The first thing I noticed about Juan when I met him is his presence. For a young man, just graduated from high school - that period when most of us were shy and awkward at best - Juan is confident and vocal, the kind of person with clear potential to be a leader in whatever field he might choose.
The second thing you notice about Juan is the sadness in his eyes. His country, the only home he has ever known, decided his potential is irrelevant - that no amount of talent and passion and vision and drive could ever overcome the fact that he and his family once crossed our nation's borders without permission. It's as though Juan the person doesn't exist without Juan the paperwork. In our country, he's treated as a number - one to be reduced or feared.
Fear is one of the dominant motivating and manipulating forces in politics today. Some have tried to convince us that we should be afraid of immigrants, exploiting our fear about our jobs, health care and the economy, while pointing fingers at immigrants and saying they're the cause of our problems. These are problems that have existed for years, deep flaws in the distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society, and undocumented immigrants are just the latest scapegoats. Fear is used to distract us while the real problems only grow.
The other motivating force is usually pity. But that's not the answer either. Pity is equal parts compassion and isolation - a sort-of thank goodness that it's not me in his shoes. Pitying Juan would rob him of his dignity and power - and absolve ourselves of responsibility.
What else, then? The most mutually respectful of emotions, where your fate is entwined with another's, where you could never be truly safe if they are in danger, truly free if they are imprisoned, truly happy if they are unhappy - we call that love. I don't just mean romantic love. I mean the moral, even spiritual love - a deep feeling of connection to other human beings, that their struggles are our struggles, their pain our pain, and that no one person's happiness or security or hopes for the future can be rightly put above any one else's. Just as the interests of billionaires should not be put ahead of people who are starving or losing their homes, one person's claim on the American dream should not be put above anyone else's by simple virtue of the geography of birth.
At what point did we close the borders on the American dream? The ideal of America has never been perfect in practice - our present is still stained by a past of Native American extermination, slavery and sexism. Yet we have always marched toward inclusion, sometimes slowly, sometimes begrudgingly, but always bending the arc of our nation toward justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed. When did the arc start flattening out? Did we decide we've dished out just enough love and justice or that there's not enough to go around? In a nation founded on the idea that freedom and equality and opportunity are renewable resources and the more the merrier, have we achieved "peak love" and tapped out?
The writer CS Lewis wrote, "We love to know that we are not alone." And we are not alone. And as a nation, we are blessed by the bounty of generation upon generation of immigrants who have come to our borders and our shores to make a better life for themselves and, in so doing, make a better country for us all. It is the nation that, despite its hiccups and growing pains on the path to justice, is one that we should be proud to love.
And Juan, like millions waiting at the gates of the American dream, loves his country and asks for our love in return.
Sally Kohn is a senior campaign strategist for the Center for Community Change.