Vai's View: A legal immigrant's take on immigration

Published: Monday, Jan. 31 2011 6:00 p.m. MST

Vai Sikahema's passport, taken when he immigrated from Tonga as a boy, is the oldest photo he has of himself. (Provided by Vai Sikahema) Vai Sikahema's passport, taken when he immigrated from Tonga as a boy, is the oldest photo he has of himself. (Provided by Vai Sikahema)

I've followed the immigration debate with great interest for the same reasons it interests everyone else. But also because my family immigrated and settled in Arizona, the epicenter of the debate. Moreover, I'm a devout Latter-day Saint and am intrigued with the way the issue seems to divide perfectly good members of the Church.

I don't necessarily have solutions, just observations and personal insight.

The issue is complex and I certainly understand the reasons for the hostility and rancor. Still, I'm impressed with those who are measured in their approach and resist the urge for vitriol and hate. I recognize many of the factors that contribute to this boiling cauldron: the apparent disregard for the rule of law which governs our country, perhaps growing frustration with the economy and job market, fear — imagined and real — not to mention our government's disinterest in controlling the problem. Yes, perhaps in some cases, there may even be a little bit of racism.

As I've watched and followed the issues of immigration over the years, I've formed my own opinions. It may be easy to think that because of my background, that I am an open border sympathizer, ignoring the enormous costs on society. Although I tend to be a "black-and-white" kind of guy, I do find myself conflicted in certain situations because there are "gray" areas.

My drive to work in Philadelphia takes me past Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell everyday. As I do, I always marvel at the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. I'm hardly an expert, but I appreciate that they recognized the fledgling republic they were constructing required a moral people who would abide by the rule of law, if it was to survive and succeed. They expected it of themselves, of us and anyone who came here.

It occurred to me that as an immigrant family, we have the luxury of 40 years of experience living in our adopted country, successfully assimilated, having reaped all the promises America offers the "tired...poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

Our immigration took three and a half years. My parents came to America on student visas to study at Church College of Hawaii (now BYU-Hawaii), spent a year in school while working at the Polynesian Cultural Center before saving enough to send for me. Not long after I arrived, we moved to Arizona where another two and a half years passed before my siblings joined us.

It was in Arizona where we applied for resident alien cards or as it's more commonly known, green cards. The process was long and arduous, especially while we were separated from my younger siblings. I remember going with my parents to Phoenix for several meetings with the Immigration & Naturalization Service. In one of those meetings, my parents were summoned into an INS agent's office while I sat unattended in the waiting room.

When they emerged a couple of hours later, my mother was crying and my dad looked defeated. Mom was ready to return to Tonga to be reunited with her children, but my father insisted on waiting for my siblings' visas all the while working on extending our own.

As children, we were left in Tonga with our maternal grandparents when I was six, my sister was three and brother two. I was now nine and didn't appreciate my mother's heartache and separation anxiety because my siblings were now six and five. Our separation, though voluntary, was excruciating and even now as adults we continue to deal with the effects of it.

Times have changed since those days when I think it was a little easier to get a green card and citizenship. Since our immigration, millions have flooded into the country through Arizona's southern border. Partly because my parents followed the proper procedures, filing for extensions on their expiring visas, paying fees, answering a barrage of questions from INS agents over a two-year period and my own understanding of our system of government, I'm a rule of law proponent.

Arizona's controversial legislation, S.B. 1070, I believe, was borne out of the state's frustration with the fed's failure to stem the steady flow of illegal immigrants pouring in through Nogales and other southern border towns.

I can't see how we can effectively deal with the immigration problem without sealing our borders. We have 60,000 troops in Germany and 10,000 in England — is it possible the Germans and Brits can deal with their own security issues and allow some of our military personnel to return and help with our own? Why not send more than the 1,200 National Guard troops President Obama committed to Arizona in response to S.B. 1070? What about Texas, New Mexico and southern California?

As for the estimated 11 million already here illegally, it would be impossible to round everyone up and return them home. Certainly, the criminals ought to be. As for a systematic, orderly way of dealing with the rest, that's often debated but I'll defer to those who are smarter. The recently proposed Utah Compact seems a sound and reasonable guide to do just that. It is broad, giving wide berth to law makers as they consider how to best accomplish such a feat.

As for how we deal with it as individuals, I suppose that depends on our life's experience, our level of compassion, tolerance or intolerance and sense of right and wrong.

My parents still live in Mesa, Ariz., in the same little home where they raised us. They suspected a former neighbor of being a "coyote" because a 15 passenger van came and went all night — typically arriving in the wee hours filled with mostly men but on occasion some women. My dad was usually arriving from his late-night shift as the neighbor's van was pulling in with its human cargo. They alerted police and it wasn't long before they had new neighbors.

I don't have "coyote" neighbors. However, there are four Spanish units of the LDS Church in our stake — a full ward and three branches. Some of them are illegal — they're mostly from Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Some are migrant workers — here just for the summer picking tomatoes and blueberries. Others simply do what they can to get by.

While I personally disagree with their illegal status, I do empathize with their plight. This, despite the fact I pay the highest car insurance premium rates in the nation as a New Jersey resident partly because of uninsured drivers, many of them undocumented.

Admittedly, some of my sympathies stem from the direction I get from the LDS Church. I make no apologies for that. I also realize the Church does not appear to engage in specific policy or legislative initiatives on this issue. But they have encouraged civility and decency in dealing with immigration. My family has been well served by following Church counsel.

You see, when my mother was a teenager in the 1950's, the Church's emphasis on Family Home Evening reached her family living in Tonga, who faithfully obeyed. If life in the '50s was idyllic in America, it was even more so in the South Pacific.

Yet, some openly questioned, even in far away Tonga, why so much emphasis on family unity and even Church President David O. McKay's famous quote, "No success can compensate for failure in the home," at a time when the world was relatively tranquil and at peace.

A decade later, our immigration to America brought us directly into the crosshairs of a country heading into a sexual revolution and a drug culture that fractured families and continues to do so today.

So, whatever my personal feelings are about immigration reform, it will always be tempered and shaped by the same Church that guided us safely through the perils of one of the most turbulent eras in our history.

Vai Sikahema is the Sports Director and Anchor for NBC10 Philadelphia and host of the "Vai & Gonzo Show" on ESPN Philadelphia Radio. He is a two-time All-Pro, two-time Emmy Award winner and was a member of BYU's 1984 National Championship team.

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