Indigenous sentiment kindles immigration rights marches


Nearly three-quarters of a million people marched in major cities around the United States March 26 to protest foolish punitive legislation on “illegal” immigration. It was the largest political demonstration of a generation, surprising even its organizers. It scored an almost immediate political success. A U.S. Senate committee the next day dropped the most offensive features from its own version of the immigration bill. Even more, the march is likely to stand as a historic milestone in the gradual but now unmistakable awakening of the indigenous giant of the Americas.

The issue front and center is the Border Control Bill, Senate Bill 2454, which is at this writing under debate on the floor of the Senate. At present it seems very likely to be less stupid than the measure already passed by the House of Representatives. The broader question is the economic and demographic structure that has created the need for undocumented immigration. Congress can do very little to change this structure, and we will be lucky if it avoids inflicting serious economic damage on the way.

These issues create conflicting currents in Indian country, but a basic attitude is that we are already putting up with 300 million post-legal immigrants. Another 12 million indocumentados can be accommodated, if realistic regulation is imposed.

Border tribes suffer disproportionately the lawlessness that accompanies some of the northern migration, the drug-and people-smuggling which is persecuted and thus clandestine. The key for those tribes is on the enforcement side, how to strengthen police and home protection forces within the tribal jurisdiction.

But, on a North American and hemispheric scale, beyond the current bill and even the border issues, the marches confronted a more basic phenomenon of great concern to Indians. They rebuked a rising flood of anti-indigenous demagogy. Bigots of all stripes are of one breath in attacking American Indian tribes, Mexican immigrants and the indigenous political movements of South America.

The marches are sending a powerful message both to American politicians and to indigenous youth. These hateful attacks will not go unanswered. A political movement is taking shape along the lines of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The political hacks (and television commentators) who are trying to exploit anti-immigrant sentiment have badly miscalculated. The marches could give rise to new alliances that could profoundly affect the electoral landscape for the next generation.

It was over-reaching by the bigots that inspired the marches in the first place. The Sensenbrenner-King House bill took the ham-handed approach of making felons not only of undocumented workers but also of family members, churches and non-profit agencies who “assisted” them. (Working in the country without a green card is currently a civil offense for non-citizens, not criminal. Sensenbrenner-King would have imposed a jail term of up to five years.) Criminalizing to such a degree of unfairness over 10 million basically decent, family-based Latino people living throughout the United States threatened to create a law enforcement nightmare likely leading to long-term civil unrest.

The Catholic Church hierarchy arose in protest, uniting with Pentecostals, immigrants’ rights groups and a vastly underestimated constituency in sympathy with the indocumentados, such as their citizen children and grandchildren. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said he would instruct his priests to defy this “vicious” law. Their call was amplified by the Latino broadcast and print media, a powerful force also mainly overlooked by the dominant culture.

Protests rippled through the country, culminating in a turnout in Los Angeles alone estimated by police at 500,000. And the demonstrations haven’t ended. An organized march was planned for New York City on April 1. Perhaps even more telling, spontaneous walkouts by high school students are taking on a life of their own. In Los Angeles, nearly 9,000 left class in the middle of the day. In Dallas, 3,000 gathered at city hall. In Phoenix, 1,200 marched on the state Capitol. The walkouts might not be the wisest thing to do, but in a way they are the most impressive aftermath of the marches. They show the excitement of a genuine social movement now stirring the next generation of leaders.

The immigrant phenomenon isn’t simply Latino. Irish nannies and Korean grocers also know what it’s like to live in the shadows of the law. And broad social forces are exerting the pull across the border. An aging U.S. demographic is creating a labor shortage for the foreseeable future in entry-level, low-wage jobs. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce know they need immigrant workers, even at the cost of providing them social justice. Indocumentados now play essential roles throughout the entire economy, and it’s unlikely that even a guest-worker program would subject them to the bracero-style single employer exploitation of the past.

But the immigration issue intersects with another dramatic phenomenon emerging throughout the Americas. Indigenous peoples are demanding their political voice, in their home countries and here. We suspect that this is a strong part of what discomforts the immigrant-phobes. We don’t hear the Lou Dobbs types warning about undocumented workers from Ireland; even though they are far better equipped to compete for the jobs U.S. citizens would want. The border that obsesses the CNN commentator, among many others, is the one with Mexico. The people who cross it from Mexico and Latin America are to an overwhelming extent indigenous.

The bluster about broken borders masks a guilty conscience, as Euro-Americans try to keep Natives from re-entering land that was once theirs. The Statue of Liberty, it turns out, was only meant to face Europe. It wasn’t meant for the Rio Grande. The real fear, as the border-watchers sometimes let slip, is the Reconquista – the possibility that Native people will regain political power in Native lands.

This fear finds an outlet in post-Sept. 11, 2001 paranoia. The terrorist attacks were a genuine trauma for all Americans, Indians no less than anyone else; but the current propaganda about defending the borders amounts to cheap exploitation. None of the 9/11 hijackers were illegal border-crossers: they had visas. And the security failure, it has become painfully evident, was one of a bureaucracy bungling its own procedures. But the 9/11 bogeyman is becoming a standard slander against Natives. We even hear it invoked in attempts to tax reservation smoke shops. Border security as an excuse for the punitive measures of the Sensenbrenner-King bill was a straight-out scare tactic. This scare is now overlapping with the antagonism against the new indigenous movement in South America, where Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales are being dressed up as the new threat to the United States.

But for every Minuteman who fell for the scare and worked up vigilante responses to the drummed-up “threat of illegal immigrants,” there are many friends and relatives of each indocumentado who are overwhelmingly known as hard-working, family-oriented people fully deserving to move freely on their own continent. These are the people asserting themselves in the white-shirt marches. They look like the long-sought foundation for the new alignment for indigenous rights.