Civil rights? How about lawlessness?

JOE R. HICKS is vice president of the L.A.-based human relations organization Community Advocates, Inc.

THE DEBATE over illegal immigration has reached a vigorous boil, with contrasting bills in the House and Senate and hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrating nationwide. The complexities of this debate seem lost on many of the protesters. Many claim that what lies beneath reform efforts is raw racism, leading to the view that the recent protests signal a new civil rights movement.

It’s simply not true. This nation’s civil rights movement of the 1960s broke the back of white supremacy that prevented black Americans (who were citizens) from enjoying the rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution. Undeniably, the freedoms codified by civil rights-era legislation have made life better for all Americans -- regardless of skin color, gender or national origin.

Now, many Latino immigrant-rights organizers and their sympathizers seem to be saying that there is some inherent right being expressed when people sneak into the country, thumb their noses at the law and make fools out of those who wait patiently in foreign lands for visas to come to the United States.

It is quite clear that many of those participating in the demonstrations have adopted the stance of the beleaguered victim, perceiving frustration about illegal immigration as racism. Some comments have been painfully ignorant. One protester said: “I’m here to make sure that Mexicans get their freedom, their rights.”


During the student protests, the American flag was only occasionally on display, while the Mexican flag was omnipresent. A student said he was waving the latter in support of La Raza (the race), while another asked why illegal immigrants were “treated like criminals.” Perhaps he wasn’t aware that crossing the U.S. border without the required visa is now, and always has been, against the law.

The participation of students, some as young as 13 and 14, is especially troubling given that all too many seemed clueless about the issues. Perhaps more puzzling is that some of the student walkouts took place on a day honoring the memory of Cesar Chavez. The great Chicano labor organizer held a march in 1969 from the Coachella and Imperial valleys to the Mexican border. Chavez and the United Farm Workers were protesting the use of illegal immigrants as strikebreakers. Further, Chavez believed that illegal immigration was antithetical to the wage interests of the migrant workers he represented.

What immigrant-rights groups refuse to acknowledge is that an unchecked flow of unskilled labor drives down wages for entry-level jobs, rendering all poor Americans, including millions of teenage workers, less than competitive.

Are illegal workers doing jobs that Americans won’t do? This often-heard argument is specious. The reality is that most Americans won’t do entry-level labor for the meager wages often offered to undocumented workers.

Activists seem focused on a political agenda that is fiercely anti-capitalist and intent on removing all border constraints. Nevertheless, protesters in Los Angeles were welcomed uncritically by the city’s leaders. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the crowd of 500,000 last Saturday, “There are no illegal people here today.” He added: “America was built on the backs of immigrants.”

This is an obvious truism, but it obliterates the distinction between legal and illegal and mocks the rule of law. The immigration process continues to bring people from all parts of the world to these shores, but it has to be an orderly and lawful one.

Lawful or not, the United States cannot absorb all of the people who aspire to come here. A 2005 Pew Hispanic Center survey on attitudes toward immigration, conducted in part in Mexico, found that an estimated 70 million adults in Mexico would come to the U.S. if they had the means and the opportunity. About half of those said they would be willing to move to and work in this country illegally. The study also found that 35% of Mexican college graduates want to come to the U.S., even if that means they would have to work at a job below their qualifications -- and many also said they’d be willing to come illegally.

What we are witnessing is not the birth of a new civil rights movement but the attempt to render meaningless the concept of border controls. Any march that can mobilize 500,000 people will get the attention of Washington’s politicians, but this nation must not be deterred from securing its borders, enforcing the law and finding a way to humanely deal with the more than 11 million illegal residents already here.