Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Immigration: Progressive perspective
DENVER, April 15 — Sitting at the Auraria Community Center here on a recent morning with his cat, Tails, perched before him on the desk, Waldo Benavidez gestured to a large portrait of Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the 1910 Mexican revolution — and Mr. Benavidez's personal hero.
Mexicans here illegally, Mr. Benavidez said, should take a lesson from those days and return home to fight for change in their own country.
"If you're tough enough to cross the desert, you're tough to take on your own government and change it," he said.
Mr. Benavidez has spent most of his adult life working on behalf of the poor. For the last 25 years he has managed the community center and a food bank here on Denver's west side, where low-income families can get groceries. He marched for civil rights in the 1960's and relishes the memory of his first vote for president, for John F. Kennedy, in 1960.
But immigration's tangled implications have pushed him out of his comfortable old political box with its predictably liberal labels and causes. Supporting the poor in America, he said, now means shutting down the system that has created a flood of even poorer immigrants from Mexico.
"It has nothing to do with whether I like Mexicans, or whether I've got one foot in Mexico myself because of my ancestry — I'm an American first," said Mr. Benavidez, 67. "I'm very liberal on a lot of issues, but on this one I've taken a stand because of the impact it has on the working people of this country."
Mr. Benavidez, whose ancestors have been in the West for 250 years, since the days of the Spanish empire, supports sealing the Mexican border, and is working for a proposed ballot proposition here in Colorado that would deny government social services to illegal immigrants.
He rails against multinational corporations that he says have rigged the political systems of the United States and Mexico to keep the border porous as a tool for suppressing wages and labor unions.
A Democrat, he nonetheless says he may vote for his first Republican ever this fall because he thinks many Democrats are "pandering" to Hispanic voters on the immigration issue and not keeping their eyes on what is good for the country.
Mr. Benavidez said he had been offended by the recent waves of protests around the country, with illegal immigrants demanding rights, and by the comparisons that had been made between those efforts and the civil rights struggles of the past over things like voter registration.
"This is not a civil rights issue," he said. "These people are not citizens demanding their rights — that's different."
Hispanics, like all Americans, are divided in their thinking about illegal immigrants. In a poll in February and March by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Hispanic Center, about one in five Hispanics said that illegal immigrants should be required to go home, compared with just over half of the respondents as a whole who said that. Almost one-third of Hispanics in the survey said they thought illegal immigrants should not be eligible for social services provided by state and local governments, compared with about two-thirds of the respondents as a whole who thought services should be denied.
Mr. Benavidez also acknowledged that his position was not without its inconsistencies. Many illegal immigrants are poor people, too, like his multigeneration Hispanic neighbors here in Denver, just from a different place. And immigration is not the only source of poverty or downward wage pressures in a society.
"It's a complicated issue, and I don't have all the answers," he said. "I do know that there's injustice."
Mr. Benavidez said that to him, the issue is not about ethnicity at all. It is about governments allowing poor people to sink further into poverty by indifference or direct action — and both the United States and Mexico, he said, are guilty.
In places like Denver, he said, the social safety net of job training programs and educational support efforts embodied by the Great Society programs of the 1960's would once have made illegal immigration less of a blow to the American poor. But those protections have largely been stripped away over the years.
In Mexico, the oligarchy of wealthy families that he said controlled most of the power had exploited the poor just as callously, shipping them north as a safety valve to diffuse political pressure for economic reform.
What is changing this year, and putting the immigration issue on the burner in Washington and in state capitals, Mr. Benavidez said, is that the middle class suddenly cares about immigration, and he thinks a political thunderclap could result in this fall's elections if people are still aroused.
"There is a revolt out there," he said. "Change will come."
Posted by almostlost at 11:04 PM