It was almost as if the man had stepped out of a Van Gogh painting. His clothes were softened by innumerable washings, and his white hair protruded from his ruddy cheeks. How out of place he looked on West 56th Street as affluent executives brushed past him, paying him no more attention than they would a lamppost.
The old man repeated the same phrases in Spanish over and over again: For food. For charity. Please, my children. His hand was barely open, as if, after a lifetime of toil, it pained him to use it for this purpose. I placed a $20 bill in his palm and closed his fingers around it. Neither of us could look the other in the eye. He probably could not look at me because he was embarrassed. I know that I could not look into his eyes because I recognized the injustice of the situation. How can people who are supposed to have equal opportunities live so differently?
It struck me to my very core: my face reddened, my breath quickened, and my stomach filled with butterflies. This feeling had come to me many times before. Each time my adopted brother, Kevin, had been treated unkindly or unfairly, as if he too were a lamppost.
Kevin was born in Bolivia. When my parents brought him home, he was emaciated and sickly from meningitis that he contracted from malnutrition. Today he is a strapping and accomplished young man. Surely I saw the South American man in terms of what might have been for Kevin.
Since its birth, America has been the land of opportunity for countless immigrants around the globe. The success stories are legion as are the travails endured to achieve those successes. Notwithstanding this admirable past, at no time in our history has there been such a dichotomy between rich and poor. The immigrant of today is often the illegal immigrant who is consigned to an existence void of individual rights. A permanent sub-class has arisen to serve the nouveau riche. Its members repair houses, tend gardens, and perform all manner of manual labor. Their compensation is not only below minimum wage but also without the benefit of health and retirement coverage. Coming from countries where the daily or weekly wage is equivalent to one hour of their earnings here, they resolutely endeavor to make a better life.
To be sure, Americans have worked hard and suffered through hardships from the day we declared our independence. Immigrants have always had to work harder and suffer more in order to assimilate. But in an age when medical science has eradicated diseases that once ravaged whole lands, when education is available to all, and when the rule of law extends human rights to every segment of our society, the exploitation of those with different nationalities, races, ethnicities, and religions remains an anomaly.
This should be an age of enlightenment. Never before have so many people been able to communicate with one another. A staggering amount of information is available to an unprecedented number of people. Global commerce is transforming formerly impoverished societies. It is as likely a person will interact with someone half-way around the planet as someone two towns away. Despite the aforementioned achievements, America today is also a place of fear and suspicion.
Those who are different have wrought terror and death in our very midst. The reasons for this enmity are complex, existing on historical, cultural, and national levels beyond individual influence. The results, however, exist on a very human level. Throughout our history, Americans have held themselves to a higher standard in securing the rights of individuals above all else. Elsewhere such rights, and even human life, are cheaply held. We owe it to our heritage not to succumb to fear or exploitation.
Humanity requires that we see beyond differences. Those who look different have the same wants and desires as the majority. Those who worship differently essentially believe in the same universal truths. Someone who speaks with an accent is not unintelligent. Studies of the human genome attest that our similarities are infinitely greater than our differences. The differences that do exist enrich us. The presence of immigrants from every country is proof that America is still the land of opportunity. It is incumbent upon each of us to treat each person, no matter how different from ourselves, as a human being entitled to the dignity, respect, and rights that we as a nation have declared inalienable.
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