Quaking Politicians

THE CANDLELIGHT CAST from the thousands who flooded La Placita Monday night illuminated a remarkable new American political reality: a national immigrant civil rights movement of truly tidal proportions.

And, most inspiring, one that has mightily overflowed the narrow restraints of both major political parties and that continues to rise and widen. Indeed, now more than two weeks out from the epic “Gran Marcha” of March 25, which brought a half-million into our downtown streets, it’s abundantly clear that pro-immigrant forces have seized the political momentum and have the politicians on the run.

Just ponder the list of 70 or more cities that saw a new round of demonstrations on Sunday and Monday. Not just L.A. and New York. Not only the hundreds of thousands on the Washington Mall. Or the 100,000 in Phoenix and perhaps an equal number in San Diego. But also the astounding half-million in Dallas. And the thousands who rallied in Jackson; Des Moines; Boise; Dodge City; Shuyler, Nebraska; and even in Garden City, Kansas, where more than 3,000 showed up in a town of only 30,000.

All of these numbers and no violence. No arrests. No disorder. Just an outstanding display of people-powered politics.

In this most massive of genuine grassroots political explosions of recent times, a handful of radio DJs emerges with more political clout, more power of convocation, than does a chamberful of U.S. senators. And with what sweet justice are all of the mechanisms of the political establishment being overridden. As immigrants became ever more central to our national economic vitality over the last three decades, neither political party had the courage, or even the slightest inclination, to speak for or represent them. What more graphic indicator of the official indifference than the spectacle of last week’s legislative collapse on the Senate floor. Even after a compromise had been reached, the American political class couldn’t pull it together to approve a minimal package.

Look no further than Governor Schwarzenegger and his two major Democratic rivals to catch an industrial whiff of bipartisan cluelessness. When asked on the morrow of the Gran Marcha his view of the major House bill on immigration, Phil Angelides couldn’t properly identify the legislation. His opponent in the Democratic primary, Steve Westly, speaks only in vague platitudes on this issue. Arnold, meanwhile, has become a quivering bowl of Jell-O on the matter. First, he promised he would consider driver’s licenses for the undocumented but somehow has never gotten around to it. Last year, he made a disastrous one-day detour into endorsing the Minutemen. Two weeks ago, he said he supported about half of the immigration reforms encapsulated in the Senate compromise. This week, he sounds like he supports the whole package.

NO WONDER. ARNOLD’S JUST DOING what the pols in both parties are currently doing: racing to play catch-up with what they see in the streets. Neither party can afford to alienate a growing Latino voter bloc. And they can all do the math. While the “illegals” can’t vote, they have millions of cousins, uncles and even children who can — and will. How many House seats (not to mention Electoral College votes) would an immigrant-bashing ploy now cost the GOP in crucial battleground swing states like New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado? Any surprise that leading Republicans are now promising that as soon as they return from Easter recess, they will — cross their hearts — get back to passing a reform bill that expands legalization to the de facto undocumented portion of the work force?

Most heartening, it seems that the demonstrations — while certainly hardening the views of those who couldn’t stomach “illegals” in the first place — are a driving force in reshaping public opinion. A Washington Post–ABC poll released earlier this week found that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed backed the notion of letting immigrants who have lived in the country a certain number of years apply for legal status and citizenship. Some 68 percent agreed that illegal immigrants are taking jobs Americans don’t want, and, by a 50 percent to 38 percent margin, they said they trusted Democrats more than Republicans to manage this issue.

Granted, this is only one poll among many. But its numbers — if anywhere near reality — are nothing short of remarkable. Beyond the polling and beyond whatever immediate effects these demonstrations will or will not have on legislation, there’s something else about this movement that makes a unique contribution to our political culture. It’s a certain something that has gone missing for too long in our national debate. It’s a palpable optimism. Hundreds of thousands — really, millions — of ordinary people clamoring for one simple right: to be an American. In my book, that’s pretty damn nifty.

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