One more job for immigrants

OVER THE LAST few weeks, it’s become obvious that the immigrant community is seriously out of the American cultural mainstream.

Mainstream Americans don’t go in for protest marches anymore (mass protests are so ‘60s). But demonstrating a mind-boggling degree of cultural obtuseness, hundreds of thousands of immigrants turned out for nationwide rallies opposing the punitive Republican-sponsored immigration bill passed by the House in December.

Maybe it’s a language problem. This nation’s immigrant communities must have taken literally those lines in the Constitution about the right to assemble peaceably and petition the government for the redress of grievances.


Whatever. Real Americans -- that is, those of us whose immigrant ancestors made it to the United States more than a generation or two ago -- gave up on that sort of foolishness long ago. (The Bill of Rights is so 1791.)

When we Americans have a grievance we want redressed, we don’t assemble. Assembling en masse is a sweaty, fatiguing enterprise requiring the purchase of lots of poster board and the occasional use of Porta Potties. Yuck.

Instead, real Americans sulk and whine. What’s more, because we take pride in individualism, we mostly do our whining and sulking alone. As a result, even when we’re really, really mad at our government, an outside observer would be hard-pressed to notice.

And we are pretty mad at our government these days.

Recent polls tell us, for instance, that 60% of Americans disapprove of President Bush’s overall job performance; 74% disapprove of his handling of rising gasoline prices; 62% disapprove of his handling of the Iraq war; 63% think the president’s role in the intelligence leak scandal was either illegal or unethical. Further, 45% of Americans think Bush should be censured or officially reprimanded for authorizing secret domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency, and an astonishing 33% of Americans think Bush should be impeached. (As a point of reference, public support for impeaching President Clinton averaged only 26% in the summer and fall of 1998.)

In many foreign countries, such a high level of popular discontent would translate rapidly into mass protests. In France this spring, polls suggesting that more than 60% of the public disapproved of a new labor law were soon paralleled by massive street protests against the legislation and a general strike. In Ukraine, public dissatisfaction with the pro-Russian regime led to mass protests in 2004. In Serbia, polls showing widespread unhappiness with the government of Slobodan Milosevic were followed by a popular uprising in late 2000, after Milosevic claimed victory in a disputed election.

By definition, immigrants are all foreign-born, so maybe this explains why the ones here have not abandoned the politics of mass protest. Not very assimilationist of them, is it?

Of course, sometimes mass protest actually changes things. In other countries, anyway. On Monday, for instance, French President Jacques Chirac was forced to withdraw the labor measure that sparked the protests; in 2004, the so-called Orange Revolution brought a democratic government to Ukraine; in 2000, the Serbian popular uprising forced Milosevic to step down and ultimately led to his transfer to The Hague to face trial for crimes against humanity.

Come to think of it, mass protests over the punitive Republican immigration bill may have brought about a change in U.S. politics too. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) suggested a new willingness to reconsider several of the bill’s harsher provisions. All this because hundreds of thousands of the country’s most politically marginal residents took to the streets.

What would happen if mainstream Americans did that sort of thing too? If the 33% of Americans who think Bush should be impeached took to the streets to peaceably express their views, that would be almost 100 million marchers -- enough to wake up even the most somnolent of politicians. If the 47% of Americans who think U.S. troops should leave Iraq ASAP actually marched on Washington, our troops would already be on their way home. If the 60% of Americans who disapprove of Bush’s job performance decided to stage a peaceful sit-in outside the White House, they’d spill over into a dozen neighboring states, and the American political machine would grind to a screeching halt.

Of course, political protest isn’t easy. Effective protests take money, endurance and courage. Protesters have to take time off from work; they have to travel to distant cities and come up with somewhere to sleep and eat; they have to risk encounters with police who may not always distinguish between peaceful protesters and those who are breaking the law.

Especially when the stakes are high, political protest can be difficult, exhausting and dangerous work.

This may explain why so few Americans are willing to express their discontent through public protest. As with so much unappealing work here in the U.S.A., we leave that kind of thing to the immigrants.