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Immigrants: Decency to 'Those People'
03-29-2006, 11:55 AM
Post: #1
Immigrants: Decency to 'Those People'
good perspective... by eugene robinson at the washington post.


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Decency to 'Those People'

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, March 28, 2006; A23

Half a million people poured into the streets of Los Angeles on Saturday to protest the various Republican-sponsored proposals in Congress that would demonize illegal immigrants. Hundreds marched yesterday in Detroit, which, last I checked, is nowhere near the Mexican border. Tens of thousands have demonstrated in Phoenix, Denver and other cities across the country. In every case, the crowds were mostly Latino.

We all know that Latinos are the nation's largest minority and that most of the people in those demonstrations either were born in the United States or are here legally. But we also know that at least some of those protesters had gone through the experience of crossing the border illegally under the tutelage of avaricious people-smugglers known as "coyotes." At least some had been here for months or years, working to send money home to their families, keeping their heads down, somehow managing to carve out lives for themselves and their children.

Who are they? After the demonstrations were over, where did they go? Are they so diabolically clever at hiding in plain sight? Or is it that the rest of us refuse to see them, because by seeing them we would have to acknowledge their humanity?

That willful blindness is why the debate on illegal immigration is so hypocritical. If we lump undocumented immigrants into an undifferentiated mass of Those People, we can avoid really looking at the immigrant experience. And we can convince ourselves that it is somehow different from the periodic waves of immigration that have shaped this nation -- that suddenly it is not an issue, or even a problem, but an urgent crisis.

There are an estimated 12 million immigrants in the United States illegally. That many people don't just fade into the woodwork. The fact is, we see undocumented immigrants every day.

Maybe they vacuum your office at night. Maybe they landscape your garden or clean your house or cook the food at your favorite restaurant. You probably don't know where they live. You probably don't know their children's names or where they go to school. You probably don't know what it was like for them to buy a car or even get a driver's license. You probably don't know where they get medical care.

If you did know these things about individual immigrants, whether they're from Mexico or El Salvador or China or Brazil, I think you would find the debate in Congress almost grotesque.

Should we declare that they are all criminals? Should we make criminals of the people who give them jobs, too? Should we build a Berlin Wall along the border? It's possible to take such draconian measures against Those People -- but not against lovely Marta, who waxes your floors, or genial Juan, who tends your azaleas. So to side with the xenophobes, you have to know as little about Marta and Juan as possible.

In terms of realpolitik, the immigration issue is easy: If the Republican leadership in Congress wants to alienate Latino voters and drive them into the embrace of the Democratic Party, it's tempting to let them do it. But that means ignoring the reality that we're talking about individuals, not Those People. And it means abandoning the process of inflow, adaptation and renewal that has made this nation of immigrants so dynamic and resourceful.

I don't get many chances to say that George W. Bush is right, but I think he really understands the immigration issue on both the political and the personal level. His guest-worker program is a mess. Does he really expect millions of people to report for deportation? Won't employers have an incentive to exploit the guest workers when they know they will never have citizenship, and therefore will never have any political clout? But I do give the president credit for seeking a compromise that will quiet the nativists in his party and maybe buy some time for cooler heads to prevail.

Much better is the proposal by Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy that would declare what amounts to an amnesty for undocumented immigrants. They would both take issue with that characterization, because "amnesty" is a forbidden word, but that's what it would be -- "illegals" who reported to authorities would be able to stay in the country and eventually begin the process of seeking citizenship. It seems unlikely, though, that this reasonable plan will fly.

Whatever Congress does, 12 million people aren't going to pack up and go home overnight. They are here -- Marta and Juan, not Those People. We see them every day. Let's deal with them as fellow human beings.

The writer will take questions today at 1 p.m. on http://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.
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