America has always had a split personality when it comes to immigration. On the one hand we have Emma Lazurus’ soaring verses on the base of the Statue of Liberty, both words and hands beckoning to those “yearning to be free.”
Yet we have to admit what we spawned when we passed legislation like the anti-immigrant Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Immigration has sometimes brought out the worst in us, but it can also yield new faces to join the best of us.
For the last few years I’ve been spending part of the year in the Southwest, which is where I attended the funeral of one of those new faces, at the enormous Pan Am Center in Las Cruces.
José Ismael Chavez, a Mexican immigrant was 33 years old when he was gunned down while performing a routine traffic stop. His alleged assailant was Jesse Hanes, a murderer fleeing justice in Ohio. José had been a police officer in the little town of Hatch, New Mexico, for just two years.
Born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, José immigrated to America as a young man, with his mother. He became a U.S. citizen in 2011.
The first thing this young Mexican immigrant did was complete his GED – his high school equivalency diploma. He worked hard and set himself the goal of becoming a police officer. He enrolled in Dona Ana Community College and he earned himself a place on the Dean’s list, and from the college went on to a police academy. He then applied for a position as a police officer in Hatch, a small farming community of 1600 along the Rio Grande.
Hatch police chief Jim Gimler described José as a young man of character and hard work. He didn’t hesitate to call him a “hero.” And his colleagues recalled that he had a knack for catching stray animals – a perennial New Mexico problem – without stressing them. As to José’s claim to being very fit, his friends said with a laugh that it wasn’t so much that he was so fit, as that he wore shirts two sizes too small!
A long line of police cruisers followed the hearse to the funeral. Thousands of ordinary folks, myself included, signed the guest book for this young Mexican immigrant. And especially as a Vermonter from the other side of America, I was proud to claim José Ismael Chavez as one of our own.