The Million Illegal Alien March

Saturday’s huge pro-illegal alien rallies around the country, which together had over nearly a million participants, has sparked a flurry of immigration stories in both the mainstream press and around the blogosphere.

NYT reporter Nina Bernstein notes breathlessly that, “The demonstrations embody a surging constituency demanding that illegal immigrants be given a path to citizenship rather than be punished with prison terms. It is being pressed as never before by immigrants who were long thought too fearful of deportation to risk so public a display.” Teresa Watanabe and Hector Becerra add in the LAT that, “Attendance at the demonstration far surpassed the number of people who protested against the Vietnam War and Proposition 187, a 1994 state initiative that sought to deny public benefits to undocumented migrants but was struck down by the courts.” Leaving aside the huge population growth in the intervening years, the numbers are undeniably impressive. (Ed Morrissey rightly points out, though, that more people surely protested in LA during the entirety of the Vietnam war. The reporters presumably meant at any one rally.)

On the other pole is Newsweek‘s Holly Bailey, who terms the political debate over immigration a “war” and reports that Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo’s longstanding efforts to crack down on illegal aliens are starting to get traction.

Not so long ago, Tancredo was regarded as little more than a noisy pest on Capitol Hill. His colleagues shook their heads at his tireless demands for crackdowns on American employers who hire illegals and his idea for a 700-mile-long fence along the Mexican border. But in recent months, some of those same Republicans have come to realize that, while Tancredo may be a crank, he is a crank with a large and passionate following. Anti-immigration sentiment has always simmered, and it flares up about once a decade—the last time it hit this level was 1996, when California Gov. Pete Wilson made it the centerpiece of his failed presidential campaign. Tancredo was one of the first politicians to tap into the latest surge of anger. In states with large numbers of undocumented workers, voters complain that poor illegals are overwhelming public schools, clogging hospital emergency rooms and bankrupting welfare budgets. And they worry that inadequate border security makes it easy for would-be terrorists to sneak into the country. Tancredo’s colleagues are listening. When he arrived in Washington, he started the Immigration Reform Caucus. The group attracted just 16 members. Today, there are 91.

Imagine that: 91 racist cranks in Congress! Why, that’s over twenty percent of the Members.

Tancredo’s anti-immigration campaign is also brazenly, almost gleefully, taking aim at George W. Bush and Karl Rove. The president had once hoped the immigration debate would center on his proposed guest-worker program, which would allow illegals—who fill millions of unskilled, low-wage jobs—to stay in the country for a set period of time. This was Bush the pragmatist, the former border-state governor who wanted to acknowledge the importance of immigrant labor to construction, fruit farming and other chunks of the U.S. economy. “He doesn’t think it’s morally right that a group that has been critical to the strength of the economy is operating in the shadows,” says a senior Bush aide who, following policy, spoke anonymously. Meanwhile, Rove pushed the pure political benefits of the plan: immigrant-friendly policies would help the party reach out to the fast-growing Latino vote.

Instead, the immigration debate has split the GOP, with many Republicans in the House and Senate, worried about alienating voters, openly opposing the president. In December, the House tossed aside the worker program and passed a bill that features tougher security at the Mexican border—including Tancredo’s cherished fence—and crackdowns on illegals who are already here. “You can’t ignore him,” says a GOP leadership aide who wouldn’t be named because he wanted to keep his job. “The administration doesn’t want to hear this, but a lot of Americans think he’s right.”

For those who are not regular readers, let me note that I think Bush is right here in policy terms. In political terms, though, he as flubbed this one. Until recently, he appeared to be moving toward an amnesty program, a policy which has failed miserably every time it has been tried and which sets a horrible precedent of rewarding criminal behavior. Further, in a post-9/11 environment, the desire to get control of our borders, while largely unfeasible, is certainly understandable.

Bernstein’s report outlines the political breakdown nicely:

Dan Stein, president of the [Federation for American Immigration Reform], acknowledged the unexpected outpouring of protesters, but tried to play down its political significance. “These are a lot of people who don’t vote, can’t vote and certainly aren’t voting Republican if they do vote,” he said.

But others, noting that foreign-born Latinos voted for President Bush in 2004 at a 40 percent greater rate than Latinos born in the United States, said that by pursuing the proposed legislation, Republican leaders might have squandered the party’s inroads with an emerging bloc of voters and pushed them into the Democratic camp.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that of more than 11 million illegal immigrants, 78 percent are from Mexico or other Latin American countries. Many have children and other relatives who are United States citizens. Under the House measure, family members of illegal immigrants — as well as clergy members, social workers and lawyers — would risk up to five years in prison if they helped an illegal immigrant remain in the United States.

“Imagine turning more than 11 million people into criminals, and anyone who helps them,” said Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles, one of the organizers of Saturday’s rally there. “It’s outrageous. We needed to send a strong and clear message to Congress and to President Bush that the immigrant community will not allow the criminalization of our people — and it needed to be very strong because of the anti-immigrant environment that we are experiencing in Congress.”

Of course, they’re already criminals, albeit criminals whose behavior is understandable. Stein’s dismissal of them ignores the reality that they are here because our policy tacitly encourages their migration. Further, their allegiance to the Democratic camp is not a foregone conclusion. If the GOP can craft a reasonable compromise on immigration, they may gain a natural constitutency because of alignment on the social issues.

John Hawkins wonders why the protestors were even allowed to assemble, given that the lion’s share of them were likely illegal aliens:

Question: Doesn’t this tell you a lot about how lax enforcement of immigration laws in this country have gotten? Certainly, you don’t see burglars or arsonists turning up by the tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands to rally against tougher sentences, do you?

Another Question: How did we get to the point where we have people who aren’t even in this country legally, walking around in broad daylight, waving Mexican flags, and demanding that our government cater to them?

Still Another Question: Why wasn’t Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the scene checking green cards?

Mostly, I think, because we really don’t think of people who sneak across the border to pick lettuce, pluck chickens, and work as day laborers in the same way we think of regular criminals.

Mark Cooper contends,

The current situation is not analagous to 1994. There is no hot-button ballot prop up for a vote this season. And the nativist backlash is already here. The media suck-up to the miniscule Minuteman show of a year ago established an ugly frame for the national debate. The House has already acted in a toxic manner when last December it passed an outrageous and impossible-to-implement measure that would make all illegals (and their employers) into felons. While that bill will not become law per se, the Senate is considering some measures almost as Neanderthal.

It seems to me that when an entire population — who, after all, cleans our offices, cuts our lawns, serves our food, makes our beds, tends to our children and pays taxes but gets no refunds– is threatened with criminalization they have the right and necessity to politically mobilize. It’s asking them a lot, don’t you think, to remain silent and impassive as their arrest and deportation are actively being debated?

Again, they’re already criminals; we’re now just talking about the severity of the sentence. But, yes, going from a ridiculous catch-and-release policy to one of draconian punishments is certainly cause for outrage.

Mark Krikorian worries that things will get ugly.

[T]he first question an ordinary American watching this on the news is going to ask himself is, “So, if we toughen up enforcement, will they start burning cars?” Of course, the shape of immigrant protest in Europe is a sign of how much more intracable their immigration problem is than ours, and for that we should be grateful. But the phenomenon is the same — unwanted guests in each place are demanding they get their way. Amnesty would thus represent our parallel to Europe’s dhimmification.

In both cases, though, the guests were indeed wanted at one time. In our case, even many of those who do not want them would likely change their tune if they understood the actual impact perfect enforcement of our immigration laws–assuming it were even possible–would have on the economy.

Don Surber reflects on the German Gastarbeiter (mostly Turks) and argues for a complete open border policy with Mexico, noting, “The 11 million illegal aliens in the nation pose little threat to national security. The 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 all were here legally. None were Mexican.” That’s all true. Of course, an open Mexican border would also let in non-Mexicans, including terrorists. But, then, that’s already happening under a supposed closed border policy.

Update: Michelle Malkin has pictures of what has been termed, Reconquista, or “re-conquest.”

I suspect that a small percentage of the crowd, and indeed illegal Mexican immigrants into the United States, are motivated by politics. Economic opportunity–and the lack of same in Mexico–would appear adequate explanation for almost all of it.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Borders and Immigration, Congress, Environment, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Haven’t noticed anything here in Houston. I figure the local Hispanic population is afraid of gathering because the Katrina refugees will rob their homes in their absence.

  2. ken says:

    James, one of the aspects of conservatism that the rest of us find troubling is you peoples seeming pathological need to attack and demonize people who are least able to answer back to defend themselves.

    You are doing it here. Illegal aliens are not criminals unless, like anyone else, they break a criminal law.

    Those who cross the border illegally are no more criminals than those who cross a lane illegally while driving. Neither violation of the law is itself a criminal violation.

    Illegal violations of zoning codes are another example of things people do that are illegal but do not make them criminals.

    But since it suits conservatives purposes to call these immigrants criminals I don’t expect you to change. Your readers, however, should note just how dishonest this is.

  3. Bithead says:

    A century ago, at the height of our immigration , people from all over the globe came to America not just because jobs were available here, but because these immigrants wanted to become a part of American culture. They clearly, and correctly, saw that the culture was the source of the country’s strength, and they wanted to be a part of it. That desire, necessarily contains a commitment to that new culture, and that new country.

    Zip forward 100 years to last Sunday. The pics coming out of that event, you may notice that those are not American flags they’re waving, but a Mexican ones.

    Forgive me, but that doesn’t strike me as being overly committed to the American culture, American ideals, and certainly not American law.

    Clearly, what these people protesting in LA the other day are after is not the American way of life, they’re simply after the money. That, I’m afraid, brings nothing to the American culture.

    And capitulation to their demands doesn’t, either.

  4. Andy Vance says:

    Again, theyâ??re already criminals; weâ??re now just talking about the severity of the sentence.

    It’s a bit more complicated than that. The mere act of being an “illegal alien” is not currently a criminal act*. It’s a civil offense, which by definition is “an infraction of a law that is not a crime.”

    This may not make sense using the colloquial definition of “criminal,” but the distinction is important legally. For example, you don’t go to criminal court for [most instances of] speeding, and it doesn’t appear on your criminal record. That’s why the proposed legislation is a big deal; it’s putting the offense into an entirely different class of jurispridence.

    * There are a host of federal criminal laws that are commonly violated in the process of entering and working the U.S., such as entering the country without inspection, failure to carry alien registration and false claim of U.S. citizenship. But these are often very diffucult to prove for evidentiary reasons.

  5. legion says:

    And still more hand-waving from the right.

    Even if this bill is passed, and untold numbers of immigrants become felons, as opposed to the penny-ante criminals they are now, what’s the _best possible outcome from this_?

    Vastly more local, state, and federal law enforcement resources (not to mention Homeland Security), which are stretched thin as it is, get taken off of whatever they’re currently doing & moved over to tracking down these “new criminals”. Industries that rely heavily on (and tacitly allow) illegals to work – agriculture, construction, and a sizeable chunk of the service industry – begin to tank. More jobs become available to Americans, but at wages far below what it will take to afford the products of those labors, as prices skyrocket. Meanwhile, since this effort is pretty blatantly focused solely on arresting hispanics, the concept of defending America from terrorism slips farther down the priority list. Gotta keep those rabid bigots in the hard-base happy!

    In the end, this is just another attempt to distract the American public from the fact that Bush’s talk about fighting terrorism and making America safe is just that – all talk.

  6. Bithead says:

    They’re hardly ‘new criminals’.
    You may wish to check the crime figures for the southern areas of he country and find out just kind of criminal issues pop up from not enforcing existing immirgation law.

  7. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Ken, and those of his ilk on the left of this issue. I find it fascinating that humans can live in a vacuum. So Ken, what you are saying is that it is OK to break into a bank, if I only wish to sweep up the floors, or clean the toilets as that is something others wish not to do. I am confused. I thought sovereign nations had the right to control their borders, but because we are the United States, and we have a better deal here than they have in Mexico, because we have paid the price. It is OK for them to come here regardless of our laws. One more question, Ken. Do you idiots on the left hold anyone, other than the Bush administration, responsible for their acts. We know that holds true only for Republican Presidents, because you still refuse to hold Clinton responsible for anything. Did you know 1100 people rented the Lincoln bedroom from Bill.

  8. ken says:

    Jack, you are one of, but just one, of the stupidest people alive. A crime is a crime is what I said.

    The person who builds an illegal addition onto a a house is breaking the law regarding building codes but is not breaking the criminal laws so is not a criminal.

    So too, the person who crosses the border illegally is breaking the immegration laws but is not breaking any criminal law so is not a criminal.

    If you are unhappy that they are not criminals you can try to get the law changed to make it a criminal act. Right now it is no more a crime than is an illegal lane change.

    But you only show your stupidity by saying they are criminals when you should know better. But since there is precious little evidence that a conservative can be educated, I really don’t expect you to change.

  9. McGehee says:

    But since there is precious little evidence that a conservative can be educated, I really don�t expect you to change.

    In which case, you bloviate here only to see your name on James’ blog.

  10. floyd says:

    Hey; eleven million is a slightly conservative estimate,Wy, i saw nine million of ’em at walmart just this saturday!…. awe,c’mon i’m only kidding.

  11. Isrealcool says:

    Isn’t reconquista the same as Zionism?