At the Immigration Rally

I love immigrants. That’s not important or relevant, but it’s where I start. I love them so much I often have the impulse to kiss their hands. I am not kidding. I love them because they are brave. They left their country and struggled their way to this one to get a better life. (It’s good to remember that that’s not an insult to us but a compliment. They’re saying: Your way is better.) I love immigrants because they make themselves lonely for their children. They go to a place where few share their language, their memories, their references. They do this so their children will have a greater chance at happiness. I love immigrants because they invest in the future with the biggest thing they can invest with: their life.

Immigrants often start out in hard jobs for low wages, and of course are not applauded for this but sort of looked through, not noticed. I love immigrants because I am close enough to the immigrant experience to, simply, identify with them. My grandparents had Irish accents, spoke Gaelic at home, came from poor, obscure farming areas, and understood themselves to be different from those who’d been in America for many years. To be an immigrant in America is to experience a low-key, sometimes barely conscious estrangement from the main. It passes in a generation or two, and America is worth the price in any case, but estrangement deserves sympathy.

I love immigrants from all places, of all colors, ages and backgrounds. But my feelings are particularly strong toward Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants, and when I think of why, two things come to mind. One is that most of them are Catholic, which for me means that for all our differences in language and experience I share with them the biggest essential. They love Our Lady of Guadalupe and so do I. They know Jesus. You don’t get more basic than one’s deepest beliefs, one’s understanding of the truest facts of life. So Mexican immigrants are more like me than some of my neighbors are, and in my heart I don’t see them as immigrants but cousins. (I am aware it is a faux pas to admit this. In the modern world we’re not supposed to like our own. Sorry.)

The second thing is just a memory. It was a few nights after 9/11 and in New York, still rocked and shocked by what had happened, we had taken to massing spontaneously on the West Side Highway to cheer the trucks carrying workers who were going downtown to dig us out of the rubble. We stood there—all the orthodontists and attorneys and editors of Manhattan, the kings and queens of the city, suddenly irrelevant—cheering members of the Iron Workers Local and sanitation workers and cops and medical technicians.

One night, about 11 p.m., I was walking home with friends, going north on the wide, dark highway, and we came upon a woman, a thick middle-aged woman, dark skinned and dark haired. She was with a baby in a stroller. She was, I think, not the mother but the grandmother. They were there alone, in the darkness. Affixed to the stroller was a hand-lettered sign, and on the sign were these words: “American You Are Not Alone—Mexico Is With You.” All alone and she came out with that sign, at that time. I have tried to tell that story in speeches and I can never make my way through it, and as I write my eyes fill with tears.

Is this sentimental? Well, nations run on many things, including sentiment.

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This week I went to the immigration march in New York. We massed on the Brooklyn Bridge and then marched into lower Manhattan. I just wanted to be there and see who was marching and hear what they said.

There were many thousands of people—it was dense, packed, a long moving line of people. It took an hour and a half to get across the bridge because every 20 yards or so the organizers would stop, play drums, and chant chants for local and national TV cameras. They’d stop, enact joy and fervor, and then walk on. Everyone was cheerful and peaceful.

Most of the marchers were young, in their teens and 20s and 30s. I asked a young man who’d rolled a newspaper into a bullhorn what he was saying when he led the crowd in chants. He didn’t speak enough English to answer quickly. Then he said, “We are saying, ‘We are here, look at us.’” I thanked him and patted his arm. I said, “God bless you,” and he nodded and marched on. Then he broke his stride, turned his head and said, “God bless you, too.”

I walked along with a young black woman, an American in her mid-20s, who was chatting in English and Spanish with those nearby. She was clearly in some organizational position, and she was carrying an American flag. Someone said something to her about it. She was on her cell phone, but after she snapped it shut, she laughed and said, “I am having an affair with this flag. I am having a love affair with this flag. Don’t tell my husband.” Everyone laughed, including me. But it was clear all the American flags were a strategic decision. All those Mexican flags in the marches in L.A. and elsewhere 10 days ago had been a public relations disaster. So now it was all American flags.

There were signs saying “We are here” and “We are America” and “A nation of immigrants.” It was obvious that this was all well organized: people in orange plastic pullovers directing the human traffic and chants, lots of hand-lettered union signs. Cars on the bridge below the walkway sounded their horns in rhythm with the chants in a manner that seemed coordinated. At one point a young Hispanic woman called out, “The Irish are coming!” It was like a scene from a movie where someone says, “Here come the Fighting 69th!” We looked for the Irish on the drive below, but there was no sign of them. My people, hardy and tardy.

The overwhelming impression I had was that the marchers were peaceful and high-spirited. Some seemed resentful or mildly snarly, but they were in the minority—and young, emphasis on young.

We curled past the courthouses of downtown, up Broadway, to Chinatown. Chinatown is of course largely populated by immigrants, legal and illegal, but they were not in the march. In fact, I did not see a single Asian in the march. They were all working, in the shops and on the street. They had no intention of letting yet another New York march get in the way of business. And you know, the marchers seemed to sense it. They didn’t spend long in Chinatown. As far as I could see they didn’t make it to Little Italy, either.

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Where does all this leave me? Does my feeling for immigrants, and my afternoon at the march, leave me supporting open borders, or illegal immigration? No. Why should it? To love immigrants is not to believe America has no right to decide who can come to America and become a citizen. America has always decided who comes here. That’s why it all worked.

While the marchers seemed to be good people, and were very likable, the march itself, I think, violated the old immigrant politesse—the general understanding that you’re not supposed to get here and immediately start making demands. It would never have occurred to my grandparents to demand respect. They thought they had to earn it. It would never have occurred to them to air mass grievances, assert rights, issue a list of legislative demands. Especially if they were here unlawfully.

I happen to think America in general has deep affection for immigrants, knows they are part of the dynamic, a part of our growth and our endless coming-into-being. But when your heart is soft, and America’s is, your head must be hard.

We are a sovereign nation operating under the rule of law. That, in fact, is why many immigrants come here. They come from places where the law, such as it is, is corrupt, malleable, limiting. Does it make sense to subvert our own laws to facilitate the entrance of those in pursuit of government by law? Whatever our sentiments and sympathies as individuals, America has the right, and the responsibility, to protect the integrity of its borders, to make the laws by which immigrants are granted entrance, and to enforce those laws.

I think open-borders proponents are, simply, wrong. I think those who call good people like members of the voluntary border patrols “yahoos” are snobs. I think those whose primary concern is preserving the Hispanic vote for the Democratic Party, or not losing the Hispanic vote for the Republican Party, are being cynical, selfish, and stupid, too. It’s not all about who gets what vote, it’s about continuing a system of laws that has allowed America to become, among many other things, a place immigrants want to come to. And it’s about admitting immigrants in a coherent, orderly, legal manner, with an eye first to what America needs. That’s how you continue a good thing, which is what we’ve had. That’s how you leave Americans who’ve been here for a while grateful for immigration, and immigrants, and loving them, and even wanting, sometimes, to kiss their hands.