By Drew Westen, HuffingtonPost.com
Posted on July 10, 2007, Printed on July 10, 2007
I met him many years ago, but I've never forgotten our brief encounter.
He was a taxi driver, with an unmistakable Russian accent. In his prior
life, he was an engineer, but now he was working double shifts in a cab so
his kids could know in America what he could only dream of for himself --
both in what was then the Soviet Union and in his new homeland. He was a
strong, kind, gentle man, with a sharp intellect and a good sense of humor.
As we talked, the same words repeatedly came to my mind: "There but for
the grace of God go I." Truth be told, he and I were more similar than we
Sure, I was a professor and he was a taxi driver. I was a native-born
American; he was a struggling immigrant. And I had experienced firsthand the
opportunity we call the American Dream, whereas he held only a promissory
note. My parents were first-generation college graduates, and my dad had
become disabled when I was a child. So I knew what it meant to work hard for
everything I had (which wasn't much as professor, at least financially, but
a lot more than a rusting cab). No amount of rationalization, however, could
shield me from the recognition that the only reason he was driving me home
from the airport rather than the other way around was that my
great-grandparents, Russian Jews like his, had the courage and good fortune
to find their way to Ellis Island at the beginning of the last century. They
were able to do for the great-grandchild they never met what I hope, as I
picture him now, he will see with his own eyes for his children.
I gave him a twenty-dollar tip on a twenty-dollar fare. He looked at the
crisp twenty with surprise, but somehow I think he knew it reflected neither
ostentation nor charity. I felt a kinship with him. He could easily have
been my friend, even though we had been separated by a century of history. I
took his card and suggested we get together. I meant it, and looked forward
to meeting his family.
I can't say for sure why his card stayed on my desk for months before it
finally seemed that too much time had elapsed to dial his number. Maybe it's
the same reason so many people's cards have sat on my desk over the years
who I genuinely wanted to know better. There are only so many hours in the
day. Or maybe it was our differentness, his life in a Russian enclave with
people whose words I would have trouble understanding around the dinner
table. Or maybe it was just the opposite -- our similarity, and the feeling
I couldn't escape, that the difference in our circumstances wasn't fair.
From what I understand about the mind -- and about my own mind -- I suspect
it was all of the above, although I was scarcely conscious of any of it.
This is the story of immigration. This is the story of America. This
should have been the story of immigration reform in America.
I wish I had taken the time to pick up the phone. And I wish our leaders
had taken the time to lead.
We didn't have to go far to find the right words. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson
invoked the faces of poor Mexican-American children to move the Congress and
a divided nation to enact civil rights legislation with teeth the week after
Bloody Sunday in Selma Alabama. We don't often think of Johnson as a great
president, because he couldn't extricate either himself or our soldiers from
Vietnam, but when it came time to extricate our nation from a centuries-old
legacy of prejudice and oppression, he knew how to lead. Listen, as you play
the video below that accompanies this piece, to what a real leader sounds
like, one who understands how readily the sense of differentness to which we
are all prone when a person's skin color is different from ours or whose
language is foreign to our ears elides into prejudice, hatred, or contempt.
Throughout the debate on immigration, polls have shown that most
Americans are not the raging xenophobes leaders on both sides of the aisle
feared and many on the right courted and ignited. Most Americans just want
an alternative story to "amnesty for dark-skinned lawbreakers who steal our
jobs and want to say the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish." They want a
narrative that has the ring of truth -- but comprehensive truth about
To be compelling, and to defuse the morality tale on immigration of the
right and righteous, our story needs to begin with the most important truth,
for which we needed no reminder this week from London and Glasgow, that the
protection of our borders and safety is the first task of government. It
then needs to steal the thunder from the right that readily reverberates
through the middle by adding to the incantation, "If they're going to live
in our country, they need to learn to speak our language," the simple,
progressive, and quintessentially American phrase, "because if they don't,
their children will never know the American Dream, and we will have done
nothing for them but to relegate them to second-class citizenship."
And it should remind those of us who can sometimes be moved to hatred or
callousness when it is intermingled with the language of terror or
prejudice, but whose better angels will heed our call if only we summon
them, that we were all once strangers in a strange land, and that when we
look in the face of an immigrant who wants nothing more than to work hard
for a better life for his or her children, we are looking in the mirror.
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory
University and founder of Westen Strategies. He is the author of "The
Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,"
which was released this week by PublicAffairs Books