Life, Death and Immigration Reform

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

Immigration activists in New York City in May 2010 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images News)

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

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