Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
SAN DIEGO (CNN) -- Even for someone who has written more than 2,000 columns over the last 20 years, sometimes the words come out wrong.
All I know is that my wife is angry.
"You need to fix this!" she says, as she holds up her smartphone.
On the screen is a copy of my latest column for CNN.com scolding a faction of the DREAMers, the undocumented youth angling for legal status, for what I -- and judging from the response, quite a few other Americans -- see as a sense of entitlement.
"I hated this column," she said. "I know what you were trying to say, because I know you. But other people won't understand it. They're confused and angry, and they should be. I get your point. You're saying that these kids have become entitled and self-important like other kids and they're going to blow it for everyone else -- including their undocumented parents. But that's not what you walk away from this column with. What you walk way with is meanness. And that's not you."
Bah humbug. Sometimes, it is me. As I often tell audiences that gather for my speeches, constantly cheerful and positive writers work for Hallmark.
And yet, I notice that many of my critics on the left who think the tone of the DREAMer piece was harsh didn't object when, in the past, I lashed out in a similar tone against those on the right.
When voters turned out Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, the major sponsor of that state's dreadful immigration law, I wrote that "evil has left the building." When Mitt Romney was overheard telling donors that he'd have a better shot at winning the presidential election if he were Latino, I mocked the Republican candidate for "playing the victim" because he had the "misfortune to be born a white male." In another column, after Romney blamed his defeat on minorities who were hungry for giveaways, I called him a "loser." And, when writing about the intersection of immigration and politics, I have had no trouble saying that the GOP brand is toxic to Latinos because the party has chosen to "pander to racists and nativists."
Every time, conservatives were upset, but -- on Facebook and other social media -- liberals applauded. Could it be that what really troubles people isn't the tone of a particular column but who is being skewered?
Still, as a Mexican immigrant herself, my wife has a point. And so do many of my critics.
In the offending column, I was not trying to describe the individual lives of the estimated 1.4 million undocumented high school and college students in the United States. Everyone is different. I was talking about a movement, a political strategy that involves DREAMers demanding what they see as their "rights" and, in the process, succumbing to a radicalism that is counterproductive and threatens to torpedo immigration reform for millions of others.
Like the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than ... by donning a cap and gown and occupying the office of a member of Congress until you're arrested. Or something like that.
But people didn't hear that message. They drew upon their own frame of reference and, thinking back to DREAMers they know, declared that they were swell folks who were humble and idealistic and didn't feel entitled. So, they said, I must be wrong.
Ironically, some of those who reacted angrily to the column wound up making its point.
One reader, who identified himself as a DREAMer who has lived in the United States for 11 years, insisted that he and his cohort weren't making demands. Then he added: "Speaking for myself ... at this point I am done asking. I demand to be fully incorporated into this society."
Now there's a lack of self-awareness.
Yet, that's also a good trait for columnists, who can always say things better and clearer. So let's try this again. For those undocumented youth who think that America owes them a fulfillment of their dreams, or who -- like the reader -- demand to be fully "incorporated into this society," that first column was for you. And the scolding fits.
But for the rest of you who work hard and obey the law and keep your head down and just want to find a way to live legally in a country you consider your own and where you've lived most of your life, let me first apologize for lumping you together with the demanders. Then let me give you some friendly advice:
-- Think critically. It's not enough to have beliefs. You have to constantly challenge yourselves so you know why you believe it, and can defend it. Because someday, you'll have to do so;
-- Privileges are not rights, and so they are earned and not granted by our creator. If Congress gives you the privilege of legal status, you need to decide what you're prepared to give in return. You need a plan, and a demand is not a plan;
-- Focus on deeds not words, and admit that neither political party has been courageous or honest on immigration. So don't feel beholden to either. Power comes from exercising options. Shop around;
(Last week, the Obama administration released figures showing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement broke its own record for total number of deportations. The agency removed 409,849 illegal immigrants in the 2012 fiscal year, compared to 396,906 in the 2011 fiscal year and 392,000 in the 2010 fiscal year. As most DREAMers would agree, those numbers are nothing to be proud of, especially since they appear to be driven by politics.)
-- Challenge your friends with the same amount of enthusiasm that you challenge your foes. After all, in the world of politics and beyond, those you support owe you something for standing by them. Make sure you collect; and
-- Accept that, while it's true that you did nothing wrong when you were brought here as a child, someone along the line, someone in your family tree broke a law. They crossed a border without permission, or overstayed a visa. Deal with it. Before we can legalize your status, you have to accept the wrong that was done and someone has to make amends for it -- if not you, then the person who broke the rules.
Above all, always try to be better people who strive for fairness, listen to different points of view, and take responsibility for your words and deeds. And I'll do the same.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.
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