“We are America” 

Carrying banners, waving flags and chanting “We are America,” millions of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets from coast to coast this week in numbers not seen since the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s. Their first priority is the demise of the hated immigration bill passed by the Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives, which they fear would round up, criminalize and punish those who are in the country illegally. Their ultimate goal is the enactment of a fair and workable policy that would offer them the same opportunity offered to millions of others in this country of immigrants—the chance to work and make a better life for themselves and their families.

To put the exploding immigration debate in perspective, think back to the 1989 celebration of Montana’s first century as a state. Then-Gov. Stan Stephens called a “Centennial Legislature” into mock special session to adopt a resolution lauding the state’s history. Legislator after legislator stood to speak, declaring their heritage as fourth or fifth or, rarely, sixth-generation Montanan and celebrating the roles their ranching, logging, mining and merchant forebears had played in settling and developing Montana.

But then Rep. Bob Gervais, a Blackfeet Indian, stood to offer an amendment to the resolution and silence descended on the floor of the House. “You forgot something,” Gervais said in his deep but seldom-heard voice: “my people.” And sure enough, the resolution crafted by the Republican governor had neglected any mention whatsoever of Montana’s Indian people.

“I have heard you speak of how you have been here for five or six generations,” said Gervais. “But my people have been here for considerably longer—and things were much different when we ‘managed the natural resources’ of this land.”

In a heartbeat, with just a few well-chosen words, Gervais had laid his finger on the inescapable truth. Unless we are American Indians—what Canadians appropriately call “The First People”—all of us, somewhere in our not-too-distant past, are either immigrants or descendents of immigrants.

Current estimates put the number of illegal immigrants in this nation at somewhere around 11 million people. In the past, their influence has been limited as a direct result of their inability to vote, and the historically low voting turnout for legal immigrants. But now, with the House immigration bill seen as a direct threat to their very existence, the sleeping giant of the potential migrant vote has been kicked into furious action.

Two weeks ago in Los Angeles, more than half a million people took over the city’s streets, leaving organizers and observers shocked at the magnitude of the turnout. “Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine half a million people marching in a city that has 1.2 million people,” organizer Lydia Gonzalez Welch told reporters.

This week, in more than 60 cities across the nation, similarly enormous turnouts of immigrants and their supporters once again stunned the nation. Forty thousand marchers in Atlanta, 100,000 in Manhattan, 100,000 in Phoenix, 30,000 in St. Paul, 10,000 in Boston—and on and on.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, recalling the mobilization of blacks during the civil rights era, reminded the Washington rally that “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the nation to let freedom ring.” Noting that the Republican-backed immigration bill had “touched a very raw nerve,” Kennedy said: “It is time for Americans to lift their voices once again—this time in pride for our immigrant past and in support of our immigrant future.”

The Hispanic Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, summed up the enormous undercurrent of discontent in the crowds, saying: “We wave these American flags because we say to the Americans that we clean your toilets, we clean your hotels and we take care of your children and now we ask you to help us take care of our children as well.”

What this means for the Republicans’ troubled political future is uncertain, but at this point, it doesn’t look good. Of the nation’s estimated 40 million Hispanics, only 13 million are eligible to vote, and of that number only 60 percent are registered to vote—but that could change. Moreover, their numbers are concentrated in areas that could well turn the midterm elections toward Democratic candidates who are generally perceived as more compassionate in their immigration policies than their Republican counterparts.

That perception has only been strengthened by the Draconian measures in the House-passed immigration bill and the desires of the Bush administration and the Republican-dominated Congress to surround the nation’s borders with walls to keep immigrants out—despite the fact that history shows wall-building has always failed.

What may be more important than walls in ultimately providing a sane immigration policy is a significant change in the nation’s policies toward trade, the environment and the economy in this hemisphere. Montana writer David Sirota’s piece in this week’s San Francisco Chronicle details the effect NAFTA and other trade pacts are having on the pressure to seek a better life on this side of the border.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Sirota writes, was “sold to the American people as a job creator here, and an economic development tool for Mexico. But, of course, the pact did not include any provisions to protect or increase Mexican workers’ wages, workplace standards or human rights, thus all it did was open up a cheap labor pool for companies to exploit.” The result, Sirota contends, is that “the jobs that were created in Mexico still pay near-slave wages”—a contention backed up by former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who points out that Mexico’s real wages are lower than before.

Regardless of how it ultimately turns out, for now one thing seems certain: The millions of immigrants and their tens of millions of friends, relatives and supporters have the Republicans in their cross-hairs on immigration—and that can only bode ill for a party already drowning in its own across-the-board scandal, corruption, and failure.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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