THE CHANGING FORTUNES OF IMMIGRANTS: In America, Sometimes We Like You

The heated public debate on immigration brought to mind an essay I wrote for TomPaine.com in 2000. Here's a cached version of it, "THE CHANGING FORTUNES OF IMMIGRANTS: In America, Sometimes We Like You." (I didn't write the title.) I wrote it in the aftermath of the diversity carnival that was the 2000 GOP convention, contrasting the images put forth with California's anti-immigrant fervor of 1994.

During their national convention Republicans attempted to veer away from the Wilson-Buchanan-Elton Gallegy 1990s-style xenophobia. Colin Powell declared immigration a "part of our life's blood. It's part of the essence of who we are as Americans." In a televised interview before Powell's speech, California state assemblyman Abel Maldonado, like Powell the son of immigrants, trumpeted the GOP's newfound sensitivity to immigrant rights and bilingualism. Maldondado's brief Thursday night speech was delivered in Spanish and was preceded by Mexican mariachi great Vicente Fernandez, "El Rey de Mexico." George W. Bush was introduced by his bilingual, bicultural nephew, and the convention closed to the tune of Ricky Martin's La Copa de la Vida. Pete Wilson was nowhere to be found.

What caused this change in tenor in the national debate on immigration? The improved economy certainly played a role, for the recession of the early 1990s hit California, and the defense industry, especially hard. Various interests — unions, political parties, the agricultural and restaurant businesses — have grown to realize the importance of immigrants, in particular Latin American immigrants, to the advancement of their own agendas. Much of the credit, however, is due to the emergence of organized immigrant responses. The most passionate opposition to Proposition 187 came from the immigrant communities themselves. In the forefront was the Proposition One Coalition, led by the East Los Angeles based One Stop Immigration Center. On October 16, Proposition One led a march of 200,000 through Avenida Cesar Chavez west to downtown Los Angeles. In the weeks following the march children statewide, including 75,000 high school students, took to the streets in a series of rolling, apparently spontaneous walkouts.

Many expressed fear of being kicked out of school or deported. A group 6th, 7th and 8th graders from a small private school in LA's Wilshire district left school one October morning, carrying homemade signs and Mexican, Salvadoran, and South Korean flags. They marched for three hours to the KCBS studio of the "Geraldo Rivera Show" where they initiated a picket line until they were admitted to the 187-themed show. Democratic leaders and moderate Latino leaders, such as LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina, feared that the students' radicalism might alienate undecided voters and ran from school to school attempting to mollify the protestors.

Grassroots opposition to 187 was not focused solely on the election — indeed, many of its leaders and participants were not eligible to vote. Following the election, continued immigrant vigilance seemed to exist in symbiosis with the courts, which stayed, and eventually overturned, the initiative. Like their opponents, the immigrant groups' focus became national in scope. With little support from national Latino organizations, the Prop One Coalition led a march of at least 25,000 in Washington in October, 1996, drawing busloads from Texas, Chicago, and New York as well as California and the Southwest.

There is another reason for the change in the national view towards immigrants, one which lies in a fundamental inconsistency in our attitudes towards immigrants and our views about our own identity. Since at least the nineteenth century, newcomers are alternatively embraced and rejected. Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 — which died last year when Wilson's successor, Grey Davis, refrained from appealing court rulings against it — have joined the Know Nothing Party and the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first manifestations of anti-immigrant rhetoric, in historical ignominy. Nevertheless, consistent reports of vigilante attacks against Mexican border crossers convince us that xenophobia, though perhaps muted in national policy discussions, continues to rage. Indeed, despite the kinder rhetoric, the militarized border remains in effect and at least 310 would-be migrants have died this year attempting to reach the U.S. through the desolate, and more lightly guarded, areas east of San Diego.

Despite an infamous legacy of hostility towards others, our national character possesses a second strain, one in which nativism is rejected in favor of broad, open minded understandings of "American" identity. "You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world," wrote Melville. "Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world."

Whitman, in "Our Old Feuillage," felt the need to share the country with all comers: "Whoever you are! how can I but offer you divine leaves, that you also be eligible as I am? How can I but as here chanting, invite you for yourself to collect bouquets of the incomparable feuillage of these States?" In "Song of the Universal," he described an America that "surroundest all Embracing carrying welcoming all, thou too by pathways broad and new."

…The Buchanans and Wilsons are as much a part of our national legacy as is the openness of Melville, Whitman, and Springsteen. But as we become a "minority majority" country, as we consider Fox's proposals for common union, we can take heart that a spirit of an accepting Pan-Americanism — one shared by Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti — is already woven into the fabric of our national identity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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