SO WHAT’S WITH THESE IMMIGRANTS? They’ve been here a while. They know that Angelenos don’t turn out for massive demonstrations. In San Francisco people do that, and in New York and Washington, D.C., of course. But this is L.A. People don’t come downtown, and even if they did, there’s no place to congregate. Doesn’t anyone remember that the city had to cancel its millennium celebration because it didn’t have a sufficiently large public space? We don’t do half-a-million here. Just who do these immigrants think they are?

Worse yet, Saturday’s demo wasn’t even something we were all hipped to in advance. Unless you listened to Spanish-language radio or watched Spanish-language television or got the word from your church or union, the abrupt appearance of more than 500,000 demonstrators downtown came as a complete surprise. It certainly surprised the English-language media. I’m not naming names, mind you, but if you looked at the national press the day after the demo — those papers that have L.A. bureaus — you’ll note they didn’t send anybody downtown. And what about all those local bloggers who claim special knowledge of L.A. life? It’s one thing to miss a news story. It’s another to miss history — and Saturday’s march was historic as few L.A. events have ever been.

Oh, we’ve generated plenty of history in these parts — no other American city can claim two major riots over the past 50 years. But a history of massive civic engagement, of the largest political rally in U.S. history outside D.C. and New York — that’s not the kind of history we’re accustomed to making here. If you’ve been paying close attention, there have been clues, of course. For the past decade, for instance, the shock troops of L.A.’s most effective political operation, the County Federation of Labor, have come from those local unions that consist preponderantly of immigrants who can’t themselves vote — the janitors and hotel workers in particular. In a sense, the most civically engaged among us have actually lacked legal status, but have made up for that with a level of electoral involvement that has changed the composition of the City Council, the state Legislature and California’s congressional delegation in Washington.

And don’t think Washington isn’t watching. For sheer timing, Saturday’s demonstration, coming on the eve of Monday’s Senate Judiciary Committee vote on immigration reform, was masterful — even though hitting the precise time slot required the inadvertent cooperation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who’d demanded a vote during what turned out to be the immediate aftermath of the march.

The vote did not go to Frist’s liking. All the committee’s Democrats and four of its Republicans — Chairman Arlen Specter, Ohio’s electorally endangered Mike DeWine, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Sam Brownback, of both Kansas and the religious right — voted to reject the draconian provisions of the bill that House Republicans passed in December, and went well beyond the flaccid compromise that President Bush had put forth. Embracing most of the provisions of the Kennedy-McCain bill that immigrant advocates were promoting, the committee majority voted to create an 11-year path to citizenship for the 11 million to 12 million immigrants currently here illegally. The bill would establish an agricultural guest-worker program and beefed-up border security, but rejected the House’s call for a fence on the border and felonizing all undocumenteds and those who dare help them. The committee also passed the provisions of the “Dream Act,” which enables children of undocumenteds who grew up in the U.S. to attend college with the same tuition rates offered to other students who reside in their state.

All this was apparently too much for California’s own Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose op-ed article in Tuesday’s L.A. Times positioned him well to the right of the emerging GOP center. In essence, Schwarzenegger rejected both the House bill and the Senate judiciary bill, which left him advocating the indefinite extension of the current limbo in which all these undocumenteds find themselves. “Criminalizing immigrants for coming here is a slogan, not a solution,” Schwarzenegger wrote. On the other hand, “granting citizenship to people who are here illegally is not just amnesty .?.?. it’s anarchy.”

Schwarzenegger’s position is essentially the president’s, and what’s revealing is that the president found no takers for his halfway house even within his own party. Though Frist will doubtless try to keep the Judiciary Committee’s bill from being enacted, there appear to be enough votes to pass it (though not necessarily to beat back a filibuster). Add the GOP Four on the Committee to McCain, throw in the Democrats, and you’re already at 50, and there are surely more where they came from. The most interesting vote is DeWine’s. The Ohio Republican senator is on the GOP’s endangered-species list this year, facing a stiff challenge from liberal Congressman Sherrod Brown in a year when the Ohio Republican Party has been wracked by scandals quite independent of those afflicting the national party. More interesting still, Ohio actually has quite a small immigrant population: States that hemorrhage manufacturing jobs aren’t really magnets for immigrants. And still, DeWine thought it prudent to take a pro-immigrant stance.

Schwarzenegger’s article suggests that the governator may have a tough time exploiting the issue to his own advantage. He can’t go to the nativist extreme and call for felonizing the undocumenteds without losing damn near every Latino vote in the state. But if he embraces legalization as more and more Republican moderates are doing, he will depress turnout of the state’s right-wing Republican base. In some parts of the country this fall, increasingly desperate GOP candidates will do their damnedest to stir up an anti-immigrant backlash, but that’s an option that an embattled Republican incumbent running statewide in California doesn’t really have. That leaves Arnold stuck with the same position that Bush has been championing for the better part of a year. It hasn’t done Bush any good, and it’s not likely to help Arnold, either.

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