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Weaving the fabric of an American story

02/13/2013 9:49 PM

03/14/2013 4:41 PM

If Katsuji Shoji hadn't stowed away on a ship from Japan to the United States early in the last century, my children might not be related to Sam Houston, the U.S. congressman turned Tennessee governor who later led the Texas army to victory over Santa Anna and became first president of the Republic of Texas.

In truth, distant cousin-by-marriage Sam was an immigrant, too.

That's the American reality, a thread in the fabric from which our collective story is woven.

It's an intricate weave, as so many Americans know -- and too many politicians try to ignore.

As best I can pin down, young Mr. Shoji settled in California with his mail-order bride from Japan, Ritsuko.

They were law-abiding farmers in Sacramento and parents of American-born children when the U.S. entered World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which cleared people of Japanese descent from the West Coast, sent the Shoji family, including 6-year-old Mitsuko, to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz.

Released in 1945 after three years in the desert, with their stored belongings gone, they migrated to Missouri, and Katsuji and Ritsuko became U.S. citizens. He was a shrewd investor. Decades before sushi went American mainstream, she was hand-rolling it for the grandchildren their daughter Mitzi eventually had with Glenn Campbell.

Some time after I had moved Geoff -- Mitzi and Glenn's older son -- to Texas with our two children, we learned that genealogy buff Glenn had found that one of his Irish ancestors, Samuel Thompson, had a grandson who married Sam Houston's sister Mary. So, I'm the native Texan, but it's my D.C.-born children who can claim relations to a Texas icon.

Can you see why my views on immigration are influenced more by the complexities of real life than by simplistic stereotypes and rigid rhetoric?

At least two of my own grandparents were brought to the U.S. from Mexico as young children, and they worked exhausting, low-wage jobs such as picking cotton to pay their own way and make a better life for their children and grandchildren.

Where might I be had they been rejected, deported or denied the opportunities they found?

It's distressing that the latest hope for improvement of U.S. immigration laws rests on a scramble for the affections of Latino voters. But imperfect motives need not lead to flawed policies.

It's reasonable to expect that anyone who came illegally should have to earn legal status to stay in this country and shouldn't get all the benefits of citizenship without having paid an appropriate price.

Some of the sentiment against a path to citizenship springs from a sense that people who've broken the law shouldn't get a break. And I get that.

People shouldn't get a free pass to smoke pot or share music they didn't pay for or carry weapons in their purses in places where no guns are allowed. But they do, just as some people sneak over the border seeking a chance and many overstay their visas because they like it here too much to leave.

While we try to deter law-breaking, we have to decide where to devote our enforcement energies and resources.

Do we focus on breaking up families and disrupting lives -- or on stopping drug smugglers, human traffickers, counterfeiters and unscrupulous employers who take advantage of a system that's harder to comply with than to cheat?

"Well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter of our American story," President Barack Obama said to close his State of the Union speech Tuesday.

It's a complicated story, but we can continue to make it a compelling one -- about fairness, respect and possibility.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.


Twitter: @LindaPCampbell

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