Speaker after speaker at the recent immigration march in Los Angeles told the 500,000-strong primarily Latino crowd that racism and anti-immigrant sentiments lie behind the debates on Capitol Hill about border enforcement. This was the focus at the march and subsequent student walkouts, even though the House and Senate have debated competing immigration reform legislation, which has included discussions of some sort of guest worker or amnesty plan.
Nonetheless, speakers ignored the nuances of the debate, concentrating instead on angry allegations that any efforts to deal with illegal immigration status amounts to "anti-immigrant bigotry." Many pundits have argued that we are seeing the rebirth of the civil rights movement. As a longtime participant in that struggle and one who has consistently opposed nativist sentiments, I dissent.
There is something quite troubling about these protests, which charge that attempts to control the flow of immigrants into America are "anti-Latino" and thereby "racist." To justify these claims, activists argue that there is a generalized hostility to Latinos that is best represented by opposition to illegal immigration.
This claim, however, is hard to substantiate in an era of diminishing racism throughout society, with interracial marriages on the rise, Hispanic businesses growing faster than any others and Latinos viewed as the new political power in many parts of the nation. What precisely are the injustices that this "new civil rights movement" will address -- other than the view that there should be no distinction between "legal" and "illegal" immigration status?
There are other reasons to resist the claim that recent protests are a rebirth of the civil right movement. America's civil rights movement fought the denial of voting, employment, public accommodations and education rights to black Americans who were, in fact, citizens. It can hardly be argued that Hispanic Americans or legal immigrants from any other area of the world are today being denied rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Nonetheless, we are told by immigration activists and their allies in the leftist political community that it is racist to restrict entry only to legal immigrants and enforce laws against those here illegally.
Let me be clear: I would never favor the inhumane treatment of anyone, including illegal immigrants. But I don't support turning a blind eye to illegal entry in a way that mocks the rule of law. And it's neither just nor accurate to call that position "anti-Latino."
Of particular concern is the degree to which Latino youngsters have embraced the rhetoric of the Latino left, arguing as they did, in the midst of school walkouts, that Latinos suffer the weight of a "racist American system." Marching with the ever-present Mexican flag, students chanted, "Si, se puede!" (yes we can), proudly declaring that they had hit the street in support of "la raza" (the race).
The civil rights movement of old was clear about its priority: the freeing of black Americans from the suppression of white supremacist ideology. But the classic civil rights movement, at its best, also seized the high moral ground by asserting, as King did, that participants were about making America a better nation for all of its citizens, regardless of skin color, religion or national origin.
Only later, when Black Power figures began to jockey for leadership, did raw ethnocentrism and anti-Semitism emerge in '60s-era black politics. The narrow nationalism of Black Power politics turned off most Americans, and the ethnocentrism of Latino activists will do likewise.
We can all agree, I hope, that there are those around the edges of the immigration battles who are distasteful nativists, people opposed to immigration of any kind, legal or otherwise. But conversely, those who argue that a desire to control America's borders and enforce immigration laws is "anti-immigrant" only make sense in the realm of leftist and extremist political thought. This view actually asserts that people in other nations have a right to come here, no matter what our federal laws say is the proper order of things.
In line with this perspective, a recent Zogby International Poll, conducted on both sides of the border, found that a majority of Mexicans say the U.S. Southwest "rightfully belongs to Mexico," and that Mexican citizens should be allowed to come to the United States freely, without U.S. permission. By contrast, the majority of Americans said they want to restrict immigration and don't support granting amnesty to illegal immigrants currently in the country, as President Bush has advocated via his guest worker plan.
If nothing else, the recent demonstrations and student walkouts have dramatically ramped up the national debate on this issue. It is no longer possible to ignore the elephant in the middle of the room, the estimated 11 million to 20 million illegal residents. Where we go from here depends on the ability of this nation's political leadership to craft effective and fair public policy.
Yes, we must deal in a humane fashion with those who have come here looking for a better life. We also must finally address the concerns of a distressed populace -- and here I am talking about those American citizens who are negatively affected and rightly troubled by our porous borders.
Joe R. Hicks is a social critic and vice president of Community Advocates Inc. He is the former head of the L.A. branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.