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Chicago Sun Times

How Did Seeking Rights Become Wrong?

One hears warnings these days that the massive immigrant rights demonstrations may produce a backlash. Admittedly, the demonstrations have been peaceful, the crowds are well-behaved and the leaders have been moderate in their public statements.

But won't people ask why they dare to demonstrate in favor of their rights? They are illegal, are they not? What makes them think they have rights? Do not their protests increase the anger of those Americans who want to see them sent home or incarcerated as felons? Why don't they go back to acting like frightened chickens, lest the American people rise up in righteous anger and smite them? By definition they have no claim on rights at all. And how dare they wave the Mexican flag when they march?

African Americans, women, gays and just about everyone else have the constitutional freedom to protest the violation of their rights -- and to carry whatever flag suits their fancy, no matter how much their protests and flags offend those who do not like them. Moreover, other immigrant groups have waved Irish or Italian tricolors or Polish eagles, and no one has complained. Why must the Mexicans not demonstrate that they believe that they can be Americans and Mexicans at the same time, that the hyphen is not a disjunction but an equal sign, not a way of opting out of society but becoming American like everyone else?

The answer from the nativists is that those who are illegals have no rights in this country because they have violated the law. In fact, they are not criminals, they are human beings, and they can legitimately claim all rights that accrue to humanity: the right to assemble, the right to seek redress of grievance, the right to a speedy trial, the right to due process of the law. To be in the country illegally is a civil violation -- like driving too fast or smoking in a forbidden place or jaywalking or spitting on the sidewalk. Indeed, if the ineffable Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has his way, Congress will define them as felons. The protests are aimed directly at this felony by definition.

What was it Mr. Jefferson said? All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights?


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If their behavior indeed becomes felonious by act of Congress, they have the right to a trial by jury and due process of the law. One wonders how the good congressman intends to process 11 million felony trials. The protests at this writing have been remarkably peaceful, even on some occasions festive, as though the immigrants enjoy at long last a little flexing of the political muscle that is the right of everyone in the country.

The American theory is not that we bestow rights on humans by legislation or constitution. Rather, we affirm what is part of our common humanity. Many countries do not acknowledge the existence of such rights. You have only the rights that the law gives you. In America we believe that laws exist to sustain and protect human rights without regard to race, creed or color. The illegal immigrant has as many rights as do members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

I fear that the protests could become violent, not because the marchers are a violent people -- they are in fact ideal Americans, devoutly and joyously religious, dedicated to family life and hard work, and with the gift of laughter -- but because the yahoos, the neo-Nazis, the folks who strut around in jack boots and leather jackets might initiate violence. Anti-immigrant riots would not be a novelty in American society.

Unless Congress passes some kind of equitable immigration law before summer, violence is a very real possibility. The so-called deadlock on Capitol Hill is in fact the result of the desire of some members of Congress to run against the immigrants in the November election. That is a risky gamble.

We Americans are not Shiiites and Sunnis. However, the hatred of many Americans for the immigrants, allegedly on the grounds that they are guilty of a civil violation, creates a fertile environment for ethnic rage. Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard has suggested that the immigrants will create an American Quebec that will divide the country in two. That's nonsense, but it is in the power of the Congress and the sensible majority of the American people to prevent the imposition of such a divide.

Andrew Greeley

Andrew W. Greeley is a progressive Catholic priest, sociologist, journalist and popular novelist. He is of Irish decent and resides in Chicago.

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