Protesters Run Amok

The backlash on immigration law may be yet to come.

by Victor Davis Hanson

Real Clear Politics

[This article appeared as “The Protests — Whose Backlash?” in]

Hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens, along with Mexican-Americans and Hispanics in general, hit the streets throughout the United States this past week in one of the largest displays of public outrage since the Vietnam-War era.

The conventional wisdom was that the supposedly spontaneous outbursts of immigrant pride and anger took lawmakers by surprise. In response, politicians may backtrack on some of the tougher proposals concerning border enforcement, from constructing a wall to deportations. The media tended to emphasize the heartfelt anguish of the demonstrators, who often on selected televised clips carried American flags and were shown reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

But here in Central California that is not the public face of the demonstrations that we saw — which were mostly angry and, in the case of truant high-school students, so often unfortunately characterized by Mexican chauvinism, if not overt racism of the La Raza (“the race”) type. And while these public outbursts were for the present just noisy, the private counter-reactions to them, I fear, are going to grow larger and angrier still.

If many thousands of illegal aliens marched in their zeal, many more millions of Americans of all different races and backgrounds watched — and seethed. They were struck by the Orwellian incongruities — Mexican flags, chants of “Mexico, Mexico,” and the spectacle of illegal alien residents lecturing citizen hosts on what was permissible in their own country.

If the demonstrators thought that they were bringing attention to their legitimate grievances — the sheer impossibility of deporting 11 million residents across the border or the hypocrisy of Americans de facto profiting from “illegals” who cook their food, make their beds, and cut their lawns — they seemed oblivious to the embarrassing contradictions of their own symbolism and rhetoric. Most Americans I talked to in California summed up their reactions to the marches as something like, ‘Why would anyone wave the flag of the country that they would never return to — and yet scream in anger at those with whom they wish to stay?’ Depending on the particular questions asked, polls reveal that somewhere around 60-80% of the public is vehemently opposed to illegal immigration.

When schools were dismissed due to student walkouts and traffic disrupted, Americans began to see the wages of their own indifference to the problems of illegal immigration. Insidiously over the last 30 years we have allowed an entire apartheid community to grow up in enclaves in the American Southwest and occasionally beyond — one by language and psyche that may well feel more romantically attached to the Mexico it left and won’t return to than to the United States it sought out and must stay in.

To understand the backlash to all this that is rising, think back to the 2003 California recall election for governor. When it was clear that Gray Davis had lost public support and was finished, for a while it looked as if Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante might well be a shoo-in. After all, California was a solidly blue state, and the Republican challengers, actor and political novice Arnold Schwarzenegger and the unknown State Senator Tom McClintock, would probably split the minority Republican vote.

But then Bustamante very quickly began to scare the electorate. He was unapologetic about his past MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) ties, even when that otherwise irrelevant radical student group’s mottos and separatist constitution found their way into the public discourse. He tried to redefine his unsavory fund-raising with the Indian gaming industry as a point of ethnic pride, promised driver’s licenses for illegal aliens, and then aired seemingly suicidal television ads showing him shouting to Latino crowds in a sea of waving red flags.

At the time I remember a liberal friend of mine from the Bay Area calling up, rather shaken, asking in disbelief, “Who is this guy and why does he always scream to screamers?” Bustamante was subsequently trounced and couldn’t receive a third of the vote from a liberal electorate that, he apparently forgot, once passed overwhelmingly ballot propositions banning state aid to illegal aliens, racial preferences in hiring, and bilingual education.

Something of the same backlash may soon follow these demonstrations. There are over 300 million resident Americans, and the vast majority of them are citizens. Had the demonstrators marched chanting “God Bless America,” confined their flag waving to Old Glory, and expressed thanks to a magnanimous United States that gave them a second chance when a corrupt Mexico has precluded their first, then they would have won public support.

As far as the immigration debate itself, we all know the truth that we suppress and the lies that we voice. Language has been the first casualty of our disingenuousness. “Illegal alien” is a descriptive, not a racist, term. In contrast, “undocumented worker” is deliberately misleading, since in most cases documents were never at issue, and not all aliens are workers. “Racism” has nothing to do with a failed system that appalls Asian- and African-Americans alike, as well as bewilders frustrated and patient Koreans, Punjabis, Africans, and Filipinos who did not cut ahead in the long legal immigration line. “Nativist” means nothing when Americans presently welcome in more legal immigrants that any other nation on earth.

Yes, illegal immigration provides a valuable source of cheap labor. But such jobs are not just those Americans will never take, but comprise work that they won’t seek out at such cheap wages. Where compensation rises, citizen workers will follow.

Yes, most aliens work hard, but a small minority of them do not, and find themselves involved in criminal activity. And given the large pool of illegal immigrants from Mexico, that small minority can still reach several thousands — such as the nearly 15,000 aliens currently locked up in the California penal system alone, at a cost of a half-billion public dollars a year.

Yes, immigrants contribute more than receive but mostly when they are young, single, and male. As they age, become ill, marry, and have children, those without education, English, and legality naturally draw on entitlements for a semblance of parity with American citizens otherwise impossible for such minimum wage earners.

So what fails and what works? Bilingual education in our schools, multicultural romance about a mythical Aztlan in our universities, guest worker programs that institutionalize helot status, salad-bowl separatism, and millions who cross the border illegally, all have contributed to the present disaster. But as we see with second- and third-generation model Mexican-American citizens, English immersion, acceptance of an American identity, integration, intermarriage and assimilation, legal and monitored immigration in the thousands from Mexico — all that guarantees immigrants success and energizes us the host.

Americans recoil at the volatile ethnic enclaves in France and the Netherlands — and can understand how such tribalism could quickly escalate to sectarian violence in Iraq, the Balkans, and Rwanda. Unless we curb the present influx, return to the melting pot, and salvage a legal remedy from the present illegal disaster, what we saw this week may only be the beginning of something far more dangerous from both sides of this avoidable crisis.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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