As thousands of people rallied in cities around the country Monday--the National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice--police, city officials, and local media were once again surprised by the size and strength of their local immigrant populations. The invisible cleaners, child care workers, and landscapers were suddenly pouring into the streets, chanting, speaking out, making themselves seen.
There are many affluent, white neighborhoods in America where, on weekdays, everyone in sight is brown: the people pushing the strollers, cleaning the houses, mowing the lawns--an invisible, and largely illegal, workforce. This is particularly true in Los Angeles, Dallas, San Diego, and Miami, where some of the largest pro-immigrant rallies occurred. Imagine the surprise of the immigrants' white employers, busy at their downtown offices, running the businesses and government and media in their city, when they looked out the window and saw the sea of people taking to the street to demand their rights.
(One journalist told me on the day of the massive L.A. rally that the staff of the LA. Times was taken completely by surprise by the massive rally there--learning of it literally by looking out the window.)
How could it be that this major force was so overlooked? So long taken for granted that they became almost literally unseen, the millions of undocumented immigrants who do the work that keeps the country going--and who upkeep the homes of many of its leaders-- surprised everybody. Well, not everybody--the Latino media knew, and played a major role in organizing the marches. But it is a sign of how racially and economically segregated our country is that the white-dominated mainstream was caught unawares.
Of course, there are some people--major Republicans among them--who know what an important economic contribution illegal immigrants make. These, after all, are their employees. Hence the political divide in the Republican Party between business people who want a guest-worker program to keep the cheap labor coming, and the social conservatives who want to surround America with a wall of fire.
In the latter camp, Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin has been pushing legislation in the House that would not only make it a felony to be an illegal immigrant, it would criminalize anyone who dared to help such a person, even by offering food, water, or medical assistance.
On the other side are Senators Arlen Specter and Bill Frist, who failed to push through legislation that might have made President Bush's favored guest-worker program a reality, and provided a road to legal status (derisively termed amnesty by opponents) for those who learned English, paid fines, and waited in line for years.
Making illegal immigrants pay is apparently an inevitable part of any legislation that can emerge from Washington. As if they hadn't paid enough--in sweat, blood, and uncounted hours of hard labor for low pay.
I was suddenly, unexpectedly, moved to tears listening to a commentary on the immigrant rallies on NPR.
Richard Rodriguez, the editor of New California Media, a consortium of ethnic news organizations, had this to say: "In the noisy argument over what to do with illegal immigrants, the common assumption is that America has done a great deal for them already." Two relevant words have been left out of the debate, he suggested: "Thank you." As in, "Thank you for turning on the sprinklers . . . thank you for taking care of the children . . . thank you for cleaning the toilets." Thank you to the men and women who've given their youth, their health, their lives working so hard in this country.
Recognizing the contribution and sacrifice of America's illegal immigrant workforce is a one good outcome of the massive grassroots movement for immigrant rights. If there is not a nativist backlash aided by punitive legislation, there might be a decent policy outcome as well.