Hispanic View of Immigration Complex, Still Visceral

by Carlos Sanchez

I chuckled quietly when I was offered an opportunity to present a Latino perspective on June 25′s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the Arizona immigration law.

Though I am sharing the page with two powerful elected leaders — the most powerful governor in the state’s history and a widely respected state senator — my role is much like the role of the country’s Latinos in the immigration debate: We’re largely on the outside as others make decisions that affect our daily lives.

I apologize for offending anyone who views my observations of race or ethnicity as divisive; that isn’t my intent.

My intent is honesty, and let’s be honest, when one thinks of undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens or whatever label is chosen, one typically thinks of Hispanics. And that’s what too many elected officials — including the two gentlemen who would be president fail to appreciate. The issue of immigration is perhaps the most visceral, most unifying issue among Hispanic voters.

For many of us, this decision cannot be viewed through the prism of states rights versus civil rights.

As a group, we generally resent being treated as a monolithic voting bloc who can be appealed to by politicians who utter a sentence or two of broken Spanish. But many of us can just as quickly be made to feel monolithic when the issue of immigration is raised.

Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, Aggie or Longhorn Hispanics across the board take this issue personally because for too many of us it has been foisted on us our entire lives.

I’m a third-generation American who can barely speak Spanish. Yet I can’t tell you how many times in my life that I have been asked, “Why don’t you go back to your own country?”

For too many Hispanics, the Supreme Court case involving the Arizona law wasn’t a debate on constitutional law; it was a deliberation on whether Hispanics are welcome in the great American tapestry.

Too often among too many institutions for too long, that answer has been no.

That’s what I felt about Arizona’s immigration debate. Understandably, many who supported the legislation and polls at the time suggested a majority of Americans did took offense that they could possibly be viewed as prejudiced.

That’s the nature of the immigration debate. Hispanics obviously care about public policy issues beyond immigration. We recognize that we have been disproportionately affected by unemployment, for example. And we can debate with the best of them regarding the proper course of action.

But there is something about immigration that causes many Hispanics to personalize the debate. Intellectually, I understand we have an immigration problem. I understand that people are in this country illegally.

Emotionally, there is one thing I don’t understand. Inevitably, discourse over immigration turns into discourse aimed at fear and hate. We love calling ourselves a nation of immigrants, while we seem to hate immigrants themselves.

Politically, a little demagoguery over the immigration debate may be a good tool to fire up the base. But politicians too often fail to understand that fires left unchecked can consume and destroy.

The substance of the Arizona law never bothered me. Police officers who are apt to practice racial or ethnic profiling don’t need a law for that; they’ll do what they want.

What bothered me most about Arizona’s immigration debate was the poison of the rhetoric; the fire that burned on both sides of the issue soon consumed that state with bitterness and hatred.

To nationalize that debate raised fears in me that the entire country would be consumed by additional vitriol, much of it aimed at Hispanics.

But what I learned last week is how truly brilliant our democracy is structured to allow for such discourse even in the face of such vitriol.

What we witnessed not only in the Arizona immigration case, but in the health care case three days later was an extraordinary display of constitutional magic.

We, as a country, saw the wisdom of the judiciary reign in the passions of the executive and legislative branches of our government. For the time being, the Supreme Court extinguished a dangerous fire.

We must ask ourselves, as we debate the wisdom of the high court’s actions, whether it’s worth re-igniting the embers of vitriol to make our point.

this op-ed appeared on the Austin Statesman on 7/1/12.

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