Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An immigrant's hard but unsurprising choice

Illegal immigrants get a lot of bad press, especially in Arizona, as though all of them are criminals and terrorists. I guess it's easy to demonize the "other" when you feel threatened by him or her.

So, I thought this worthy of its own post. I've known a lot of illegals since moving here. Most of them are good, hard-working people who risked everything for a chance at a better life. To which many will say, "Who cares?" I know I'm in the minority on this, even among my liberal friends.

This story ran in every paper in the state I think, but this article comes from the Arizona Republic, a paper only slightly to the right of the Washington Times.

An immigrant's hard but unsurprising choice

It was around dusk on Thanksgiving Day when a lone man, trudging through the rugged Arizona desert, reached a crossroads.

Help a child or help himself.

The decision he made that night says a lot about Jesus Manuel Cordova and where he came from and who he is. He made a choice that I'd like to think most of us would make.
Which, at a time when illegal-alien bashing has become a national sport, is precisely the point.

Dawn Alice Tomko and her 9-year-old son, Christopher Buztheitner, were camping near Peña Blanca Lake, 60 miles southwest of Tucson. It's not known why they were so far from their home in Rimrock. Christopher's stepfather had died two months earlier. Maybe they were looking for a new Thanksgiving tradition.

Anyway, they were traveling down a narrow dirt road, about 12 miles north of the border, when disaster struck. Tomko drove over a cliff, plunging 100 feet into a canyon. Christopher crawled out of the van but his mother was pinned and badly hurt. So he went for help.

Cordova, 26, of Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, was headed north when he encountered the boy, lost and scared and alone but for his two dogs.

He could have walked on. He had, after all, broken the law to get here, which makes him a callous criminal in the minds of many. He could have walked on. The boy spoke no Spanish and he spoke no English. But the language of desperation is easily understood and so he went with the boy and was there when his mother died.

Cordova stayed with Christopher that night, building a fire and sharing his jacket with the child who had on only a T-shirt and shorts. He stayed with the boy the next morning, when hunters found them and called for help.

He stayed though he must have known the consequences, and he saved that boy.

"He was not going to leave this little boy alone," Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada told me. "He apparently is a father of children so he understood what it would mean to be there. He obviously made a tremendous sacrifice."

As the child was airlifted to Tucson, his rescuer was escorted back across the border.

Had he been allowed to stay, he likely would have found himself in hostile territory. The FBI last week released its annual statistics, which showed a jump in hate crimes targeting Hispanics. In 2006, nearly 63 percent of crime motivated by ethnicity or national origin was aimed at Hispanics. That's up from 51 percent in 2004.

John Trasviña, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, attributes the jump to right-wing radio and the Internet, where illegal immigrants are grouped with the devil, Genghis Khan and Jack the Ripper. There are those who deserve that company. The dirt bag who shot Phoenix Officer Nick Erfle comes to mind.

But it's not even close to the real picture.

In fact, Jesus Cordova is probably nobody special. Just a guy like millions of others, fleeing a country that has failed him, one who stopped despite the consequences to his own family.

"I am not surprised at all," said Isabel Garcia, a Tucson lawyer and co-chair of Derechos Humanos, an advocacy group. "Those that really have believed the hype that immigrants are just here to cause havoc may be surprised, but those of us who have been working on this for over 30 years are not surprised at all."

I don't know if anything should be done for Cordova. He did what any human being should do. Maybe what we can do in appreciation is to reclaim the debate that has been taken over by the extremes, those who would have you believe that every person here illegally is out to rob us and cheat us and steal our country.

Most of us just want to fix the border and be fair to those already here, the vast majority who haven't caused problems. People like Cordova.

Of course, the cynics will say, what's the big deal? The guy was probably back in Arizona by the weekend. To which I say:

I hope so.

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