The annual celebration of Thanksgiving serves as several reminders, including that we are a nation of immigrants. In 1621, the Pilgrims arrived by boat at America’s shore reportedly without passports, visas, or Green Cards. After early skirmishes, the Pilgrims were befriended by the Native Americans. One Indian leader and former British slave, Squanto, taught the newly arrived immigrants how to live off the land and is credited by some historians with saving the entire expedition. By the time the first Thanksgiving feast rolled around in Fall of 1621, the Pilgrims invited both the Grand Sachem Massasoit and Wampanoag Peoples to the feast to give thanks.
Fast forward to 2007 and oh what a difference 386 years make. While Thanksgiving is now intrinsic to our national fabric, the current immigration debate seemingly reflects little of the welcoming spirit of Squanto, and instead vitriol is directed toward immigrants. For example, several weeks ago Senate Majority Whip Dick Durban of Illinois introduced the “Dream Act,” a proposal to create a path of citizenship for children who have grown up knowing no other country. To bolster his case, Durban introduced to the Senate three young adults, stellar students well on their way to the American Dream if they can avoid deportation. In response, anti-immigrant standard bearer Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) called upon the Capitol Police to arrest the three young people on the spot. (Turns out Durban had done his homework, and all three have temporary resident status.) Durban’s Dream Act failed 52-44, eight votes short of the 60 needed to advance.
I don’t see eye-to-eye with our current president on too many issues, but George Bush has been a voice of reason in the immigration debate. Perhaps it is because his sister-in-law (Governor Jeb’s wife) is a Latina. Or maybe a lifetime in Texas has taught the president that a lot of the folks who have moved north are hardworking and steeped in the values of both church and family. Or maybe it is simply political expediency – over time it may become very difficult to win the presidency without Latino support. There are 16 million Latinos of voting age in our country legally. Only nine million are registered, and in the last presidential election only seven million actually voted. It is a sleeping giant in terms of political impact both in raw numbers, and in the crucial Electoral College vote. Yes, the biggest block of Latinos are in California, which is a solid blue state, and in Texas, which is solid red. But there are also large and growing communities of Latinos in the critical swing states of Florida, Illinois, and Ohio, among others. (Indeed, the most recent Census report found more Latinos in the greater Chicago area than in the entire state of Arizona, or New Mexico, or Utah, or Colorado.)
Senator Sessions and the more extreme factions of the GOP are calling for the mass deportation of millions of undocumented residents, including separation of family members where some are documented and others not. If the GOP is successful in effecting mass deportations, the political fallout could last for decades, and the Republicans would take the hit. Something similar happened to the GOP after the Civil War, when Republican President Lincoln won the war and freed the slaves. For roughly the next 100 years, the South was solidly Democratic. If the more Draconian anti-immigration voices of the GOP get their way, the Republicans could likewise lose a major portion of the Latino vote for the next hundred years.