Clay Jenkins Is Clay-J, Our Soprano Sax from the Heart

At the risk of repeating myself, every time I see, hear or read Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins speaking about the immigrant kid issue, I'm struck by something dramatically new, almost shocking, in the way he frames the question. He starts from the heart. The heart. We don't get much of that lately, do we?

Couple days ago I was walking through a room and saw him on TV -- can't find my way back to it now to tell you for sure which local channel. I heard him saying something to the effect that these thousands of little souls showing up at the border are children and that no matter what else may be going on or what we may do about it, we must treat them as children, with kindness and love.

What is that? What do you call that stuff? Common decency? Moral responsibility? And why does it ring so clear? In the last several years the voice of the heart has been drowned out by the clamor of hard-edged cynicism, fear and pessimism. The heart has been AWOL.

Hearing it again now reminds us that the heart is our most powerful muscle. Stephen Young had a piece here yesterday about right-wing radio host Glenn Beck being moved to something like compassion by the simple awful plight of these kids. I thought it was a really interesting story, exposing a small window through which people at the far poles of the political spectrum can actually look each other in the eye and agree on this transcendent thing that for want of a better word we'll call decency.

With simple decency as a catalyst, who knows what chemistry of reason and compromise might be possible? In The New York Times today three powerful men from widely divergent places on the spectrum -- casino-owning right-wing fundster Sheldon G. Adelson, progressive billionaire Warren G. ("Please raise my taxes") Buffet and Bill ("I can write a check for World Peace") Gates -- have co-authored an essay insisting that Congress and the president figure out comprehensive immigration reform.

The trio make a music together that is cool-headed and rational but just a little cerebral. If I think of them as the Modern Jazz Quartet, I think they'd have more reach by making it a quintet and adding Clay Jenkins in there as Kenny G. on the soprano sax. Clay J.? Those heart-strings, man. Don't diss 'em.

A guy from Mexico works around at houses in our part of town. Everybody hires him, because he wants to work hard. He and I try to talk in spite of a pretty tough language barrier. He has six kids in Mexico. He hasn't been back in some years because once he leaves the country it's too difficult, expensive and dangerous now for him to get back in to this country across the border.

His young adult son came to visit him for a week on a tourist card. The father wanted me to meet the son. Very handsome, very well-mannered. In my horrible Spanish I told the son that his father is a strong man, an intelligent man and a good man. The son looked perplexed. I heard the father translate my Spanish into Spanish: "He's trying to tell you that I am a good worker."

The father told me later that his son came to Texas to tell him that he is now able to pay for the remaining two years of nursing school in Mexico by himself, that he no longer needs his father to pay his tuition and that the family wants him to come home. The father told the son he is proud of him and proud also to hear things had improved that much in Mexico. But he said the young man's younger sister is also smart, that she, too, is capable of being an estudiante. He cannot return to Mexico or see his family again for many years, he told his son, until his sister has finished her education.

I have given him rides home. He shares a one-bedroom apartment with two other men in a rat-infested building with no air conditioning, a short distance from my home. I have been re-reading Dickens lately. Nothing in Dickens' description of mid-19th century London slums comes close to the sheer squalor of that building near my own home in Dallas. I would write about it, but that would only make this man's life harder than it is already.

I think Clay Jenkins' heartfelt speech on this issue connects directly with a deep pain we all carry in our own hearts. I'm not telling you I have the answer. The three billionaires are right: There are answers out there if we only put our heads together. But Jenkins is right, too. It starts in the heart.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze