When illegal is right, what is wrong?

Posted: Mar 29, 2006 12:05 AM

There's nothing like the sight of 500,000 protesters on U.S. turf, demanding rights in Spanish while waving Mexican flags, to stir Americans from their siestas.

In Los Angeles, the iconic phrase may be "Si se puede," but in Muncie, it's "What the ... ?"

Suddenly, in the flash of a newscast, polite political debate about guest worker programs visually morphed into what seemed like a full-blown invasion.

Demonstrations have the desired effect of focusing attention on an idea - and television cameras can tighten that focus so that a slow drip looks like a tsunami. But the same imagery can backfire. I suspect that the sight of so many people demanding rights to which they have no legal claim will not help the cause of illegals in this country, even if it motivates politicians to act, well, politically.

Let's just say that convincing others of one's desire to become an American citizen would be more effective if one were to do so in English - while waving an American flag. Just imagine how welcome 500,000 bubbas waving American flags and chanting, "Hell no, we won't go," would be in Mexico City.

Now before I'm accused of being biased against Latinos, let me be clear. Yo quiero a los Latinos. I could go on in Espanol, but when in America, I always say, do as the Americans do. Speak English. Otherwise, I'm over-the-top pro-Latino and pro-immigrant.

I grew up in Florida with Cubans as my closest friends, and my stepfather is Mexican - a legal immigrant who came to this country at age 16 to attend medical school.

I am, in other words, an unapologetic Hispanophile.

But, like a majority of Americans who think Congress should secure our borders, I'm a fan of laws and of those who respect them - even though I occasionally turn right on red when the sign says not to.

The question of what to do with some 11 million to 20 million illegal immigrants already living and working in this country may be too problematic for mere politicians. The issue is exacerbated by our refusal to speak plain, non-PC English about what's what. Illegal immigrants are not "undocumented workers." They're illegal. And, if we're to use the legal language accurately, they're "aliens."

Then again, when we talk about illegal aliens, it is useful to remind ourselves that we're also talking about human beings. To see television images of shadows crossing the desert into the U.S. is to see criminals intent on misdeeds rather than poor people, hundreds of whom die each year in the process, trying to find jobs and plenty to eat.

As we've been told hundreds of times, these people do the work Americans won't do, which is both true and not true. It is true that Americans don't want to work for the low wages that illegal workers gratefully earn, but not necessarily true that no American would do those jobs under any circumstances.

Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies (cis.org), says that unemployment figures tell the truer story of how native workers are being crowded out of the market by cheap labor: 11 percent of American construction workers are unemployed, as are 9 percent of workers in food processing and 11 percent in cleaning and maintenance.

"The least educated Americans are getting hurt," he says.

Standing around a Washington, D.C., Metro station the other day, I watched a Latino sweeping the tiled floor. He was one of those people you barely notice - an invisible soul, dignified, unobtrusive - but plainly attentive to his job. I don't know if he's here legally, but I do know the floor was spotless. I tried to imagine any other American doing the same job. A college student? Another minority? Is there really an involuntarily unemployed American citizen keeping warm on a street grate because this small brown man is sweeping the floor of an underground tunnel?

Before I bleed to death or start writing poetry, let me balance this romantic view of the illegal immigrant with another nugget: About 27 percent of all inmates in the federal prison system are criminal aliens, according to government figures. Then again, millions of illegals who are otherwise law-abiding people have lived here for 10-20 years, buying houses, attending parent-teacher meetings and giving birth to native-born Americans.

Although there seems no simple solution to such a complex issue, two nagging thoughts persist: (1) The right to protest was a gift from America's Founding Fathers to the nation's citizens, ergo, non-citizens should protest in their own countries; and (2) the purpose of the legislative branch of government is to pass laws that serve the best interests of the nation's citizens.

Which may mean, No se puede.