By the standards of the movement sweeping the nation, it was small: About 500 people, mostly students, gathered on the UT-Austin campus a hundred feet from the statue of Martin Luther King that faces east in solitude, tactfully removed from the old Confederates who face south a quarter of a mile away. But every 15 or 20 minutes a new contingent would march up, 50 or a hundred strong.
State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos spoke with vivid eloquence. On the side, he cracked to me that we’d done better in our day, over Vietnam. I doubted that we could ever have turned out half a million people in Dallas. He conceded the point.
This isn’t the antiwar movement I grew up in, of white college kids, liberal protestant churches, Dr. Spock, and veterans of the Abraham Lincoln brigades. It’s not the civil rights movement, although the crowds everywhere were a gorgeous mixture of American colors, brown and black, yellow and tan. The civil rights marches were solemn, formal, more spiritual and religious.
The spirit of the immigration marches was festive and patriotic. The immigrants, their families, and their supporters are not angry with America. Mostly they aren’t even demanding what they haven’t got. They are trying to protect what they have, or what they are already hard at work to get. One sign I saw, “My father was undocumented; I’m a law student,” pretty much captured the spirit of the day.
Vietnam was about war. Civil rights was about racial justice. These marches were mainly about work. They were about the right to work, and to live from work, in simple dignity, independence, and freedom. That freedom exists as a practical matter for many immigrants in America today. By middle-class standards it’s not much, but it’s what they have. And it’s under threat.
The bill the U.S. House passed is a cruel farce, which would turn (it is said, but no one really knows) 11 million working people into felons, and criminalize all who assist them, including church and social workers. The compromise under consideration in the Senate is less cruel, but it is a fantasy that somehow one can separate those who have been in the country two or five years or longer from those who haven’t.
And suppose you could? Send back all those who have been here less than two years, and you’d have to let just that many in again to take their jobs. And then you’d have a rotating underclass with no stake in the country, undermining labor standards and breeding petty crime.
Border enforcement is another cynical joke. It doesn’t stop people from coming in: It stops them from going back. And so the settled population of immigrants grows more rapidly than it otherwise would, not less so. Meanwhile, working people are cut off from their parents and children south of the border, to no good effect.
Here’s another approach: Enforce labor standards and protect all who work here equally. Undocumented immigrants are recruited because they can be exploited. Remove that incentive, and fewer will be demanded, and fewer will come.
But then, let’s also recognize that working migrants who do come are here for the long haul. They aren’t criminals, and they also aren’t guests. The fact that their presence may be illegal is a problem not with the people but with the law. Under the Constitution, their children are citizens the day they are born. The migrants should become legal now and citizens later: not without some wait and effort, but efficiently.
I think the country knows this. Making Americans is one thing it does pretty well. Adding 11 million, or (say) 20 million, working people who are here anyway to the citizenship rolls, in a country of 300 million, isn’t that big a deal to most people. Especially when the other choice is to have a police state. A headline in The Wall Street Journal on April 10 read, “Employers Have a Lot to Lose.” But the story wasn’t about how business felt threatened by the rallies. It was about a California landscaper speaking out to get his workers made legal.
Who wants the police state? The leaders of the Republican Party. Why? Not because American business demands it. Business would adapt if fair labor standards were enforced on all employers evenly. It’s the politicians, alone, who would lose out. Citizens vote. There was a time when Republicans might have attracted the culturally conservative Latino vote on values. But in the economy they’ve built, that’s a lost cause. And so, what is immigrant criminalization really about? It’s just another bit of campaign business, along with felony disenfranchisement, voter-roll purges, and contrived shortages of voting machines.
Did they think the country would go along? If so, they don’t know who we are. They don’t know how deeply the immigrant experience forms us all. In California, faced by Proposition 187 with an elementary decision between decency and evil, the state flipped from Reagan red to solid blue after the courts declared that anti-immigration law unconstitutional. It could happen again. Only this time, it’s all across the country—a divided country where a California change in only a few states, such as Arizona or Virginia, or Florida, could tip our politics right over.
Looking out at the kids in April, you could almost imagine it happening in Texas.
James K. Galbraith teaches at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas at Austin.