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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Addressing emotions about immigration key to solving the problem

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 21 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

Carmen Cabral and Camille Ibanez hold signs and protest HB497, Utah's immigration enforcement law, outside of the Frank E. Moss Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Friday Friday, February 17, 2012.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

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Immigration. We can’t ignore it. Just seeing or even just imagining the word irritates many and starts the juices flowing. It brings out strong emotional reactions in most of us.

Let’s quit pretending to be rational; throw off the shackles of facts. Abandon any logic and just deal with the gut. Forget any illusion that politics is facts-based and reasonable. It is subconscious. It is passion. These inborn reactions are in turn a product of our temperament, the biological hardwiring of how our brains regulate our physical energy.

We interpret what sensations we take in and react to the impulses. That interpretation and corresponding reaction are influenced by how we were reared. Our interpretations mold our responses to social tensions such as immigration. Our politics are predictable by our openness to newness.

Let’s do an experiment. Let the words, thoughts and images just run in your mind; free-associate starting with the word "immigration."

What associations resulted from your thinking? The following is my list; everyone's lists will be different, based on their personal experiences.

Legal, illegal, Ellis Island, Sonora desert, Mexican, Eastern European, Irish, Native Americans, coyotes, slaves, anger, boxcars, Revolutionary War, Baron Fredrick Wilhelm von Steuben, worker permits, visa, bigotry, Utah Compact, millions, congressional ineptness, bureaucracy, politics, prejudice, racism, Cuba, Mariel Boat lift, poverty, better life, invasion, si continuar en Espanol marque dos, ghettos, citizenship, Chinese, transcontinental railroad, cheap labor, Japanese gardens, land of opportunity, Topaz, internment, obey, honor and sustain the law, Nisei, World War II, decorated heroes, 442nd Combat Team, Constitution, MS St. Louis, graduate students, high-tech, burritos, salsa, Thai cuisine, American Dream, No Nothing Party, "West Side Story," gangs, cab drivers, Islanders, haka, rugby, freedom, liberty, family, riches, fences, Minute Men, social services, drug cartels, law and order, green card, deportation, Homeland Security, ICE, Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, sweat shops, Hasidic Jews, Cramer instead of Kraemer, farm labor, lawn care, construction jobs, atomic bomb, Edward Teller, Apollo Project, Wernher Von Braun, Mayflower, pilgrims, pioneers, Mormons, Zion, amnesty.

This is exhausting. The list is not. This just brushes the surface of the pressure points. Where did you go?

Our mental gyrations represent the collisions of political philosophy or outright physical battles. Riots, lynchings and assortment of violence have sadly been part of our American history of immigration.

The point of this exercise is to remind us all that emotions are the challenge, and they are very personal. Immigration is merely the subject, but our anger, fear or sense of moral indignation is the medium. Issues are merely inserted and removed into our consciousness from time to time based on the moment and the passion.

The problem with arguing against fear-driven passion or the unwillingness to try new ideas is that anxiety is a powerful anticipatory condition. Therefore, there is a nervousness of “this could happen” scenarios. Humans dealing with the unknown generate the worst cases in their minds in order to prepare defenses. We mentally retrieve emotional histories to support our view of the future. It is safer that way.

Consequently, in the debate surrounding immigration there will always be questions that can’t be answered, preconceived notions that logic alone will not budge. Therefore, individuals must come together to share their lists of feelings. From your list I can surely add to mine, and from ours others can exchange to increase the collective understanding.

How do we calm the fires and bring some solution to this vexing problem? Logic and reason do not always dissuade the excitable half of the brain. Yet, unless everyone participates in a national group hug, worries will continue unchanged. What needs to happen first is the realization that everyone has a list. These collections of thoughts carry feelings. Individual acceptance commences the reassurance necessary to ignite trust. First calm the angry passion. Then solve the problem.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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