The tremendous demonstrations from March to May show off the strength of a growing immigrant rights movement, but they also bring to mind a horrific and forgotten chapter in U.S. history — a chapter we would do well to remember.
When I was a boy, my father told me stories — stories that aren’t taught in school — about the forced deportation of Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression. Authorities from New York to California rounded up hundreds of thousands of people of Mexican heritage, including many U.S. citizens, and stuck them on trains to Mexico.
This history is more present than we would like to admit. The Great Depression’s combination of severe economic hardship and publicly acceptable racism may have receded, but mass deportation is still on the national table. A January Time magazine poll found 50 percent of the public supporting deportation of all so-called illegal immigrants.
The House of Representatives bill that triggered the March demonstrations would make it a felony to be in the U.S. without documents — and could thus lead to mass deportations that would inevitably include the citizen children of undocumented immigrations.
In case there’s any doubt about it, witness Sen. Trent Lott’s statement all but calling for deportations after a March rally that included the supposedly offensive display of Mexican flags: “We had them all in a bunch, you know what I mean?” We know all too well.
The chief condition that lets Sen. Lott feels comfortable making such outrageous statements is the same one that allowed for the Depression-era deportations to occur. Immigrant political power — and in particular Latino political power — is vastly underdeveloped.
I’m not saying the May 1 “Day Without Immigrants” wasn’t a wonderful series of events that saw thousands of families peacefully express pride intheir cultures and solidarity with the ideals of United States. It was.
But how effective can the mass movement be when the leaders who should be our allies are mostly silent? Mayor Gavin Newsom
wasn’t around — he found it easier to make a 4:30 a.m. earthquake commemoration event than a crucial pro-immigrant rally taking place right outside his office on a Monday afternoon. The Democratic candidates for governor didn’t even put out statements of support. At the Board of Supervisors meeting the next day, it was as if the May 1 events hadn’t even happened.
At the national level, as Alan Wolfe points out in The New Republic, the supposedly pro-immigrant legislation proposed in the Senate would be considered quite restrictive if the overall political climate wasn’t so hostile to immigrants. Its provisions for stricter border enforcement, a low number of visas, and incentives for undocumented immigrants to go back to where they came from are hardly goals that the demonstrators would want to fight for.
The problem is systemic. Our best newspapers, our top universities, our local governments — Latinos are underrepresented throughout the decision-making institutions or our society. The Latino vote has for decades been the “sleeping giant” of California politics, but it’s not clear when the giant will actually wake up.
So for now we’re left with a new civil rights movement that might not be able to stop the sorts of injustices that took place 75 years ago.