I was moved as I watched thousands of immigrants marching in the streets through the center of Los Angeles, carrying their story of their daily fight, the one we are all familiar with, and the hope that this country will see them as valiant human beings. But I also couldn't help but remember another march which didn't have the desired effect.
The other one was much smaller, perhaps reflecting the fact that today, 12 years later, there are many, many more of us, and perhaps we're more conscientious. But I remember that after the march in 1994 against Proposition 187, after the flood of emotion at witnessing 100,000 people asking for dignity, came the blows: year after year of laws and more laws, attacks and more attacks, blows and more blows.
God willing that won't happen again.
Because although the United States, the country, the nation, receives us with open arms, gives us jobs and opportunities, sometimes this country's politicians and some of its people -- we know this -- don't see us in a good light. And since the theme of "national security" has given this position a new name, with a new sign, nothing good has come out of the discussions about immigration in Congress.
Don't label me a pessimist. Maybe something good will still come of it. The most probable thing is that some piece of legislation will be labeled a partial "triumph," some guest worker program, a path to citizenship, but little else.
Maybe it is the fact that I've seen and heard too much politicking to believe that Congress will wake from its lethargy on this issue to create reform that would be worth anything, reform that for 20 years has not even been attempted.
President George W. Bush's tepid support for the issue is considered progress. That he speaks well of immigrants, that he asks for a reasonable dialogue, that he supports a guest worker program -- you can't call that progress. At least he's not screaming, like Congressman Tom Tancredo and some of the other weaklings, that we are all potential terrorists. But he could have done more.
The ones who do deserve some applause are the immigrants themselves, the hundreds and thousands who took to the streets, and those who helped to organize them, who saw their expectations trumped by the reality that people walked into the street for their rights.
In that regard, something has already been won. A mobilization, a scream from the conscience of a population that is tired of being scapegoated for all of this country's ills.
That the workers who build your homes, take care of your children, harvest your land, serve you your food, cut your lawn and do every type of service and labor job imaginable, went out into the street to demand that they be allowed to live in peace and with a tiny bit of respect is a call for attention that the country will have to listen to.
He's the popular Democratic governor of a southwestern state, with the unlikely advantage of being an experienced international diplomat. He was born in California, but spent his childhood in Mexico City. He speaks real Spanish -- not the spanglish kind -- and has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. He's a political moderate with charisma and charm.
Those are some of the reasons why New Mexico governor, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, former congressman and former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson Lopez is on everyone's short list as a potential vice presidential nominee to accompany Sen. John Kerry on his bid for the White House.
Though close to 60 people have been mentioned as possible running mates, Richardson is no doubt on Kerry's short list, too.
It's not the first time Richardson has been this close to the vice presidency. In 2000, he made no secret of his ambition to share the ticket with Al Gore, but was quickly dropped from contention after nuclear secrets were stolen from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and later found behind a copy machine. Richardson wasn't exactly to blame for the security lapses, which over decades had become legendary within the Department of Energy, but because he was at the helm he was deemed responsible.
Republicans in Congress, obviously nervous at the prospect of Richardson on the ticket, made a huge deal of the incident. This time, however, the issue has likely lost its ability to neutralize the governor.
Democrats have already given Richardson a prominent position in this election cycle, as chairman of the Democratic National Convention that will nominate Kerry in Boston at the end of July. He heads Moving America Forward, a political committee aimed at registering Latinos in Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada.
Those states are precisely why Richardson is such an attractive choice for the VP spot: As the South goes increasingly Republican, Democratic strategy could shift to courting the Latino vote in the battleground states of the Southwest and even in Florida, where the non-Cuban, Latino Democratic vote is growing fast.
There are other interesting potential VPs on Kerry's short list, such as Sen. John Edwards, the smart, attractive, populist campaigner who gave Kerry a run for his money in the presidential primary. But if the question is, "Can you carry your state and help carry other states outside of the nominee's reach?" then many experts say Richardson is the better choice. No one knows for sure if Edwards or anyone else can help Kerry win anywhere in the South.
Choosing Richardson over a Southerner would challenge the traditional wisdom that no Democrat can win the White House without being from the South or having significant support there. It would signal a strategy shift, a gamble on building more support in the Southwest, where Latinos are a growing presence.
In 2000, Gore carried New Mexico by only 366 votes and lost Arizona and Nevada to Bush. California and Texas are foregone conclusions -- the first for the Democrat and the second for the president -- but in a close race the smaller states could be the key to victory.
Richardson could help defeat the effort by Bush and his political point man Karl Rove to garner 40 percent or more of the Latino vote. The idea of voting for a half-Mexican who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency would be tempting for most Latinos across the nation.
Richardson has some potential downfalls: his enthusiastic support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for one. While in Congress, Richardson was a key vote-getter for NAFTA on behalf of the Clinton administration, back when Democrats were running as centrists and not populists. That puts him at odds with many Democrats from the heartland, who feel the pinch of jobs fleeing overseas and who espouse a more protectionist attitude.
Choosing Richardson for vice president could also alienate African Americans, who have expressed support for Edwards. Also, the black community has voted against Latino candidates in some local and state races, when they feel their political power is being undermined by the new largest minority. Few African Americans will vote for Bush, but they may abstain if they feel unrepresented in the Democratic ticket.
On the other hand, African Americans may cast their ballots for anyone if they dislike the incumbent enough. In California's gubernatorial recall election, blacks supported Latino candidate Cruz Bustamante at a higher rate than Latinos.
Richardson predicted in 2000 that, "if not this time, for sure next time" there will be a Latino on the Democratic ticket. He insisted then that America was ready for such a revolutionary proposition.
Perhaps 2004 will do the trick. Even if Richardson does not become Kerry's right-hand man, most people who know the governor know he would love another position in a potential Kerry administration: Secretary of State.
PNS contributor Pilar Marrero is a political columnist and metropolitan news editor for La Opinion Newspaper in Los Angeles.
President George W. Bush offers undocumented immigrants temporary work permits. The Democrats may choose a governor with Mexican heritage as a vice presidential candidate. And some have actually labeled the Feb. 3 Democratic primaries, "Hispanic Tuesday."
Are we Latinos the new "soccer moms"?
The new swing voters have last names like Gonzales or Lopez. They care as much about education and the economy as the warmth of a particular candidate's personality. And most pollsters say their votes are key to victory in November.
President Bush's immigration reform proposal is widely seen as a way to court the Latino vote. Democrats may respond, according to rumors among political journalists, with a Latino vice presidential nominee in the fall -- possibly Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
As the primary presidential race moves out of the "retail" politics of Iowa and New Hampshire and into the multi-state primaries on Feb. 3, it will move closer to the population that the main parties have identified as a swing vote.
Arizona and New Mexico are two of seven states that will make their decision Feb. 3. Both have sizable Latino populations and are considered battleground states: places where the parties will fight it out in the fall, where the vote was close enough in 2000, especially in New Mexico, that nobody can be assured victory.
According to pollster Sergio Bendixen, the Latino vote could decide the election in states like Arizona, Nevada and Illinois. It could also be key in New Mexico and Florida, where the non-Cuban Latino population is growing.
"Latinos are no longer a base vote for the Democrats," says Maria Cardona, who heads the New Democrat Network. The organization seeks to convince the Democratic Party that it must not take the Latino vote for granted, the way some critics have said the party treats the African American vote.
Until very recently, Democrats knew that with the exception of Florida, where the sizeable Cuban American population is solidly Republican, they could count on Latinos' votes. In 1996, Bill Clinton won 71 percent of the Latino vote, to Bob Dole's 21 percent.
Besides, Latinos were then just 4 percent of the vote nationwide. And they were a significant part of the population only in states that have not been battleground states for many years, such as California and New York.
Then, in 2000, along came George W. Bush, speaking Texas "spanglish" and promising to take care of immigration and build close ties with Latin America. Al Gore still received most of the Latino vote, but the Democratic share fell to 62 percent, a 10 percent decrease. Thirty-five percent of Latinos who voted chose Bush.
Furthermore, in 2000, Latinos were 7 percent of the national vote. They will be closer to 9 percent in 2004. Karl Rove, president Bush's main political strategist, has predicted that Bush must get 40 to 45 percent of their votes in 2004.
Bush isn't far from that: While his support among Latinos has dropped in recent years because of the state of the economy and his failure to live up to his promises on Latin America and immigration, he has climbed in recent polls, which show the president earning 37 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. And he has barely begun to campaign.
"If Bush gets what Rove is looking for, there's no way a Democrat can win this election," pollster Bendixen said last year, when he warned Democrats to improve their image among Latinos or risk losing their chance at the White House.
The New Democrat Network last year released the results of a hypothetical 2002 presidential match-up between Bush and an unspecified Democratic candidate, and found President Bush was getting 44 percent among Hispanic voters.
After ignoring immigration for most of his post-9/11 term, Bush resuscitated the issue in early January, offering a proposal for immigration reform and taking it to the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, where it was welcomed by Mexico's President Vicente Fox.
In the meantime, all the Democratic candidates have their own version of immigration reform, have hired Spanish-speaking and/or Latino consultants and are increasingly talking bread and butter issues that resonate with Latinos.
The battle stretches beyond 2004.
According to Efrain Escobedo, a voting data expert from the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), the Latino population and its share of the vote is increasing not only in traditional states such as New York, California and Southwestern states, but in Georgia, Virginia, Washington, Oregon and Pennsylvania as well.
Latinos may not yet be a significant share of the vote in some of those states, Escobedo says, but that could change quickly.
"In the south, Latinos are already are up to 3 percent of the vote," he says.
Some experts say Latinos will not be important this year because their votes are concentrated in non-competitive states such as California, which usually votes Democratic.
But according to Escobedo, if the electoral college results are close, as current polls predict, every swing state will have a potentially great impact. And Latinos, the new swing voters, are rapidly increasing their influence in many of those key states.
PNS contributor Pilar Marrero (firstname.lastname@example.org) is political editor and a columnist for La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles.
The war on Iraq has brought to the fore the plight of non-citizen soldiers, who can die for their adoptive country but can't vote, can't serve in positions of trust in the military and can't have a military career longer than eight years.
According to the most recent estimates by the Department of Defense, about 38,000 troops, some 3 percent of the U.S. armed forces, are not citizens. One of the first casualties of the war was Jose Gutierrez, a Guatemalan immigrant from California who was orphaned in Guatemala, lived on the streets and traveled by cargo trains for thousands of miles to cross the border illegally into the United States.
Since Gutierrez died in combat, another seven non-citizens have also given their lives.
Lance Cpl. Gutierrez and Cpl. Jose A. Garibay were the first casualties of the war to get their U.S. citizenship posthumously, a story widely circulated in American media.
Much less publicized was the angry reaction by Fernando Suarez del Solar, from Escondido, Calif., who rejected the idea of applying for citizenship for his son Jesus, who died March 27 in combat. Suarez has a big problem with this war and the contradictions involved in sending into battle young men and women who can't vote or hold military jobs that require security clearance.
"I rejected the idea because Jesus didn't want to become a citizen when he had the chance, and I don't want him to get it posthumously because to me that doesn't mean anything. It's just a benevolent act by the U.S. government," Suarez told a reporter for La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles. "To me, it's like saying, 'Oh yeah, poor thing, give it to him.'"
Yet it seems that being a non-citizen soldier may put you faster into the line of fire. According to the Los Angeles Times, of the first 10 Californians killed in the war, five were non-citizens. One reason may be the internal rules of the U.S. Armed Forces. In a recent article in Hispanic Link news service, Sargent Oscar Villa, a U.S. Marine who immigrated from Ecuador at age 14, explains why immigrants in the military wear the same uniform but have "different options."
"Due to national security and many other restrictions, non-citizen members of the military have only a small, select number of Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) to choose from when enlisting or re-enlisting. In all service branches, immigrants and non-citizens are over-represented in the field of infantry... They are most likely to be called first to the front lines," Villa wrote.
The reason? Non-citizens can't get a security clearance. It's the same reason why thousands of people almost lost their jobs after 9/11 as baggage handlers and security screeners in U.S. airports, after a new law made it illegal for non-citizens (even those with papers) to hold those jobs. A judge later dismissed that measure as unconstitutional.
Being a non-citizen has become a dicey prospect for many immigrants in the past few years. Coming to America legally, even getting a green card (permanent residency card) is not enough to make one feel protected by the laws and the constitution.
Back in the mid-1990s, when the issue of "illegal" immigrants was hot nationwide and the undocumented had become a scapegoat for the society's economic woes and social ills, federal law stripped legal immigrants of the possibility of receiving help when they fell into hard times: they were prohibited from getting food stamps and other social programs.
After Sept. 11, the civil rights of immigrants were the first to go in the name of the "war against terrorism." Non-citizens lost jobs and constitutional protections. Non-citizens were held for questioning for months without the U.S. government releasing any information about them.
Non-citizens suspected of terrorism faced military tribunals, while citizens such as John Walker Lindh, suspected of the same crime, faced civil courts.
But the U.S. wants non-citizens in the Armed Forces: last year, President Bush signed an executive order making green card holders immediately eligible for citizenship if they signed up for service. It was a reward, he said, to those serving in the war on terrorism.
After that, the number of enlisted non-citizens started to grow, said Dan Kane, spokesman for what was formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now is the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Homeland Security Department. Between July and February, 5,441 military personnel applied to become citizens.
Believing this was their chance to cross the border legally, hundreds of Mexicans started showing up at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to offer to fight for the United States in exchange for American citizenship. They were turned away, disappointed that they were required to cross the border first, become a legal resident and then enlist in the military, much like Jose A. Gutierrez from Guatemala did.
U.S. Marine Jesus Alberto Suarez, from Tijuana, Baja California, will become a posthumous citizen despite his father Fernando's strong feelings about it, and for the same reason many other immigrants have become citizens in the past: the fear of losing rights.
It was reported recently by La Opinion newspaper that Jesus Suarez's widow, Seane Suarez, accepted the benefit for the security of their 15-month-old son Erik. "She decided to apply for posthumous citizenship because you never know about immigration laws, and she's afraid that their son might lose some rights for being an immigrant's son," Fernando Suarez said.
Pilar Marrero (Pilar.Marrero@laopinion.com) is a political editor and columnist for La Opinion, the nation's largest Spanish newspaper.