Immigration? We've Got Bigger Problems

Why our noncitizens are our best citizens

There are several reasons I would not want to be president. There are, for example, aspects of the Zapruder film that do not appeal to me. And then there are those tricky issues leaders are faced with that demand action but defy an easy, just solution.

Like immigration.

In Congress, Republicans are busily attempting to solve our immigration problems, reprising the insight and sober deliberation they brought to Terri Schiavo's plight. It's reassuring to think that when we colonize Mars years from now, our space immigrants will be able to look back at the Earth and see the flaming moat Republicans will have built along our southern border.

Conservatives are banging the xenophobe xylophone so loudly that it's hard to bear in mind that there's more than fear and racism at play here. Unchecked immigration places severe burdens on a host of already messy domestic problems, including poverty, overpopulation, education, health care, the environment, infrastructure and the deficit—all woefully complicated by adding half a million undocumented souls to the equation each year.

And let's not forget national security. Though Bush might destroy the U.S. first, there are indeed motivated foreigners who intend this nation great harm, and remarkable blind spots in our vigilance: we diverted a commercial passenger jet 600 miles off course to deny, wrongly, Cat Stevens entry to the U.S. in 2004, but since then more than a million utterly unknown persons, transporting Christ knows what, have traipsed across our borders freestyle without so much as a how-d'ya-do.

Of course, the vast majority of them aren't terrorists, pop singers or even criminals, aside from the law they're breaking looking for a better life.

"Hey, what part of illegal don't you get?"

This part: there's a long and grand American tradition of folks getting ahead by skirting the law. Solid citizens like Joe Kennedy ran booze during Prohibition. George W. Bush's kin Prescott and Herbert Walker both did business with Nazi Germany. Struggling union leaders made deals with the mob. More than a few successful Orange County entrepreneurs got their seed money in the 1970s drug trade. It's the land of initiative and opportunity!

Compared to that, crossing a porous border seeking honest, low-paying toil to put food on your family's table doesn't exactly seem like felony material. But that's what it will be if the House-approved bill HR 4437 becomes law. The 12 million undocumented among us would be drinking a big mug of Instant Felon.

HR 4437 is the grand idea of House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Cheeselog), who has consistently favored stiffer penalties for all Americans, unless it's corporations or Tom DeLay, for whom he voted to weaken House ethics rules.

The bill would also criminalize compassion. Suppose you saw a child who was crying with hunger or fever, and before determining whether she was an undeserving immigrant child, you gave her a sandwich or a cold compress. Under HR 4437 you too could be looking at jail time. Not that jail would look so different from daily life, given the air of suspicion that would pervade our doings, plus a 700-mile security wall gracing our border. Maybe we should also redesign the Statue of Liberty so she's holding a flamethrower instead of a torch.

At the other far extreme, some activists argue there should be no restrictions on immigration from Mexico, since California and other western states were stolen from it. You know, after Mexico stole the land from the Spanish who stole it from the loinclothed locals. Hey, why not reopen the Bering land bridge while we're at it? It'll be a big happy Woodstock Nation. C'mon in! The fence is down, Santana's smokin', and everything's free from now on!

That probably makes more sense than plans considered in Congress, such as deporting all the undocumented. As Jon Stewart recently observed: "It's absolutely workable. Just think about Elian Gonzalez, how easy that was. Now just times that by 11 million."

The compromise plan emerging in the Senate last week called for letting some immigrants stay, sending some home temporarily for a refresher course in destitution, and deporting a bunch permanently. It's sort of like the Medicare drug plan, except it juggles people instead of pills. "It'll tear your family apart, but thanks for the landscaping."

Is there a solution to all this? Maybe, long-term ones that go to the heart of how we're going to define our humanity in the coming years. Back in the 1980s, Jesse Jackson proposed helping Mexico and other neighbors to overcome corruption and cronyism to raise their job prospects and standards of living so people wouldn't feel compelled to come here.

We didn't do that, and today you'd swear that the Bush administration is striving to do it in reverse, making the U.S. so corrupt, stratified and bereft of opportunity that no one will want to come here. Except NAFTA keeps making things even worse elsewhere—it's crippled Mexico's farm and dairy businesses, while throughout the Americas the divide between rich and poor grows larger—which is what happens when trade agreements are created by corporations for corporations.

Weighed against the record profits being squeezed out of you by oil companies, the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry and Halliburton by way of Iraq, our millions of immigrant neighbors speaking up for some dignity are the least of our problems. Instead, maybe you should join them. Compared to the Americans sitting on their duffs as our nation is sold out from under us, these noncitizens are among the best citizens we have.

*   *   *

I don't speak Spanish, but I know the cadence of "The people, united, will never be defeated" when I hear it. And you could just about believe it, standing among the 1,500 persons gathered outside Costa Mesa's City Hall April 1. Boy, can these folks protest! They were organized, peaceful and passionate, marching in the rain with their U.S. flags.

I ran into Taco Mesa founder Ivan Calderon there. He's been active for years in charitable and community work but has previously avoided getting involved in political issues. "It's never good for business," he said. But like others at the protest, he's deeply troubled by Mayor Allan Mansoor's drive to make Costa Mesa the first city in the U.S. to have its police act as immigration officers.

"This is not the way to build community," Calderon said. "It's divisive, at a time we should all be working together. It's hard to come up with reasonable solutions when everyone's divided and people in government hold to such opposing views that they can't find a common ground. I don't have the solutions, but I know we won't find them that way."

It isn't like the city was in crisis, he said, pointing out that it has one of the lowest crime rates in the county, the result of good community programs and responsible policing. Now he sees a chill going through his town. "This law is bad for businesses, and it will leave people vulnerable. They'll be afraid to come forward to report crimes," he said, noting that for just that reason police chiefs across the nation oppose having their officers used to enforce immigration laws. (Costa Mesa Chief John Hensley, who had struggled to keep the new law from derailing the community trust his department had built, announced his retirement on April 5.)

Calderon, whose restaurants and catering business employ more than 100 people, came to the U.S. legally in 1961 when he was 6. His father had been a bracero "guest worker" for years before he could afford to bring his family to the States. "So for those first six years of my life, I only saw my father once or twice a year when he could come to visit."

Having done it all legally, does he feel any resentment for those who sneak in without playing by the rules?

"None whatsoever," he said. "On the contrary, I feel sorry for these people, sorry that they have to come here and put themselves through these situations. Mexico is such a beautiful country, you know? There is so much there to love. I don't see why folks come here unless they're hungry and this is the only way to make ends meet. They want a better life for their families. So I just feel sorry for them, and I wish the government in Mexico would get it together and help provide jobs for them. Instead, the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, and that's not helping things."

Immigrant-rights organizers are next planning a May 1 "Day Without an Immigrant," in which they're asking that people not work or shop on that day. Come May 2, I'll be back at Taco Mesa, enjoying a blackened calamari tostada, which is as American as apple pie.

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