As the immigration reform debate reboots over the next several weeks — prompted by the introduction of a new bill by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) with the apparent blessing of the White House — the nation’s 49 million Latinos will once again find themselves under scrutiny.
Because the majority of the current wave of immigrants to the United States — both legal and illegal — come from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, and other Latin American countries, some Americans are apt to question the loyalties of U.S.-born Latinos, accusing them of being more sympathetic to the foreign visitors than to their own country or fellow citizens.
It’s not right, but nor is it new. With the arrival of every immigrant group to these shores for the last 220 years — from the Germans, Irish, and Italians to the Chinese, Jews, and Greeks — there have been similar questions about U.S. citizens with those ethnic roots. History shows those concerns were largely unfounded and based more on prejudice than reason.
The same is true now. Still, it’s fair to say that many U.S.-born Latinos still remain ambivalent about illegal immigration, especially if — somewhere in their family — there’s an ancestor who jumped over a fence, crossed under a wire, or swam a river to give himself and his descendants a better tomorrow.
Don’t look at me. I can say with certainty that I don’t have any illegal immigrants in my family tree. Both my parents were born in the U.S., as were three of my four grandparents. The fourth is the only immigrant, but he came legally in about 1915.
[Of course, in a piece of history that is lost on those readers who assure me that their great-great grandfather came to the United States in the late 1800s, one couldn't come illegally until 1924. That’s when Congress first limited immigration by devising quotas based on country of origin. Before then, not very many people even kept track of who was coming or going.]
But what seem to be a relative few, like the Latino reader who wrote me recently to criticize some of my positions, appear to be sorting through conflicting loyalties.
“I get the sense you are proud to be Latino and defend Latinos when they are unnecessarily attacked,” he wrote. “But I am confused as to why you are against illegal immigration. In one of your articles you state that you support ‘speedy deportations and raids.’ As someone who has relatives who have come to this country illegally, I don’t think I have it in me to say some of the things you have said — like supporting raids and deportations. I do not think it looks and sounds good to say things like that, especially coming from someone who is of Mexican ancestry.”
I had to respond.
“I’m not only the grandson of a Mexican immigrant but also the son of a retired cop,” I wrote. “Opposing illegal anything comes easy, because it’s ‘illegal.’ The better question is why so many Latinos are willing to excuse this one kind of illegal behavior because they have family members who’ve engaged in it. I have cousins in San Quentin, born in the U.S., who engaged in other kinds of illegal behavior and I don’t feel compelled to defend them. Family ties only get you so far. Lastly, I believe people have to take responsibility for their actions. If you love the people who make up your community, you’ll stop coddling them and start treating them like adults. ”
Conservatives might be surprised to learn of that exchange. In the minds of many of them, I have three strikes that lead them to think that I condone illegal immigration — my surname, my support for comprehensive reform, and my opposition to half-baked, harebrained anti-illegal immigration measures that never work and only succeed in dividing people. But if they think I lean too far to the left, they should get a look at some of those who criticize me for leaning too far to the right.
Here’s the bargain that needs striking. U.S.-born Latinos have to stand up against illegal immigration, even as they continue to support comprehensive immigration reform and condemn bigotry and stupidity wherever it surfaces. And, at the same time, other U.S. citizens have to give them the benefit of the doubt and stop assuming that their loyalties lie elsewhere.
They may be working through a few things, like other groups of Americans have for the last couple hundred years. But they’ll find their way home.