My day without immigrants

Maggie Gallagher

5/2/2006 8:05:00 PM - Maggie Gallagher
Ossining, N.Y., Monday, 9:17 a.m. Stopped at my local diner for coffee and the papers. The owner served me himself, and he was chatty. "Yeah, we got four people missing here today." Suddenly I remembered: Today is our national Day Without Immigrants. "How are you handling it?" I asked.

"I'm the chief dishwasher, etc. today," he said, unfazed. I drank my usual six cups of coffee without incident. Of course, the diner was not entirely without immigrants. The girl from India showed up for work, as usual.

1:53 p.m. I drove by Kentucky Fried Chicken for some Original Recipe. The wait was unusually long, but I couldn't tell if that was because today was our national Day Without Immigrants or because the man in front of me ordered chicken for 10.

What is the strategy here? What do the protesters hope to accomplish?

President Bush is no help. Right now, he is being the kind of politician we Americans like to say we want. He is standing up for What Is Right, Not What Is Popular -- i.e., he lectures us unbearably. Last week the first husband sternly intoned that we all need to calm down and be "rational" because it's impossible to deport 12 million people. (As any wife knows, "Let's be rational" is husbandspeak for "I'm right and you're hysterical.") Then on Monday, I looked up and saw that man again on the TV talking about how we have to conduct this debate "without losing our national soul." Our national soul? Gee, and I'd be content with a president who merely secured our borders.

One thing was clear from the mass protests: These immigrants are well on their way to becoming culturally American, demanding their inalienable rights with a powerful sense of entitlement. "What do we want?" shrieked one protest organizer. "Justice!" shouted back the crowd. Hmm. Maybe not exactly the right slogan, here?

The Day Without Immigrants organizers seem to have in mind part "coming out" strategy ("we're here, we're illegal, get used to it"), and part an "economic necessity" argument. According to the Associated Press, many carried signs in Spanish that translated to "We are America" and "Today we march, tomorrow we vote."

"We are the backbone of what America is, legal or illegal, it doesn't matter," said Melanie Lugo, who was among thousands attending a rally in Denver with her husband and their third-grade daughter. "We butter each other's bread. They need us as much as we need them," she said.

As a result of the Day Without Immigrants, many more Americans are certainly aware of the massive numbers of illegal immigrants in our midst, demanding their rights. I'm not sure this strategy works for them. "A little more humility, please" the newsstand guy suggested. "They come to this country illegally and then they are going to tell us what to do?"

Economists say the "economic shutdown" impact was mostly symbolic. Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Service, told Reuters that the Day Without Immigrants was "unlikely to have a measurable impact" on business even for this month. A few regional industries felt it (agribusiness in Southern California, for example). But by and large the neighborhoods that were "shut down" on Monday were mostly the illegal immigrants' own neighborhoods.

Overall, what the Day Without Immigrants reveals is this: We Americans love hardworking immigrants. America is still a nation of immigrants. But America is not a nation that depends on low-skill immigrant workers for our prosperity. In truth, they need us more than we need them.

Secure the borders first, and Americans will find a way to help our hardworking immigrant neighbors long settled in this country. Trust our national soul, Mr. President.