Monday, April 03, 2006

Whose Backlash?
From the LA Weekly.
Whose Backlash?
Nuestro backlash

Wednesday, March 29, 2006 - 7:00 pm

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. At least in physics.
In politics, however, the equation isn’t always symmetrical. A mild push might
invite a whopping Sunday punch. Likewise, an unbridled onslaught might go
completely unanswered.

So what about this nationwide chain reaction of immigrant demonstrations, school
walkouts, a freeway blockade, and Saturday’s historic rally that brought
hundreds of thousands into the streets of Los Angeles? Will this feisty and
largely unanticipated show of force by an “illegal” underclass — replete with
flapping Mexican flags — provoke some ferocious, crushing backlash of
xenophobia and reprisal? Are we in for an amped-up repeat of 1994, when a much
smaller downtown demo of Latinos helped fuel, a few weeks later, a revanchist
white-voter turnout in favor of the rights-stealing Proposition 187?

This nightmare scenario is what some analysts are predicting. Problem is,
they’ve got it backward. The feared nativist backlash has been in full motion
now for some time — long before the humongous immigrant demonstration last
weekend. The groveling media suck-up to the minuscule Minutemen show (hundreds
of journalists shamelessly traipsing behind a few score vigilantes) a year ago
established a twisted and ugly frame for a national debate that had been
delayed way too long. The Lou Dobbsian jibber-jabber about “broken borders”
reached its crescendo last Christmas, when the House passed the outrageous
Sensenbrenner bill that would deem all so-called illegal aliens — and their
employers — felons. (Undocumented workers currently are in violation of civil,
not criminal, codes.)

Why should anyone feign surprise when an entire population that cleans our
offices, cuts our lawns, serves our food, makes our beds, tends to our
children, and pays taxes but gets no refunds, finds it expedient to mobilize
politically against its wholesale criminalization? It’s asking a lot, don’t you
think, for workers to remain silent and impassive as their arrest and
deportation are actively being contemplated in Congress? The only surprise is
that it has taken this long to materialize.

Our contemporary Cassandras, those who in 1962 would have lectured Dr. King that
he was only stirring up Mr. Charlie by pushing his Negroes too far too fast,
might recall that the white backlash of 1994 was immediately followed by a
counterbacklash. An enraged and energized Latino constituency accelerated its
entrance into citizenship and onto the voter rolls, and within four years it
steamrollered the California GOP — a flattening from which state Republicans
have still not recovered.

So while the grumbling Archie Bunkers might get their ya-yas all worked up by
the Mexican flags unfurled in Saturday’s demo, the smarter among Republican
strategists look upon the size of those protests with some pause and
trepidation (if not with a calculator in hand). Many of those in the rally were
legal, or have legal relatives, or, if illegal, might soon be legal. And they
could hardly be counted on to vote for a party that would continue denying
their existence. There’s a reason why George W. Bush isn’t replicating the
despicable demagogy of Pete Wilson. At least he, if not all of his fellow
Republicans, has assimilated the lessons of Prop. 187.

I don’t think that the sudden upsurge in marches and demos in any direct way
encouraged a handful of key Republican senators to join with Democrats on
Monday in approving a sweeping and liberalized comprehensive immigration-reform
measure (which still faces an uphill battle on the full Senate floor). What’s
astounding is that the protests weren’t used as an excuse to not do so. How
could they when, at virtually the same moment the protesters overflowed
downtown, the president’s own radio address broadly endorsed the two principal
demands of the demonstrators: expanded legal immigration and some channel or
another through which the 12 million illegals already here can come into legal

The only argument we — as a nation of immigrants — can make against the current
migratory wave is that our grandparents and parents came here legally, so why
don’t Jose and Maria do the same? Well, the America of 2006 is not the America
that my family came to in 1915 (and when they came, they also pushed aside
better-paid, longer-term residents and citizens). Our work force is vastly
older and immensely better educated and skilled than even 50 years ago. The
industrial revolution, which was roaring ahead a century ago, has given way,
unfortunately, to a service economy. Barring Mexicans from coming across the
border is not going to magically reopen shuttered car and tractor factories. On
the contrary, if you could even plausibly tamp down the inflow, you would only
increase the out-migration of American business. When a 2,000-mile border
separates two nations with as much as a 20-to-1 wage gap, what do you think is
going to happen?

Our national economy easily absorbs and desperately needs about a million and a
half immigrant workers per year to grow and compete. We let a million of them
come in legally. The other half-million we make run and dart across the border
at great peril. Our reality has outstripped our laws — and our way of framing
the issue. In the end, it will make little difference who prevails in this
year’s congressional debate, as nothing will change on the ground — backlash or
not. It’s a lot like debating the tides.

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