2013-02-02 10:45:00

Life, Death and Immigration Reform

A family member's cancer bout made this writer see how border wars divert attention from larger issues.

(The Root) -- The man who tried to save my young cousin's life was born in Mexico. At age 19 he hopped the fence into the U.S. and worked as a farm laborer, then loaded railway cars with sulfur and fish lard, going to community college at night. A few years later, he was a student at Harvard Medical School. Two and a half decades later, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa is one of the top neurosurgeons in America.

I found these details in a New York Times piece only after I had turned to Dr. Q, as many patients call him, for help. My cousin's teen daughter had been diagnosed with a pontine glioma, an aggressive brain stem tumor. Many doctors called it inoperable. But Quiñones-Hinojosa and his colleague at Johns Hopkins, Dr. George Jallo, offered hope.

Well, Danielle Hudson passed away about two weeks ago, leaving her parents and two sisters, along with our close-knit extended family, heartbroken. But that's not an indictment of her care. Quite the contrary.

Without these surgeons' intervention, I doubt Danielle would have seen her 15th birthday or gotten to see another Christmas. She was whip smart and funny until the end. Just days before she passed away, she was asked if she was willing to use an eye patch to correct vision distorted by the tumor. Her reply: "Arrr, yes, matey!"

The death of someone so young makes it hard to think about much else. But after the first waves of shock passed through me (and more still come every day), I returned to the story of Quiñones-Hinojosa. He embodies the American dream, with a twist. He came to the country as someone we didn't want, and then he fought his way through school and began saving lives.

The good doctor's story sticks with me as our nation prepares for the political battles of President Obama's second term. One of the first on the docket is immigration reform, which he explained this week includes a comprehensive plan that features three main points: better law enforcement, avenues for citizenship for the current undocumented population and modernizing the legal immigration system.

The president's blueprint came right after a bipartisan group of senators offered their own proposal. No doubt the fight will be impassioned and quite likely, at some point, utterly hysterical. (There are signs there will be a fissure within the GOP, however, given Jeb Bush's prominent endorsement of immigration reform.)

My years as a reporter have taken me back to the border several times, a border now covered in part by billions of dollars of fencing that has shifted the routes of entry but not stopped people from crossing. As Sheriff Antonio Estrada of Nogales, Ariz., put it in a radio documentary I hosted: "When people say, and some of the politicians say, 'There will be no immigration reform until we secure the border' -- there is no such thing as a secure border. The border will always be porous." Undocumented immigration, he continued, "follows a path of employment and demand."

There are many wiser people who can make a point-by-point case for immigration reform. My thoughts are simpler and perhaps more selfish. What if we stopped denying that reform was necessary, stopped spending money on what doesn't work and spent that money saving lives?

Federal funding for the National Cancer Institute has been flat for several years, getting a temporary bump from some of the stimulus money. This is a vital and exciting time in cancer research, as a recent study mapping four different classes of breast cancer shows. Wouldn't it be a good time for us to step up our investment?

But we're so busy bickering.

Perhaps I have the order of business reversed. Maybe picking a big goal first would help end our political gladiator culture. Political compromise can feel like death by paper cut unless there is a bigger vision, something you are compromising on to achieve.

To make room for truly epic battles -- curing cancer only one among them -- we must tackle issues like immigration reform with a solutions-minded approach. I think of Danielle, a girl who gave her all to this world until the end. And I think of the long journey that Dr. Q took to become the man he is, a man who tried to save her.

Theirs are two American stories in one nation, a country that has to stop feuding and start dreaming big again.

Farai Chideya is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Institute for Journalism. She is the author of four books and blogs at farai.com.

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