Immigration Reform in Living Color

(Editor's Note: this is a slightly edited version of a story originally posted Sunday on

Saturday saw the largest political demonstration in the history of Los Angeles, and one of the biggest in recent American history.

A half-million people or more flooded two dozen blocks of downtown L.A. to give voice to some sort of rational, realistic immigration reform.

For some months now I have been warning readers that the immigration issue would break wide open this season -- and here it is in full, living color. Similar demonstrations the past couple of weeks drew 100,000 or more in Illinois, more than that in Denver, and tens of thousands in Phoenix and other cities. Similar protests are scheduled through April 10 as the U.S. Senate begins formal debate on reform this coming Tuesday. (If you have fallen behind in this story, you can catch up by reading one of my overview stories here or here.)

I'm struck by several aspects of this story. Primarily by the way neither party can properly get a hold of this issue. Demographics and global economics are simply racing ahead of any practical political response. The Republicans are deeply divided over the issue. Even as the half-million or so were marching in the streets Saturday, President Bush was on the radio more or less endorsing the protestors' two key demands: that a legal channel be created for the immigration already happening, and that some legal acknowledgement be given to the 12 million "illegals" already living here. Viva Bush!

The Democrats are less divided and generally more inclined toward reform. But can you name even two prominent national Democrats who have taken up this cause in a serious way? (One is Ted Kennedy who, along with John McCain, has co-authored the most sensible reform proposal currently under consideration).

As I have argued previously, what we are currently experiencing is the greatest wave of cross-border migration in recorded history -- a virtual "exodus" of millions from a failed Mexican economy to a country where the wage level is 10-20 times higher. Politicians can only come up with after-the-fact gestures, but policy itself (and walls and fences) will do little to nothing to alter the flow.

My otherwise smart guy friends, Mickey Kaus and Bill Bradley have surely gone off the deep end on this one. They both conjecture that these giant marches, full of Mexican flags and Mexicans chanting 'Mexico! Mexico!' are inviting a virulent nativist backlash. They point to increased voter turnout in favor of the restrictive Prop 187 in California after a similar (and smaller) protest march in 1994. That was then. This is now.

The current situation is not analagous to 1994. There is no hot-button ballot proposition up for a vote this season. And the nativist backlash is already here. The media suck-up to the miniscule Minuteman show of a year ago established an ugly frame for the national debate. The House has already acted in a toxic manner when last December it passed an outrageous and impossible-to-implement measure that would make all illegals (and their employers) into felons. While that bill will not become law per se, the Senate is considering some measures almost as Neanderthal.

It seems to me that when an entire population -- who, after all, cleans our offices, cuts our lawns, serves our food, makes our beds, tends to our children and pays taxes but gets no refunds -- is threatened with criminalization, it has the right and necessity to politically mobilize. It's asking them a lot, don't you think, to remain silent and impassive as their arrest and deportation are actively being debated?

One other point: the white backlash of 1994 was immediately followed by a counter-backlash. An enraged and energized Latino constituency accelerated its entrance into citizenship and onto the voter rolls, and within four years it steamrollered the California GOP -- a flattening from which California Republicans may never recover.

So while the grumbling Archie Bunkers might get their ya-yas all worked up by the Mexican flags flapping in Saturday's demos, you can be damn sure that the smarter among Republican strategists looked at the size of those protests with some trepidation. Many of those in the rally were legal, or have legal relatives, or if illegal might soon be legal. And they just didn't look to be likely Republican voters.

Bradley is one of the smartest analysts around when it comes to California state politics (and he's a good friend) but, I have to say his reaction to these marches border on the phantasmagorical. He went out of his way to title his report "The Pro-Illegal Immigration Rally in Los Angeles" and asks if it was "really necessary" to stage such a provocative rally. It's the wrong question, of course. This wasn't a staged campaign event or some tightly orchestrated TV photo op. While the demos certainly have leaders and organizers, and while the Mexican flags were certainly politically gratuitous, it seems quite obvious that when you bring out a half-million people you've tapped into something quite organic, some self-propelling force way beyond the control or shaping of a few professional organizers. So it hardly matters if it was necessary or not because -- like illegal immigration itself -- it happened anyway. It was a rather natural reaction to the shut-the-borders demagogy that's been ventilating for the past couple of years.

Another not so minor point. Bradley argues that these rallies "enable" people who have "broken the law" to continue breaking the law. Well, no, not exactly. People who have entered the United States improperly and who stay here have, in fact, not violated any criminal statutes but are instead in violation of civil codes -- even though they are commonly called "illegals."

Any of these illegals, if arrested on immigration grounds, are not tried by a criminal court and are, in fact, denied standard due process. Bradley should spend a day in Federal Immigration Court and watch how these "illegals" are deported without as much as the right to a court-provided lawyer. As violators of civil codes, they are cast out, and often their families are broken apart with no more process than the DMV revoking a driver's license.

Indeed, these protests have been sparked to a great degree by the so-called Sensenbrenner bill that would in the future make the "illegals" really illegal by making them criminal felons. It's a distinction worth five or ten years in jail that Bradley is blurring.

Bill, my friend, you've got it bass-ackwards. This was a rally in favor of legal immigration. It called precisely for a way for immigrants who are otherwise already absorbed into our economy and society to be granted the minimal status that they obviously merit. To defend illegal immigration, no protest would be necessary -- you would need only defend the status quo.

My arguments against the sort of simplistic and anachronistic mode of parsing this issue which we glimpse in Bradley's post is well explained in the articles I linked to above -- so no need to rehearse them here. What some people don't get is that we have already been cracking down on the border for more than a decade, and there's a reason why it has so miserably failed. It's about as futile as engaging in prayer dances to stop earthquakes or invoke rain storms.

The only argument we -- as a nation of immigrants -- can make against the current migratory wave is that our grandparents and parents came here legally, so why don't Jose and Maria do the same? Well, America of 2006 is not the America that my family came to in 1915 (and when they came, they also pushed aside better-paid longer-term residents and citizens). Our work force is vastly older and immensely better educated and skilled than even 50 years ago. The industrial revolution which was roaring ahead a century ago has given way, unfortunately, to a service economy. Barring Mexicans from coming across the border is not going to magically reopen shuttered car and tractor factories. On the contrary, if you could even plausibly tamp down the inflow, you would only increase the out-migration of American business.

Our national economy easily absorbs and desperately needs about a million-and-a-half immigrant workers per year to grow and compete. We let a million of them come in legally. The other half million we make run and dart across the border at cost of great peril.

Our reality has outstripped our laws -- and our way of framing the issue. In the end, it will make little difference who prevails in this year's debate, as nothing will change on the ground -- backlash or not. It's a little like debating the tides. Meanwhile, someone throw my pal Bill Bradley a rope. He's waded in at high tide and has sunk in up to his neck.

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