A Kinder, Gentler Crisis?

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Media snapshots of demonstrations in support of illegal immigrants is often dramatically different than what is actually said, shouted or reported

[With a prefab ‘fear’ among immigrants in America once more in high media rotation adorned with all of its hyperbolic rhetorical flourishes and naked contradictions, I am reminded of this column I reported and wrote in 2006 after attending rallies held in support of illegal immigrants that erupted in the wake of the legislation proposed by Wisconsin Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner. The rallies across Los Angeles County—which is home to more Mexican nationals than any other place outside of Mexico—highlighted the strange juxtaposition of the optics of ‘immigration reform’ and what organizers and protestors were actually saying on the streets: Immigrants were waving Old Glory even as many of them called America a ‘racist, colonialist abomination’ that needed to be wiped out (or repealed and replaced in today’s parlance); illegal immigrants stridently denouncing the very country they were demanding to be allowed to legally join as citizens. It was the social-civic equivalent of a marriage proposal that went: “I hate your stinking guts, you manipulative, abusive, faithless scumbag. Now marry me or else!” As the dawn of 2017 draws near and the inauguration of Donald Trump looms, America can look back to the protests of 2006 as a preview of what to expect in the months and years ahead.]

By Mark Cromer

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared, in a recent opinion column for the Los Angeles Times and while out on the stump looking for another term in Sacramento, that it is time for Californians to seriously lower the verbal octane that is fueling the debate over illegal immigration.

Acknowledging that the Golden State, like much of the rest of the nation, has become bitterly polarized over what to do about an illegal immigrant population that ranges between 12 and 25 million men, women and children, Schwarzenegger’s belated plea for good people to politely disagree nervously echoes Rodney King’s timeless utterance: ‘Can’t we all just get along?’

The answer, I am afraid to say, is: not right now.

In his op-ed, the Governor asks illegal immigrants and their supporters to “change your message” and wrap themselves in the stars and stripes. “Carry your home country in your heart,” Schwarzenegger wrote. “But carry the American flag in our streets.”

They’ve already got the memo, governor.

Illegal immigrants and their supporters learned that public relations lesson way back in March, almost immediately after millions of them filled the streets in cities across the nation amid a sea of Mexican flags and the roar of Spanish language chants.

Scaring the hell out of many more people than they won over, organizers quickly heeded the advice from benefactors like the National Chamber of Commerce and ditched the Mexican tri-colors for the more reassuring red, white and blue.

But their core message that’s just underneath that faux embrace of American symbols is still very clear to anyone looking past the costumes and props.

Two days before the governor made his plea on the pages of The Times, I spent an afternoon with several hundred illegal immigrants and their supporters who gathered in a dusty field just north of downtown Los Angeles’s skyscrapers.

Schwarzenegger would have been delighted to see how ubiquitous the American flag was at the event. Old Glory was indeed everywhere. But I wonder what the governor would have said about the rhetoric coming from the stage, where activists exhorted the crowd (mostly in Spanish) in front of a banner that demanded ‘Legalization Now!’

The paradox was striking.

There was little suggestion from the speakers that America is a largely benevolent nation with a fair (if sometimes flawed) system of justice and government representation. A grand experiment that for all of its failings has survived to allow its people to prosper and live free.

No, America was flatly described as a cancerous confederation of racist colonizers who have built an empire of white privilege on the backs of enslaved immigrants.

“It is because of the undocumented that the [white] people who are retiring today are able to retire. Because of the work, the sweat, the exploitation of the undocumented worker,” shouted Emma Lozano, an activist from Chicago. “They are getting their hearing aides, their crutches and their pacemakers because of our work.”

Lozano went on to say that the United States has oppressed immigrants for 100 years, a timeline she quickly upgraded to 150 years, before finally settling on 400 years of oppression. Basically we’ve been a nation of bigots since Jamestown opened for business.

2006-protests
American flags and rabid ethnocentrism on the streets of Los Angeles during demonstrations in support of illegal immigrants.

It was a message that was repeated on stage by rappers and folk artists and enthusiastically received throughout the crowd.

I wonder how Schwarzenegger would have responded to the surreal irony of watching hundreds of people who have no legal right to be in this nation rallying unchallenged in broad daylight, loudly denigrating America as a racist police state—all while demanding immediate citizenship?

Does the governor, or the White House for that matter, honestly believe that encouraging millions of illegal immigrants to wave our flag and learn English actually makes a difference when so many of them boil with an ethnocentric hatred for the majority of Americans?

Cheap stagecraft and props are no substitute for the critical debate that the nation now faces over its cultural identity, shrinking resources and soaring population numbers.

Schwarzenegger seems to suggest that the absolute vitriol that is peddled by these activists is somehow more palatable if served at room temperature, that we might somehow accept that America is a rotten, racist empire as long as it is proffered with a smile, a wink and a flag-waving request for a backstage pass.

The more genteel, civil discourse that the governor is calling for is a fine, high-minded ideal that perhaps tracks well in his internal polling.

But as I left the rally, I kept thinking about the old adage ‘How do you shake hands with someone who is making a fist?’

This column was first published in The Washington Times.

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