On immigration, we can’t handle the truth | PostIndependent.com

On immigration, we can’t handle the truth

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People tend to say they want straight-talking politicians — then get upset when straight talk actually occurs.

Take the case of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has been tap-dancing across the world’s stage this summer trying to hold the eurozone together in the face of a massive Greek default, while also dealing with the issue that seems to be roiling every well-to-do-country in the world: illegal immigration.

During a televised public youth forum a few weeks ago, a 14-year-old Palestinian girl living in Germany illegally pleaded her case to the chancellor, saying, in fluent German, that her father can’t work because her family doesn’t have a permanent residence permit and that she wants to feel secure, enjoy her teen years and go to college in Germany.

A U.S. president in this same position might have promised this inspiring, empathetic young woman a positive outcome or at least a special case review or other exceptional treatment while mugging for the camera to show (a) how his or her party is tops on the issue or (b) that the monstrous opposition is fully to blame for this innocent child’s suffering.

Instead, Merkel gave the girl, who goes by Reem, an unequivocally truthful and empathetic answer that would be unthinkable in our country. She complimented the girl on her willingness to advocate for herself and her family and said, “Politics is hard sometimes. … When you are standing in front of me, you are a very likable person … but … there are thousands and thousands more in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. And if we say, ‘You can all come here, you can all come over from Africa,’ we can’t cope with that.”

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This resulted in waves of vitriol from around the globe, with accusations that Merkel is a coldhearted hard-liner. But all she did was tell the truth.

To put this in context, Germany has been at the forefront of taking in large numbers of asylum immigrants from some of the most devastated countries in Africa and the Middle East for years — it receives more than twice as many asylum applications as any other country in the European Union.

Germany is not engaged in a national conversation about how to get rid of migrants, but rather one about how to best integrate them across all of Germany, how to fund their assimilation, and how to determine who gets to stay in the country permanently.

That a country about one-fourth the size of the United States in population cannot take in every needy immigrant is self-evident. But Merkel got hit hard in the media for not sugar-coating reality.

Who declined to join the whining that the chancellor was mean, heartless or cold?

That would be Reem, the young woman who brought up the issue to begin with.

The BBC quoted the girl: “[Mrs. Merkel] reacted like a politician. At least she gave an honest opinion. … In a way, she was right. Migration is a difficult topic. She is not the person who can make that decision in front of all the cameras and the people.” Reem also told the German tabloid Bild, “It would have made me feel even more sick if she hadn’t been honest,” she said. “I like honest people like Mrs. Merkel.”

It’s a sorry day when someone whose future hangs in the balance can teach us about the power of being treated with honesty and realism, even as those without a highly personal stake in the issue sling mud whenever they hear anything they don’t like.

Illegal immigration and the receipt of political, economic or war refugees are difficult topics that involve money, cultural confrontation and, inevitably, limits.

Though everyone knows this, those limits are almost always left unspoken in order to keep the peace, to keep talks going, to push toward consensus.

In a recent editorial that condemned using the death of Kate Steinle by an illegal immigrant in San Francisco to foment hatred against all immigrants, The New York Times said this country needs a serious solution that “gives deserving immigrants a foothold in this country and makes it easier to uncover those who come here to do harm.”

Typically left unspecified in such declarations is the delineation between “deserving” and “undeserving.” And there’s usually rancor toward those who are willing to confront these details. This knee-jerk reaction stifles dialogue by punishing those who dare to speak openly about things we’d rather leave unsaid.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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