"We decided not to be Invisible anymore," read one headline when those floods of people turned out in cities around the country, from Washington, D.C., and Denver to Salt Lake City, Reno, Phoenix and Salem.
For more than 60 years, Hispanic immigrants have been a deliberately created, out-of-sight-out-of-mind, disposable, low-wage work force. Hispanics work for little, stay out of sight, and get to stay in this country. American businesses, in return, get cheap labor.
You won't find that agreement written in any statute book, but it has been our de facto immigration policy with Mexico, Central and South America since World War II.
What makes millions of invisible Hispanics suddenly rise up and march by the thousands in the streets of cities across the country?
The U.S. House of Representatives voted to end that 60-year-old unwritten immigration policy. In a bill with sweeping consequences, the House voted to make felons of virtually everyone who has come to this country illegally over the last 60 years, and has not been able to become a citizen. This politically inspired approach to a complicated situation of our own making threatens to tear families apart through arbitrary deportations with little or no legal recourse. It's enough to make the most reluctant take to the streets.
"But they are here illegally," bleat the believers. It is also illegal to hire them. But American businesses hire immigrants in droves because they are a cheap, docile, pliable — and sometimes the only — labor force. The House bill ignores the fact that immigration laws have deliberately been left unenforced for decades, intentionally allowing this present situation to develop.
A "compromise" bill in the Senate is really no better. The Senate bill creates a citizenship path for all immigrants who were here up to two years ago. If you came to join your family in the last two years? Automatic deportation.
It appears some part of the Republican "base" will not be appeased until Mexicans are frog-marched to buses and dumped on the other side of the border. It will send a message, believers argue. Mass deportations will surely send a message, but not the message Republicans imagine.
The rest of the world will call the dragnets and deportations the name that Americans cannot utter — ethnic cleansing. It is unlikely to be as bloody as Rwanda or Sarajevo. But it won't be ignored by the world as Darfur has been. It certainly won't win us any respect. The price of appeasing the Republican "base" is simply too high.
We are a nation of immigrants. The Irish and Chinese built the Transcontinental Railroad. Anytime there was a revolution elsewhere in the world, America got a new cuisine — Armenian, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, just to name a few. German immigrants gave us beer — can you say Henry Weinhard or Budweiser?
I grew up in Cleveland in the 1950s. It was a city of immigrants who worked in steel mills, factories and machine tool companies. Cleveland had its Little Italy, Little Poland, Little Hungary, Little Germany, Chinatown. Those neighborhoods are all gone now. The first generation spoke almost no English. They were too old to learn. Their adult children became American citizens, spoke their native language with their parents and English with their children. Their children spoke English and rarely learned their parents' tongue. Then they moved to the suburbs.
If today's Hispanics remain clannish, speak their own language and live apart, it is in large part because they have no assured way to become Americans. They live with the fear of an unwritten, arbitrarily enforced immigration policy. They often live among the hostility of neighbors. Assimilation is a two-way street. Immigrants must want to be Americans, but Americans must want immigrants here. Only then can we begin to have some things in common.
These historic civil rights demonstrations have left their mark. The House Republican leadership now says it wants to abandon the deportation provision in their bill when lawmakers return from a spring "district work period."
It is worth reminding politicians that life does not stand still. America is no longer the America of the 1950s. America's ethnic future is more likely to resemble Tiger Woods than Paris Hilton. We really need to get used to it.