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WM Winter 07: End Notes

by Peter Prengaman '98
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About 50 day laborers standing outside a convenience store in Orange County watched closely as I approached.

The men, all Latinos, had seen me talking with about 40 white people across the parking lot who were holding signs like "Illegal Immigration is Killing America" and screaming obscenities at anyone hiring a day laborer. They had seen me shaking hands and interview-ing Minutemen founder Jim Gilchrist, who was pumping up the protesters with his fiery rhetoric about the need to "send all the illegals home."

"I’m a journalist," I told the men in Spanish. "I’m doing a story on the changing tactics of anti-illegal immigration groups."

A Mexican man put himself squarely in front of me, so close that our bodies were touching. He looked into my eyes.

"You know we are not criminals and that we just came here to work, right? We are just doing the tough jobs that these gringos won’t do and can’t do."

It was December 2005, and I had only been two months on my new assignment covering immigration in Southern California. Tension between illegal immigrants and many conservatives who want them deported was nothing new, but this was different. From the increasing numbers of illegal immigrants coming into the country to the Minutemen expanding their civilian patrols from the U.S.-Mexico border inland, it was clear that the long-simmering debate on illegal immigration was getting ready to blow.

And California was Ground Zero.

It’s not just that California has more immigrants—legal and illegal—than any other state, or that the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing is the country’s largest. Nor is it just that about 150 years ago California was part of Mexico, and today there are dozens of cities where the de facto official language is Spanish, or Chinese, or Korean, or Vietnamese, or Farsi, or Armenian.

Immigration, and its inherent contradictions, is simply in Californians’ blood, from the promise of the Gold Rush in the 1800s to the throngs that have been moving here ever since in search of beautiful beaches and economic opportunity. California is the place that in 1994 overwhelmingly passed Proposition 187 to cut illegal immigrants out of state services [later thrown out by the courts], then several years later elected governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian body builder turned actor who speaks heavily accented English.

What lit the fuse for 2006 was one of the last bills passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005. That bill named for its author, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and immigration hardliner, was one of the most ambitious and punitive pieces of immigration legislation ever passed. It made being in the country illegally a felony, prodded police forces toward acting as immigration agents, and criminalized anyone—a relative, a priest, a Good Samaritan—who lent a hand to undocumented immigrants.

Word of the legislation spread slowly, and the pro-immigrant rallies of early 2006 were small. The protesters, mostly legal immigrants and sympathetic Americans, demanded amnesty for the 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. At the time, that seemed about as likely as winning the lottery.

Mainstream media had mostly ignored these initial protests, but I told my editor that a rally planned for March 25 in downtown Los Angeles was worth covering. There were just too many people talking about it: Hispanic and Asian groups, churches, unions, and the Spanish-language disc jockeys who have such tremendous influence with millions of listeners. Police were expecting 100,000 people, which would have made it one of the state’s largest rallies in decades.

That Saturday afternoon, over 500,000 people, mostly immigrants, both legal and illegal, descended on downtown. They wore white T-shirts signifying peace and waved American and other flags from across Latin America. They chanted "Si se puede!" [It can be done!], a throwback to the days of Cesar Chavez, who decades earlier had led farm workers’ strikes across California.

What struck me most about that day wasn’t the size of the rally or the fact that not a single arrest was reported. It was the boldness of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, who after years of living in the shadows of America were stepping into the spotlight.

As a journalist, I’d always found it difficult to persuade illegal immigrants to allow their full names to appear in articles for fear they might be deported. Now many were clamoring to tell their stories. A T-shirt worn by many protesters said it all: "I’m illegal.

So what?"

An immigration movement was born.

As large protests in california and the nation continued through the spring, the shrill rhetoric on all sides of the debate intensified. Not surprisingly, much of it was directed at journalists.

"You damn Latino lover," said one e-mail a day after I wrote a story on a family of illegal immigrants from Peru. "These people are ruining our country, and you support them."

Stories perceived as "anti-immigrant," like a feature on a California woman who had had her Social Security number used by 80 illegal immigrants for three years, also received sharp criticism. "There are always extreme cases," one angry Hispanic advocate told me. "But most undocumented immigrants are law-abiding."

Many immigrant supporters also framed the debate in drastic terms.

Conservatives I interviewed were always quick to claim illegal immigrants were responsible for under-funded and failing schools, overloaded emergency rooms and an increasingly insecure American job market. In many cases, illegal immigrants are part of these problems; but they didn’t create them. And whether their presence hurts or helps a school district or hospital (or whether they pay enough sales tax and give the local economy enough of a boon to offset their use of services), can only be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

To hear them tell it, illegal immigrants, especially those from Latin America, were faced with a stark choice: either work illegally in America, or starve to death in their homelands. Sounds dramatic, but in many cases, it’s false.

Most illegal immigrants pay coyotes thousands of dollars to help them cross the U.S.-Mexico border. This would simply be impossible for people with no jobs or assets. What most immigrants are fleeing in their countries is a lack of opportunity for upward mobility. Their jobs pay enough for them to eat and eke out a humble existence, but not enough to buy a house or pay for their children to attend school.

"Can you blame people for dreaming?" a pro-immigrant contact from the Catholic Church once asked me. I certainly can’t. But searching for a better future is very different than being driven by hunger. Exaggerating the truth to tug on Americans’ sympathy is just as misleading as blaming illegal immigrants for all the country’s ills.

There are also cultural phenomena that the immigration debate never touched on. For many young Mexican men, "cruzar al otro lado," or crossing into America, is as much a rite of passage as it is a quest for a brighter economic future. It’s something the men in their towns have done for generations, and those who return with money are regarded as heroes.

I strongly believe the pro-immigrant rallies of the spring forced Congress to change course on immigration. By the time the Senate began debating issue in April, the Sensenbrenner bill had been scrapped. In May, the Senate passed a bill to provide a path to citizenship for millions here illegally, which would have been the first general amnesty since 1986.

Though hailed as a victory by many, including Mexican President Vicente Fox, the Senate bill actually marked the beginning of the immigration movement’s decline. Militant advocacy groups called immigrant supporters of the bill "sell outs," arguing anything short of amnesty for all illegal immigrants was unacceptable.

Unions, which had provided much of the rallies’ organizational muscle, were concerned about guest-worker provisions in the bill.

By the end of the summer, the rallies had petered out, and coalitions were struggling to make good on their promise to convert the street energy into political power. Indeed, an exhaustive investigation a colleague and I conducted of county registrars’ offices across the country showed no noticeable spike in voter registration. So far the popular slogan of the rallies, "Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote," hasn’t become reality.

Though immigration reform wasn’t passed in 2006, the issue will almost certainly be revisited in 2007. The Democrats control Congress, illegal immigrants are emboldened, and both pro-immigrant groups and conservatives are ratcheting up their rhetoric and revamping their strategies. Immigration reform is now a part of the national consciousness, and most Americans, regardless of their political bent, expect solutions to a system many see as broken.

Whatever happens, California will be in thick of things. It’s in our blood.

Peter Prengaman is a reporter for the Associated Press in Southern California and is a frequent contributor to WM.