May Day marches held in dozens of U.S. cities last week brought out thousands of protesters demanding better treatment of immigrants, both legal and illegal. They also brought out lots of American flags and — as always seems to be the case with these events — an ample supply of Mexican ones. Judging from the blogs, talk radio and letters to the editor, that’s all some people wanted to talk about.
A couple of days earlier, I was speaking to Jewish retirees in Oceanside, Ca – about 30 miles north of San Diego. I went on for 45 minutes about the history of the U.S. immigration debate, the current landscape, the recurring stench of nativism, and the best and worst practices to balance our immigration tradition with respect for the rule of law. Then I heard from the audience.
The first question went like this: “A lot of us come from immigrant families. And we bonded with America. But now it seems like a lot of people aren’t doing that. They wave the Mexican flag. Why do they do that?”
I gave a three-part answer:
First, I told the group, even as someone who often defends immigrants from harmful, hateful and half-baked ideas in a debate that is both volatile and vitriolic, I agree that immigrants should assimilate — for their own good. Besides, it doesn’t make any sense to flaunt allegiance to one country while demanding rights from another. It’s bad manners and bad civics. It also reflects bad memories. After all, these people don’t owe Mexico the time of day. That country works for some folks — the wealthy, light-skinned, well-connected etc – but not for others. Mexican immigrants in the United States are here because the motherland offered them nothing but bare cupboards. Why should that breed patriotism?
Second, I assured them, most Mexican immigrants have in fact “bonded with America.” They’re assimilating — learning English, having smaller families, adhering to customs etc. Like every immigrant group before them, they have no choice. They can’t very well opt out of the process. The uninformed — those whose knowledge of Mexico and Mexicans never got past margaritas and mariachis — assume that because they see a Spanish-language billboard or because they’re asked to “press one for English” that it means someone isn’t assimilating. Hispanics in the United States have a purchasing power that exceeds $800 billion per year. $urely, there mu$t be $ome way of explaining what the$e marketing effort$ are really about.
Finally, I said, there is an unfortunate double standard in how Americans feel about foreign flags and those who wave them. A couple of years ago, Jewish Americans marched on Washington to declare support for Israel. Guess what flag many of them waved? And no one said a critical word. This wasn’t a cultural event like St. Patrick’s Day. This was a political gesture, like, say, a march for immigrants’ rights. Yet, some will insist, those who marched on Washington waving the Israeli flag were probably U.S. citizens and those who marched last week on May Day were, in all likelihood, immigrants. And that makes a difference. But wait. We know from media reports that many of the pro-immigrant marchers were U.S. citizens, including the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
The point is, a lot of Americans look at anyone who waves a Mexican flag as secretly planning to take over the Southwest and hand it to Mexico. But they don’t suggest that anyone waving the Israeli flag – or the Irish flag, or the Italian flag or whatever – has something similar up his sleeve. In those cases, most people are likely to think that the display is harmless and that all we’re witnessing is someone showing pride in his ethnic heritage.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer and a regular contributor to CNN.com.