Updated material and a round-up of responses to this sizzling topic are to be found at the bottom of this post.Saturday saw the largest political demonstration in the history of Los Angeles, and one of the biggest in recent American history. A half-million people or more flooded two dozen blocks of downtown L.A. to give voice to some sort of rational, realistic immigration reform. For some months now I have been warning readers of this blog that the immigration issue would break wide open this season -- and here it is in full living color. Similar demonstrations the past couple of weeks drew a hundred thousand or more in Illinois, more than that in Denver and tens of thousands in Phoenix and other cities. Similar protests are scheduled through April 10 as the U.S. Senate begins formal debate on reform this coming Tuesday. If you have fallen behind in this story you can catch up by reading one of my overview stories here or here. I'm struck by several aspects of this story. Primarily by the way neither party can properly get a hold of this issue. Demographics and global economics are simply racing ahead of any practical political response. The Republicans are deeply divided over the issue. Even as the half-million or so were marching in the streets Saturday, President Bush was on the radio more or less endorsing the protestors' two key demands: that a legal channel be created for the immigration already happening and that some legal acknowledgement be given to the 12 million "illegals" already living here. Viva Bush! The Democrats are less divided and generally more inclined toward reform. But can you name even two prominent national Dmeocrats who have taken up this cause in a serious way? (One is Ted Kennedy who along with John McCain has co-authored the most sensible reform proposal currently under consideration). As I have argued previously, what we are currently experiencing is the greatest wave of cross-border migration in recorded history -- a virtual "exodus" of millions from a failed Mexican economy and into a country where the wage level is 10-20 times higher. Politicians can only come up with after-the-fact gestures but policy itself (and walls and fences) will do little to nothing to alter the flow. My otherwise smart guy friends, Mickey Kaus and Bill Bradley have surely gone off the deep end on this one. They both conjecture that these giant marches, full of Mexican flags and Mexicans chanting 'Mexico! Mexico!' are inviting a virulent nativist backlash. They point to increased voter turn-out in favor of the restrictive Prop 187 in California after a similar (and smaller) protest march in 1994. That was then. This is now. The current situation is not analagous to 1994. There is no hot-button ballot prop up for a vote this season. And the nativist backlash is already here. The media suck-up to the miniscule Minuteman show of a year ago established an ugly frame for the national debate. The House has already acted in a toxic manner when last December it passed an outrageous and impossible-to-implement measure that would make all illegals (and their employers) into felons. While that bill will not become law per se, the Senate is considering some measures almost as Neanderthal. It seems to me that when an entire population -- who, after all, cleans our offices, cuts our lawns, serves our food, makes our beds, tends to our children and pays taxes but gets no refunds-- is threatened with criminalization they have the right and necessity to politically mobilize. It's asking them a lot, don't you think, to remain silent and impassive as their arrest and deportation are actively being debated? One other point: the white backlash of 1994 was immediately followed by a counter-backlash. 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 California Republicans may never recover. So while the grumbling Archie Bunkers might get their ya-yas all worked up by the Mexican flags flapping in Saturday's demos, you can be damn sure that the smarter among Republican strategists looked at the size of those protests with some trepidation. Many of those in the rally were legal, or have legal relatives or if illegal might soon be legal. And they just didn't look to be likely Republican voters. Bradley is one of the smartest analysts around when it comes to California state politics (and he's a good friend) but, I have to say his reaction to these marches border on the phantasmagorical. He went out of his way to title his report "The Pro-Illegal Immigration Rally in Los Angeles" and asks if it was "really necessary" to stage such a provocative rally. It's the wrong question, of course. This wasn't a staged campaign event or some tightly orchestrated TV photo op. While the demos certainly have leaders and organizers, and while the Mexican flags were certainly politically gratuitous, it seems quite obvious that when you bring out a half-million people you've tapped into something quite organic, some self-propelling force way beyond the control or shaping of a few professional organizers. So it hardly matters if it was necessary or not because --like illegal immigration itself-- it happened anyway. It was a rather natural reaction to the shut-the-borders demagogy that's been ventilating for the past couple of years. Another not so minor point. Bradley argues that these rallies "enable" people who have "broken the law" to continue breaking the law. Well, no, not exactly. People who have entered the U.S. improperly and who stay here have, in fact, not violated any criminal statutes but are instead in violation of civil codes-- even though they are commonly called "illegals." Any of these illegals, if arrested on immigration grounds, are not tried by a criminal court and are, in fact, denied standard due process. Bradley should spend a day in Federal Immigration Court and watch how these "illegals" are deported without as much as the right to a court-provided lawyer. As violators of civil codes, they are cast out and often their families are broken apart with no more process than the DMV revoking a driver's license. Indeed, these protests have been sparked to a great degree by the so-called Sensenbrenner bill that would in the future make the "illegals" really illegal by making them criminal felons. It's a distinction worth five or ten years in jail that Bradley is blurring. Bill, my friend, you've got it bass-ackwards. This was a rally in favor of legal immigration. It called precisely for a way for immigrants who are otherwise already absorbed into our economy and society to be granted the minimal status that they obviously merit. To defend illegal immigration no protest would be necessary -- you would need only defend the status quo. My arguments against the sort of simplistic and anachronostic mode of parsing this issue which we glimpse in Bradley's post is well explained in the articles I linked to above -- so no need to rehearse them here. What some people don't get is that we have already been cracking down on the border for more than a decade and there's a reason why it has so miserably failed. It's about as futile as engaging in prayer dances to stop earthquakes or invoke rain storms.
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, 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 fifty 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 re-open 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.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 cost of 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 debate as nothing will change on the ground -- backlash or not. It's a little like debating the tides. Meanwhile, someone throw my pal Bill Bradley a rope. He's waded in at high tide and has sunk in up to his neck.
UPDATE FOR MONDAY:
Welcome to the numerous readers coming in from linked blogs. There's been a lot of reaction to this story and to this posting. Here's some of it:
Bill Bradley responds. Sort of. He's been very insitent on telling us the obvious i.e. that political forces desirous of scapegoating immigrants will use the size and imagery of Saturday's rally to further scapegoat them. No doubt. I'll be interested to hear what Bill actually proposes as an immigration policy rather than simply telling immigrants it is counter-productive to protest their own proposed criminalization. When MLK convened a couple of hundred thousand "negroes" around the reflecting pool in 1962 it also energized his opposition while simultaneously marking the rising tide of a civil rights movement. That's the nature of politics: action -- reaction. It's not predetermined which side of the equation will eventually triumph. Just as an aside, you will remember that at the time American blacks were also "illegals" in many states-- barred and subject to prosecution for drinking out of the wrong fountain, trying to go to the wrong school etc. etc.
L.A.- based Republican political consultant and respected analyst Allan Hoffenblum has posted a note in the comments section below: "Marc, you got it right. The major differences between now and 1994? The increased voting/political power of Latinos, many more Republicans today understanding the significance of this AND George W. Bush is not acting like Pete Wilson." Allan's a smart guy -- not just because he agrees with me. But because he's one of the most honest and prescient political analysts to be found. He's got an uncanny record of accurate predictions.
I also got a note from James. K Galbraith, son of the legendary John Kenneth Galbraith and a celebrated economist in his own right. "I'm with you all the way on this one," he emailed me on Sunday. "Feel free to add me to your list of allies." Jamie wrote about all this quite eloquently for Salon back in 2004. He explained just what GW Bush had in mind when he proposed a "guest worker" program back then. Fortunately, Bush's orginal idea has been reworked and its more enlightened proponents are now using the term "guest worker" as merely a marker for a program that would go way beyond the onerous bracero schemes of the 50's and 60's.
One of my other pals, Tamar Jacoby, perfectly laid out what's right and what's wrong about "guest worker" in Sunday's Washington Post. The former deputy editor of the NY Times op-ed section, Tamar is now a fellow at the center-right Manhattan Institute and has become, without parallel, America's foremost advocate of sensible immigration reform. Go, Tamar!
On a related point: another blood-brother pal, Dan Kowalski, the Austin-based immigration lawyer and editor of Lexis' Bender's Immigration Bulletin, has also posted a comment pointing out one helluva detail. Some have tried to write off the Sensenbrenner Bill -- the putative target of Saturday's protest-- as purely symbolic, something that Bush himself doesn't support. Wrong. While it is, indeed, unlikely (though hardly impossible) that the Senate would ratify a similar measure, Kowalski provides the link reminding us that Bush did in fact endorse the Sensenbrenner hare-brainer of a bill.
A day late, The New York Times finally catches up on this past week's rallies which have "astonished" all observers. One tidbit that the NYT advances is the still fully-undisclosed role that the (conservative) National Hispanic Association of Evangelicals played in supporting and organizing many of these protests. Meeting behind the scenes with the Catholic establishment forged an unusual alliance between the two groups -- at least on this issue.
This just in... While our friend Bill Bradley has decided to punt on policy recommendations he has returned to his excellent reporting on California politics. He's got a gem about how clueless Democratic guberbnatorial challenger Phil Angelides is on this issue. Sensenbrenner? Guest Worker? Huh? Let me get staff on it right away. No hurry Phil... looks like you'll have plenty of time after November.
More to come on this story as it continues to develop. I have a long piece on the border and immigration coming out in the May issue of The Atlantic. It should be online a week from today.