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The Power of Latinos

by Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff (mbatko [at]
In the last weeks, the sleeping giant of American politics has growled: the young immigrant generation, the Latino population.. E pluribus Unum - one out of many - is the national motto of the United States inscribed on all kinds of public buildings.

How Mass Demonstrations for a Liberal Immigration Law Change America’s Laws

By Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

[This article published in: DIE ZEIT, April 2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

No one could get through downtown Tucson at noon on Friday. Demonstrators blocked the streets. A strike of students was hardly newsworthy. However the demands of the young demonstrators could not be ignored: No tightening of American immigration policy! No walls at the border to Mexico! Legalize millions of undocumented immigrants!

The Tucson region has 800,000 residents and is growing fast. Rich people who love Arizona’s sun move here from the North and poor people who love America’s insatiable labor market come here from the South. The Mexican border is an hour south by car; a desert lies in between. A quarter of all Arizona’s citizens are Latinos. Latinos have long been the majority in Tucson’s schools. Most know from experience or stories how to cross the desert in the scorching sun. Now they take to the streets so America will not close the door behind them. They do not want to be the last.

The striking students of Tucson are not alone. A wave of demonstrations rolls over America, more forceful than that wave that was dead set against the Iraq war. Suddenly and unexpectedly, it came over the country. It is directed against a bill that passed the House of Representatives in Washington in December. According to this bill, America’s southern border should be changed into a kind of high-tech barrier of fences, sensors and air traffic control devices, everything to discover illegal immigrants. The protests began a few weeks ago in Chicago where 300,000 people took to the streets. Demonstrations followed in Milwaukee, Denver and Phoenix. The peak came last week, a half million people in Los Angles, the largest demonstration in the history of the city. The mass parade reminded the nation of a basic political fact: Nearly every American knows ancestors who immigrated. Despite some populist surges, it is more difficult to enforce a policy against immigrants in the United States than in any other country of the West.

In the last weeks, the sleeping giant of American politics has growled: the young immigrant generation, the Latino population. The representatives in Washington are listening attentively. The bill proposed for a vote by the Senate Judiciary committee this week is more moderate. It earmarks new programs for work migration and legalization of undocumented immigrants alongside reinforcing the border controls.

E pluribus Unum – one out of many – is the national motto of the United States inscribed on all kinds of public buildings. At first America consisted of relatively homogeneous newcomers. They were white and protestant and came from Great Britain. The forced immigration of black Africans, locally segregated and consisting of the outlawed, changed the picture. In the 19th century, Irish, Germans and Italians created the melting pot and brought Catholicism into the country. In the 20th century, the assimilation of East Europeans and East Asians followed. They brought Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism in the country. Religion, ethnicity and race disappeared as defining components of national identity after the civil rights movement of the sixties and the 1965 Immigration law that liberalized immigration.

In 1960, only 600,000 persons with parents from Mexico lived in the country. Today there are eleven million, more than half are probably in the country illegally. Half of all the undocumented come from Mexico. While in the past Mexican cowboys crossed the border to Texas and Arizona uninhibitedly, worked over the summer on ranches in border areas and returned home, a dangerous transcontinental migration of people has started. The border-crossers do not want to rely on the legal process of immigration or wait long. Instead they come at night.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan tried to solve the problem by granting amnesty to several million undocumented immigrants. At the same time, those employers who employed the undocumented were punished. The amnesty functioned, not the sanctions. So the problem continued. Bill Clinton made a new attempt. Alongside generous naturalization programs, he invested in border security. In the city areas of the border region through which the undocumented came into the country, he erected border walls and forced migrants to remote areas including the Arizona desert. He hoped to deter the border-crossers. Since then the number of attempts did not decline; the number of persons dying of thirst rose. Every year the number of undocumented increased by a half-million. In the meantime, there are eleven million - in addition to the 26 million legal immigrants. The number of new Americans was never greater. The migration pressure will continue as long as Mexico’s rural population remains poor and America’s job wonder continues producing 200,000 new jobs every month.

Politics is divided in two camps. The “law-and-order” fraction wants to make the border tight and only allow legal immigration. As the republican senators Jon Kyl and John Cornyn write, this fraction seeks to “restore respect for the law” and “not reward illegal activities.” Therefore they reject all amnesty. A state must know who lives in its territory. This is especially important in the age of terrorism. Rightwing republicans think this way. They passed a bill in December in the House of Representatives that does not provide any work visas or naturalization but redefines illegal border crossing from a civil offense to a felony. Everyone who helps an undocumented on arrival – persons who only give water or shade – would be a criminal. A 700-mile fence would be built. All employers must scrutinize the visa-status of their employees.

The other camp of American politics does not resist the strict enforcement of the law at the border. It also wants to provide more funds for border security. At the same time, it emphasizes America was founded on immigrants and needs newcomers. The Senate bill arises from this spirit. According to this bill, the undocumented should pay fines and line up for approved immigration. As the republican senator Arlin Specter says, they would “begin an eleven year journey toward citizenship.” Most democrats, businesspersons, churches, leftist base groups, moderate conservatives and – very importantly – President Bush – belong to this camp.

George Bush has a delicate political problem because his party is split. He cannot ignore the “law-and-order” fraction but also cannot yield to them. If he does, he will offend a whole generation of Latinos. Given the increasing number of Latinos, states like Arizona, Colorado and Florida would not be won by the republicans any more. Republicans would not continue to hold the presidency.. In the past, George Bush courted Latinos who traditionally vote democratic. He was successful. In the 2000 election, the democrats had a 30-percentage point advantage among Latinos. Four years later, Bush shriveled the lead to 8 percent. An immigration- and border-law offending Latinos could throw the republicans back many years.

The nightmare of conservatives is called “Proposition 187.” This was a referendum initiative in California that the republican governor Pete Wilson supported in 1994. According to this proposition, undocumented immigrants could not claim any state services including schools. Californians approved it by a large majority. But the legal Latino immigrants rebelled. They began registering to vote. The Latino share of republican votes fell drastically. All of a sudden “Proposition 187” helped make a democratic stronghold out of the original conservative land of Ronald Reagan. Therefore republicans now sound the alarm when they see masses of Latinos demonstrating in the streets. It does not take much imagination to assume that a relatively moderate and liberal new immigration law will be passed at the end. California’s governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who knows something about immigration questions warns his party friends “Criminalizing immigrants is a slogan, not a solution.”
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