June 03, 2007

I've got a suggestion for what should be required reading for the politicians on Capitol Hill who pandered to the racist, anti-immigrant hysteria whipped up by Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan and the rest of their fear-mongering ilk.

It's two chapters of my book, The Power of Business En Español. If this sounds like shameless self-promotion, so be it. It isn't. It's really just a short, easy way for them to learn two things they don't seem to know about Hispanics in this country: We Love the U.S.A. and We Vote.

Dobbs and his crowd are happy this week. Their efforts helped kill the attempt to overhaul the country's broken immigration policy. Proponents of change proposed a bill that would have tightened border security, allowed guest workers to fill the low-paying, back-breaking jobs Americans don't want and - here's the one Dobbs and company really hated - offered the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants a way to legalize their status.

The rabid rhetoric the anti-immigration forces unleashed, painted Latinos as disease-carrying, job-stealing, anti-American villains bent on undermining our country's culture.

In the words of Yogi Berra: “It's déjà vu all over again.”

The same was said of the Irish and the Germans and, later, the Italians. The secretive “Know Nothing” movement of the 1850s blamed Irish immigrants for taking jobs from native-born Americans and for all kinds of social problems.

Half a century later, a similar movement targeted Italian and Eastern European immigrants. It led to the National Immigration Act of 1924, which included the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act, which did just what its name implied to the Chinese, Japanese and their neighbors.

It's the same today, only the targets primarily are Hispanics.

And, just as before, the current debate ignores the truth. We don't come here to hurt the country. We come here for the same reason the Founding Fathers did: To build a better life. We believe in the American Dream. That this is the land of opportunity. That, if you work hard, you can make it.

The guy who shouted, “damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!” during the Civil War was Hispanic. David Farragut became the U.S. Navy's first Admiral. His father, Jorge, was born in Minorca, off the coast of Spain. Nonetheless, Jorge joined the Americans to fight in the Revolutionary War.

We've fought in every American war. On a single block and a half of a small city west of Chicago, 22 Mexican-American families living there sent a total of 57 young men to fight in World War II and Korea, another 20 in Vietnam.

One Texas family gave both its sons in Afghanistan and Iraq. Army Corporal José A. Velez died in November 2004 in Fallujah, gunned down as he helped clear an enemy stronghold. He was 23. Two years later, his 22-year-old brother, Army specialist Andrew Velez, died tracking Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Their father said: “We've done what the Lord allowed us to do for our country.”

Oh yeah, we love the U.S.A. But for the politicians who battled against the immigration bill, I have another chapter they should read. It's called, We Vote.

It tells the story of former California Governor Pete Wilson. Notice that's former. He ran for re-election in 1994, strongly supporting and riding on the coattails of the state's controversial Proposition 187, aimed at cutting off social services for undocumented immigrants. It prohibited children of illegal immigrants from receiving public schooling.

Both Wilson and Prop 187 played on the fears of a public, and both won by hefty margins.

The lesson is in the backlash. It brought a stunning surge in applications for US citizenship and a spectacular increase in Hispanic voter registration. In the very next election, 700,000 more Latinos voted than did just two years before. Almost a third of them were first-time voters.

As national pollster Sergio Bendixen put it: “It was a defining moment in Latino politics. Wilson did what hundreds of activists had not been able to accomplish. He single-handedly galvanized the Latino voter movement.” The immigration debate is having a similar impact.

Senator Mel Martinez, national chairman of the Republican Party, understands what's happening. He told the Washington Post's David Broder: “We can throw away all that we've gained if we follow a Pete Wilson-style strategy.”

There are lessons in this for the current crop of politicians hoping to prop up their sagging popularity numbers by playing to the Dobbs crowd: Even if you don't believe that we love the U.S.A. just as much as you do, you better remember, we vote. Have a great Cuatro de Julio.

By Jose Cancela
Jose Cancela is Principal of Hispanic USA Inc, a full service Hispanic Market Communications firm. He has also authored his first book which was released March 13th “The Power of Business en Español, Seven Fundamental Keys to Unlocking the Potential of the Spanish Language Hispanic Market” Rayo / HarperCollins>


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