Southern Hospitality

Surprised that Dallas' massive immigration rally went so well? Then you must be a Yankee.

Last Sunday in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, Steven Clemons and Michael Lind, senior fellows of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, lamented that Mexico sends us such low-quality immigrants: "While the United States perversely tries to corner the market in uneducated hotel maids and tomato harvesters, other industrial democracies are reshaping their immigration policies to invite the skilled immigrants that we turn away."

Implicit in that argument is the notion that there is something inferior about people from Mexico. I could just as easily make an argument that someone with the guts to leave 19th-century peonage and come here for his or her family eventually will make at least as great a contribution to the nation as a highly trained computer-chip designer.

But I don't think I hear that kind of sneering attitude often from Anglos or black people in Dallas. People here--no matter what their feelings about the political questions of immigration and border control--tend to express respect for the courage and dignity of Mexican people.

Upward of a half million people marched in Dallas last week. Nothing even close to that has ever happened before in this city.
Upward of a half million people marched in Dallas last week. Nothing even close to that has ever happened before in this city.

Peter Johnson was in the streets Sunday. Johnson, a former foot soldier in the Civil Rights Movement, was with John Lewis and Hosea Williams on March 7, 1965, when they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The marchers were savagely beaten by Alabama state troopers, and I happen to know that Johnson still struggles with physical pain from those wounds.

I asked him about the idea that all of these poor immigrants from Mexico are taking minimum-wage jobs away from black people. He shrugged.

"These are very poor people who work very hard," he said. "They are very family-oriented people. I think they deserve the same right as the white people who came here looking for a better opportunity for their families.

"They deserve the same opportunities, and America ought to welcome them instead of having them hiding and always scared that somebody is going to come snatch them up from their families. I think it's wrong for these people to have to live in that kind of fear, and those of us who believe in justice for all people ought to stand with these people."

It's no use pretending that any of this makes the immigration issue simple. I picked out a couple of counter-demonstrators to talk to because I thought from a distance they looked like skinheads. But up close they were exactly the kind of hard-working, honest, white, blue-collar guys I worked with for years in the car plants in Michigan when I was young.

"All my life I've been working," said Joseph Kindle, a 23-year-old iron worker from Dallas. "Minimum wage hasn't changed since I started working because of the fact that illegal immigrants will come over here and work for next to nothing."

Trent Marsac, 43, from Garland, said to me: "I'm an iron worker, and I'm tired of my wages going down because they'll come in and do it for cheaper. We're the ones who are losing all the public health and all the hospitals."

Those guys are telling the truth: Working people and middle class people in this country are struggling harder and sliding downhill in spite of it. You can't blame people for fearing that a wide-open border is going to reduce most of us to the level of what used to be called the Third World.

But there's another much more powerful force at work here. During the speeches at City Hall, I walked over and sat on the ground in the huge crowd that had gathered for shade under a grove of live oak trees. As far as I could see, people were sitting on the ground in quiet family groups, children playing never too far, mothers gently chiding, men who were quiet with their families.

They love this place. And I believe that this city respects them. In the magic promise of America, they will be lifted up, and they will help us grow too.

The immigration debate is complicated and difficult. It's like abortion: No one will get anywhere until everyone gives basic respect to everyone else in the debate.

But what I don't hear in Dallas is the ugly bigoted tone that sometimes comes from Washington and other places where people don't know Mexico. I think when we say "hotel maid" and "tomato picker," we can think of these as terms of respect. Like "hard worker," "good mother," "good father."

I learned one other thing out there Sunday. I really need to be less white. Or at least wear a hat.

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