Published on Thursday, April 13, 2006 by the Guardian/UK
Morning in America Again
The leaders of the Republican party have awakened an unfriendly giant with their stance on immigrants.
by James K. Galbraith
I went to, of all things, a rally on Monday.
By the standards of the movement sweeping across the nation, it was small: about 500 people, mostly students, gathered on campus a hundred feet from the statue of Martin Luther King that faces east in solitude, tactfully removed from the old Confederates who face south, a quarter of a mile away. But every 15 or 20 minutes a new contingent would march up, 50 or a hundred strong, coming from somewhere.
My state senator, an American of Mexican heritage, spoke with vivid eloquence. On the side, he cracked to me that we'd done better in our day, when it was a matter of life and death. I countered that we could never have turned out half a million people in Dallas. Which had actually happened one day before. That's Dallas, Texas, I repeat. Of course he agreed.
This isn't the anti-war movement, of white college kids, liberal Protestant churches, Dr. Spock and veterans of the Abraham Lincoln brigades. It's not the civil rights movement, although the crowds everywhere were a gorgeous mixture of American colors, brown and black, yellow and tan. The civil rights marches, as I recall them, were solemn, formal, more spiritual and religious than these; they were the marches of a deprived people determined to take their place, in the face of extreme official violence.
The spirit of the immigration marches seems quite different. It is festive. It is wholly patriotic. The immigrants, their families, and their supporters, are not angry with America. On the contrary, they are happy to be here. Mostly they aren't even demanding what they haven't got. They are trying to protect what they have, or what they are already hard at work to get. One sign I saw, "My father was illegal; I'm a law student," pretty much captured the spirit of the day.
Vietnam was about war. Civil rights was about racial justice. But these marches are, mainly, about work. They are about the right to work, and to live from work, in simple dignity, independence and freedom. And that freedom, which exists as a practical matter for many immigrants in America today, is under threat.
The bill the House passed is a cruel farce, which would turn (it is said, but no one really knows) 11 million working people into felons and criminalize all who assist them, including church and social workers. The compromise under consideration in the Senate is less cruel, but it is a fantasy that somehow one can separate those who have been in the country two and five years or longer from those who haven't.
There is only one just solution. Immigrants, who come and work, are going to be here a long time. They aren't criminals and they also aren't guests. The fact that their presence may be illegal is a problem not with the people but with the law. Under the constitution, their children are citizens the day they are born. The migrants should become citizens too, not without some wait and effort, but efficiently. And they should vote.
I think the country knows this. Making Americans is one thing it does pretty well. And adding 11 million, or (say) 20 million, working people who are here anyway to the citizenship rolls, in a country of 300 million, just isn't that big a deal to most people. Especially when the other choice is to have a guest worker underclass in a police state. A headline in today's Wall Street Journal read: "Employers Have a Lot to Lose." But the story wasn't about how business felt threatened by the rallies. It was about a landscaper in California, who is speaking out to get his workers made legal.
Who is opposed? The leaders of the Republican party are opposed. Why? Because they know that immigrants have the power to sweep them all away. That already happened, in California, in the wake of an infamous proposition denying undocumented immigrants access to the public schools. On the electoral maps, California went from Reagan red to solid blue, and it's not going back.
And now they've made the same mistake again. Like Tojo at Pearl Harbor, they've awakened a giant. Only this time, it's all across the country - a divided country where a California change in only a few states, such as Arizona or Virginia, or Florida, could tip our politics right over. Looking out at the kids yesterday, you could almost imagine it happening in Texas.
For those of us from the Vietnam era, well, it looks like it's morning in America again.
James Galbraith holds the Lloyd M Bentsen Jr chair of government/business relations at the Lyndon B Johnson school of public affairs, the University of Texas at Austin, and a professorship in government. He is a senior scholar with the Levy Economics Institute, and chair of the board of Economists for Peace and Security, an international association of professional economists.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006