Immigration continues to be a hot button issue everywhere in the country, even here in the mostly insulated Midwest. We're not engulfed in the controversy over building a wall along the Mexican border, as Americans in the Southwest are, but we're not untouched either.
As this week's cover story points out, the number of Hispanic people living in Greater Cincinnati has increased 48 percent since 2000. Many of the immigrants are legal, some are illegal and all are trying to acclimate themselves to life in a foreign country with a new language and different customs.
In Fairfield, Hamilton and other parts of southern Butler County — an area of concentrated Hispanic immigration in recent years — newcomers face an additional hurdle to becoming acclimated: police crackdowns. Sheriff Richard Jones, the subject of Kevin Osborne's story, has become a national media darling among the anti-immigration camp for his aggressive pursuit of "illegals."
The immigration argument falls to two extremes: deporting all illegal immigrants now in the U.S. and keeping out future illegals by walling off the U.S./Mexico border vs. granting legal status to all current immigrants and loosening the immigration process. Most Americans — and the ultimate solution to the problem — are somewhere in the middle.
A year ago immigration seemed like it would be a key issue in the presidential election, and in the early primaries candidates battled over who'd be the "toughest" on illegal immigrants. With the economy tanking and war dragging on in Iraq, voters' attention has turned elsewhere.
Still, on the ground in places like Hamilton, immigration continues to be a thorny issue. There remains a wide gap between the letter of the law, from which Jones draws his inspiration, and how his deputies enforce the law, which Hispanics say leads to intimidation, fear and racial profiling.
When immigrants are afraid of being rounded up by the authorities, they tend to avoid seeking out the police even when they need help. The fear feeds a vicious cycle of secrecy and distrust that further separates the Hispanic community from their new community.
Many Cincinnatians (and people across the country) agree with Jones. To those who blame immigrants for taking away jobs, increasing crime and generally messing up the American way of life, he has the right answer: zero tolerance.
Other Americans, especially the millions of us who grew up in immigrant homes, embrace the idea that this country welcomes newcomers and celebrates diversity, openness and tolerance.
We have to hope that Cincinnati will remain open to the potential and possibilities that immigrants bring with them. The League of United Latin American Citizens recently announced it was holding its national convention here in 2011 — another sign (on top of the successful NAACP convention) that the city can be welcoming to outsiders.
Perhaps that welcoming feeling will extend up to Fairfield, Hamilton and beyond.