Immigration Nation

"Being a foreigner, being an immigrant," Elia Kazan, the great Turkish-born, Anatolian Greek director who died this week, once mused. "I mean, I wasn't in the society. I was rebellious against it."

The irony, of course, is that Kazan virtually defined our national culture at the midpoint of the 20th century, directing such quintessentially American classics as Death of a Salesman and On the Waterfront. Which should hardly be surprising. The immigrant rebellion against American society that Kazan claimed to personify has been most typically a struggle against those who would keep immigrants at society's margins, both legal and economic. From the Irish of the 1840s to the Latin Americans, Asians and Africans of today, the object of this least threatening of rebellions has been to secure the right to become an American -- to speak not only to the nation but for it.

That's certainly the goal of the roughly 500 immigrants who pulled into Washington yesterday afternoon on buses that brought them here from as far away as Seattle and Los Angeles. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Riders, as they call themselves, traveled across the country to dramatize their claim to full rights from the nation that they are helping to build.

Today, the bus riders will become citizen (and non-citizen) lobbyists on Capitol Hill. They want immigrants already working in the States to be able to gain legal residency and a path toward citizenship and to be able to bring their spouses and children here as well.

Unlike their predecessors in the earlier great waves of immigration to the United States, huge numbers of the immigrants who've come here in the past 25 years have done so outside the law. The American economy beckoned them, but the polity -- as was not the case when the Irish, Italians, Germans and Russians came here -- has not. For the first time in American history, then, we have a huge immigrant population -- the 2000 Census says that 12.4 percent of the national workforce is immigrant -- permanently consigned not even to second-class citizenship but no citizenship at all.

And yet, as today's lobbyists make clear, a growing number of these non-citizen Americans are finding ways to openly influence public policy even if they can't vote. This week in California, as the recall contest comes down to its final days, the largest get-out-the-vote efforts to keep Gray Davis in office will be waged by unions, the most active of which have predominantly immigrant memberships.

In Los Angeles the two most active unions during election season are invariably the janitors of the Service Employees International Union and the waiters and housekeepers of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union. These two locals have played a major role in mobilizing the new immigrant voters who have moved Los Angeles and California to the left over the past decade.

At the moment, the campaign to turn out Latino immigrant voters seems one of the few aspects of the Davis campaign that's going well. Most recent polls have shown California Latinos almost evenly split on the recall, partly because some Latinos want to ax Davis as a way to elect Cruz Bustamante.

But there is a dramatic gap between longtime Latino citizens and more recently arrived immigrant Latino voters, most of whom have registered to vote only since 1994's Proposition 187 threatened to throw the children of the undocumented out of public schools. In polling released last week by a consortium of groups including the Pew Hispanic Center, 51 percent of English-speaking Latino voters wanted to recall Davis, while just 39 percent of Spanish speakers felt the same way. Other polling suggests this gap is far wider.

Much of this difference can be attributed to Davis' having signed legislation permitting undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. The massive campaign that some unions are waging among Spanish-language voters -- targeting 800,000 of them statewide -- accounts for this gap as well.

The votes of the Spanish speaking, of course, are nowhere near enough to keep Davis in office, and in this election he may well lose more votes than he gains for having signed that driver's license bill. But as Pete Wilson can attest, and as Karl Rove fears, the Republicans can overplay their hand by campaigning against immigrants.

In the meantime, the transformation of California politics unleashed by the entry of immigrants into politics -- a transformation that a Schwarzenegger victory can delay but not deny -- is already responsible for enactment of the first paid family-leave program in the land and the likely enactment (if, as expected, Davis signs the bill this week) of mandated employer-financed health coverage. In this, California's new immigrants are following the path laid out by the immigrant activists of the last century, who provided much of the vision and support for the policies that became the core of the New Deal. Like their predecessors, they are not just pounding on the doors of American society but defining it for the better.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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