forward, although often at a snails pace.

In terms of our current civil rights debate, the issue of CIR, I feel that progress is being made, but again, it feels to me like watching a clock. I see the minute hand slowly moving, but the hour hand appears to be standing still, even as logic tells me that it must be slowly but imperceptibly moving forward. Faith and determination have kept me moving forward. I have faith that eventually, my fellow citizens will recognize the truth behind the logical arguments for CIR. I have the determination to keep arguing the facts, because after almost three decades of personal experience with both the problems and the benefits that immigration has engendered upon our nation, I recognize the importance and urgency of righting the wrongs inherent in our immigration system.

However, I also recognize that my personal experience of growing up in the melting pots of New York, and then Los Angeles, of working in the immigrant rich domestic garment manufacturing industry, of traveling around the world many times to visit production facilities in third world countries, and of being married to an immigration attorney, make my personal perspective on the issues surrounding our immigration policies to be more atypical than people who have not shared the same level of interaction with immigrants, and the professional experiences facilitating the push-pull factors inherent in this issue. It is because of this knowledge and experience that I feel called to inform those among us who do not comprehend the complexity of the issues necessitating CIR. At a minimum, I feel that our nation needs to make informed decisions about CIR, so therefore I strive to explain the facts.

Unfortunately, human nature dictates that often, people only hear what they want to hear, so all too often, the arguments presented to the public in favor of CIR fall on, if not deaf ears, perhaps inattentive ears. Therefore, in order for advocates to get their message not only heard, but actually listened to, we must make the public want to listen to us. We can win the battle for the public minds, but first we must win their hearts. It is only through the awakening of the public’s empathy toward the issues surrounding our CIR debate, that we will be able to open the public’s minds to enable them to listen to the logic of our arguments.

I’m a little late to the party on this. Representative Luis Gutierrez got the memo long before most of us deciphered the code. His twenty-one city Familias Unidas Tour was a stroke of political genius. Unfortunately, only a few thousand people were fortunate enough to have been able to attend one of these events. Therefore, my fellow advocates and I must pick up the ball and run with it. We must come together and advocate for empathy on this issue. Certainly this is not an original thought. Many fine and dedicated organizations, from faith based groups to human rights organizations, have been battling to win our hearts on this issue for quite some time, and have been doing remarkable work. I wrote an article a couple of years ago that stated, “it is obvious to me that in addition to new laws, a new tolerance and open-mindedness will be required of our country to aid in the assimilation and equality of our immigrant population.” However, over the past two years, we haven’t done enough to create that new tolerance, and achieved that open-mindedness.

Now we must re-double our efforts. We must build on the work of Representative Gutierrez, and especially the work of our faith based and human rights based organizations. President Obama, who I am convinced does want to pass CIR, has been doing his part of the job. To date, he has worked diligently to build the public trust that our nation has the will and resources in place to uphold the enforcement side of the CIR equation, and that is not to be minimized. However, he has called on us, the CIR advocates, to build a national consensus on the need for CIR. We have been rising to the challenge.

Last week’s Reform Immigration for America conference was, in my opinion, one of the most important steps forward for CIR advocacy since this debate began in earnest a few years ago. Last Friday night, I listened to Bernard Wolfsdorf, the newly installed President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, (AILA), give an impassioned and inspiring speech at their national conference in Las Vegas, calling on the 11,000 member organization to staunchly advocate for the urgent and vital passage of CIR. I sense that the various though often divergent interests that comprise all of the coalition organizations advocating for CIR are making huge strides toward uniting their message on the merits of CIR. Momentum has been steadily building, and is picking up speed. And yet, I caution that we must employ a two-step approach. First we must open and win our nation’s hearts, and then, and only then, can we begin to open and win our nation’s minds on the issue of CIR.

Written by Robert Gittelson

Robert Gittelson has been a long time advocate for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. He has been a garment manufacturer in the Los Angeles area for over twenty-five years. He has also traveled extensively all over the world, working with factories in many third world nations. His wife, Patricia Gittelson, is an immigration attorney, and Robert also works closely with Patricia on the administrative side of her immigration practice. Throughout his career, Mr. Gittelson has developed practical, first-hand experience and professional insight in dealing with the immigration issues that are challenging our country today. Toward that end, he has authored numerous published articles on Comprehensive Immigration Reform, and is a frequent speaker at immigration symposiums and reform events.