When I learned about the Obama plan to begin citizenship drives across the nation a few weeks ago, I had mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I wanted to cheer from the top of my lungs.
On the other, I suspected the current effort to push the merits of naturalization was driven by self-serving Democratic Party manipulation.
Citizenship Push: Immigrant Freedom Or Political Control?
In reality, like other immigration programs under the present administration, both freedom and control are elements of this maneuver.
The push to encourage increased citizenship, after all, is the prelude to registering new voters for the next round of elections.
After decades spent as a naturalization attorney promoting the virtues of becoming citizens to immigrants who had yet to gain permanent residency status, my personal, internal rumblings caught me off guard.
I decided to explore my misgivings in more depth.
The Age Of Political Innocence
Once upon a time, I understood American politics.
The Democratic Party were the good guys. The Republican Party were the bad guys.
That was before I went to college.
I was still a teenager.
I believed the Democrats fought for the downtrodden, poor, and economically vulnerable.
I believed the Democrats fought against racial, gender, and age discrimination in all forms.
I believed the Democrats stood for civil rights and social justice.
Then I became an activist.
A Long History Of Democratic Party Manipulation
By my late teens, I had been trained as a door-to-door precinct and get-out-the-vote coordinator for the Democratic Party in local and state elections. At 19, I was selected to run the precinct operations for a entire campaign district in a presidential election.
By the time of my college graduation, I was managing entire campaigns.
Yet, something didn’t seem to fit right.
At law school, I met Hank Lopez. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Lopez was the first Latino graduate at Harvard Law School. His father had been a soldier in Pancho Villa’s army. His family moved to Denver when Hank was a toddler.
One evening we had a long discussion about Party politics. In 1958 Lopez had run for a California statewide office. Even though he was part of the Democratic Party ticket, his campaign was not provided the same level of support or resources as the other candidates. He was the only Democrat who lost.
His story confirmed what I had already learned at the grassroots level.
One party ignores Latinos. The other manipulates them.
With no viable third party option, I remained a dedicated Democratic Party organizer, carefully choosing those I backed.
The Nationwide Tilt To The Right
To be fair, maybe the Democrats really did stand for racial, gender, and political equality in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Maybe I’m being too harsh based on current realities.
But something happened . . . something dramatic happened on the way to creating the Great Society.
By the time Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president the second time, if not the first, the signs were obvious.
The rejection of Rose Bird, Joseph Grodin, and Cruz Reynoso – the first female, African-American, and Latino members of the California Supreme Court – in 1986 symbolized the political shift.
The three Justices, whose appointments represented a major civil rights victory, were Jerry Brown appointees.
A few years before the judges fell, the voters of California rebuked Brown, in large part for his agenda to diversify the upper echelons of California government.
Had he won the Senate seat, Brown was on his way to being the next liberal president. He had openly pushed racial equality, environmental innovation, gender rights forward.
He was defeated by the Mayor of San Diego, Pete Wilson, who subsequently embarked on pushing Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant measure. He also supported Proposition 209 and Proposition 227, measures which outlawed affirmative action and bilingual education.
Wilson was strongly supported by President Reagan, who had started his political career by defeating Brown’s father.
Liberalism was dealt a body blow.
An Inside View Of Party Politics
In my perspective, Brown lost because many of the economically privileged Democrats deserted him.
As a campaign staffer, I often worked on event logistics. I recall about one week before election day, arriving early at a San Diego event to raise funds for the last week media blitz.
Brown, who had been trailing Wilson for several weeks due to misleading television attacks showing him as too soft on crime, had pulled even in the polls. We had the momentum.
At the fundraiser, prior to Brown’s arrival, I was standing near a group of San Diego’s heaviest Democratic Party financiers. They were boasting about not turning loose their donation horses on Brown’s behalf because he had taken actions they did not support. They despised Wilson but felt that Brown needed to be punished.
I contrasted their behavior with that of my father about a month beforehand. My father, a dishwasher and kitchen helper, went to a Latino backyard fundraiser for Brown with me. It was his first and only political event ever attended.
My mother had purchased a navy blue suit, tie, white shirt, and new shoes for him to wear.
When I introduced him to the Governor, he unconsciously started moon-walking in reverse as he stuck out his hand to shake Brown’s hand. I had to almost stand behind him to stop the nervous retreat.
My father was a die-hard Democrat, believing in their call for a just, humane, and fair society.
At the end of Brown’s speech, he insisted on donating $400.00. He only had $700.00 in his checking and savings accounts combined.
On the final weekend, spending oodles of money, our opponents blitzed the television and radio airwaves.
On the Sunday before the election, I visited my parents for lunch. I promised my father that I would pick him up early on Tuesday so he could cast his ballot for our next U.S. Senator. He always liked to be one of the first persons in his neighborhood to vote.
The “I Voted” sticker was a proud symbol of my father’s hard-earned U.S. citizenship.
As I returned home from campaigning in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, I received a frantic call from my mother. My father was in the midst of a heart attack.
When I arrived at my parents’ house, it was too late.
The Democrats Retreat From Liberalism
I stepped away from politics – and from life – for several months.
When I finally came out of mourning, I was no longer the same politically naive idealist.
Brown had been narrowly defeated. Political liberalism was on the run.
I had seen firsthand how political money talks. Even in Democratic Party circles.
I had witnessed a rising tide of xenophobic fear-mongering.
I was privy to the ugly reality that the Democratic Party had transformed into a sad caricature of its former self.
I was disillusioned by a Democratic Party reluctant, if not afraid, to defend itself against the taunting “L Word” jeers of conservative candidates and audiences.
More and more candidates were only marginally different from their Republican opponents, often for the worse – despite grandiose rhetoric to the contrary.
I walked away from campaign activism – and turned my full attention on developing my law practice.
Meanwhile, with timid centrists controlling the Democratic Party, the hate-mongering has continued to grow.
Sound bite politics has flipped social sanity on its head.
Political correctness now means insulting your neighbor’s cultural roots.
Citizenship And Voter Registration: A New Formula For Political Survival And Immigration Reform?
Over the years, I’ve yearned for a return to the age of my political innocence . . . when voting seemed a precious privilege because candidates – at least some candidates – deserved the right to run for public office.
With my father as a role model, I long believed all immigrants should want to vote.
But as a Hemet immigration lawyer, I’ve learned voting is not a high priority for the vast majority of new citizens.
It’s hard to blame them.
Most American politicians are hardly inspirational figures.
Unlike my father’s time, who stands in the shoes of FDR and JFK?
And how many new voters will take the time to become, and remain, informed voters?
Nonetheless, given the current atmosphere of hatred and rage toward immigrants, the Obama push is not a negative objective. The forces of xenophobia and racism must be defeated.
Seen through a long-term lens, I’m not inclined to support measures which support blind Party loyalty.
I cherish voting – like my Dad – and its honor is tarnished and devalued each time voters are manipulated for self-serving political gain.
In the short term, however, I’m not induced to turn control of the nation’s highest office to those who demonize my father and countless other immigrants, and distort the good they have provided to this nation.
If we are to win the battle over immigration reform, now is not the time to stand down.
In a war of such magnitude, we must fight back using all political weapons at our disposal.
Still, a nagging suspicion lingers.
Will the freedom of Latino immigrants from GOP xenophobes end up leading them into a more deeply subservient role under the control of Democratic autocrats?
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics