Southern Hospitality

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

Not to be self-referential or anything in attempting to deal with the single most significant political event I have witnessed in the city of Dallas in almost three decades of reporting, but the next morning after last weekend's monumental immigration march downtown I went to the mirror to see what on earth was wrong with my face. I thought I was looking at a beach ball in a bathrobe.

From standing outside all day Sunday covering the march, I had one of those extreme white-people sunburns where the tips of my eyebrows had turned sort of translucent green. "Oh, perfect," I said to the mirror. "You spent all day feeling like a Martian in your own city. Now you look like one."

The entire experience of the last week, beginning with the spontaneous student walkouts over the immigration issue, culminating in Sunday's flawlessly organized march, has been eerily otherworldly for me. This is a city whose main political tradition has always been somnambulism. And now everything is different.

Surging down Ross Avenue Sunday in the center of that immense chanting mass--350,000 to half a million people in white shirts waving the American flag--I looked up at the buildings and thought, "These streets have never seen anything remotely like this before."

The march reminded me of the recent floods--a great natural force welling up suddenly, shoving aside all the social contraptions and political conventions we had imagined to be the reality. It makes so much of the Washington debate on immigration feel hopelessly loopy and out of touch: Does somebody up there actually think we're going to kick these people out of the country?

The hundreds of thousands of people around me in the streets on Sunday were happy, confident, organized at both social and family levels, brimming with hope, determination and the sheer fun of the American democratic process.

They ain't going nowhere. They're here. They're us.

It was the same thing I thought I saw a week earlier in the spontaneous Latino student walk-outs--thousands of kids suddenly in the streets waving flags, streaming into downtown and coursing through City Hall in a flood. I was especially fascinated by that endless loop on one of the television stations--the kid running around the edge of the reflecting pond on City Hall Plaza. That was exactly what my kid would have done at that age--goofy, exuberant, a little bit defiant, a little bit wild on the juice of the crowd. That kid is here. He's American. For better or for worse.

And now the conservatives in the Congress have brought about what has never been accomplished before by even the most intense efforts of Latino leadership: By insulting the mothers and fathers of these kids, the nativists in the Congress have awakened them politically.

It took a long time to find the right button. Everybody else kept working the abstractions--cries of "La Raza!," appeals to the duties of citizenship and a million other things no iPod-wearing techno-kid would ever really get or care about. But finally the meatheads in the House of Representatives found the hot spot. They came up with something you could get across in a text message: telling these kids that their immigrant parents who sneaked into the country and cleaned toilets to send them to junior college are going to be labeled felons.

Yup. That did it. Insulting their moms and dads, that was the ticket. Spontaneously and on their own, self-organized with cell phones and MySpace messages, they exploded out of the schools and into the streets and gave their parents the courage to follow them downtown a week later in last Sunday's history-making march.

Between the two events, I stayed in touch with Gustavo Jimenez, a junior at Duncanville High School and one of the ringleaders of the walk-outs. He told me he and his friends will work intensively in the months and years ahead to see that the energy of these weeks is channeled into voting.

"That's our main focus," he said. "People have been asking me, 'Well, after the march, what are you going to do?' We have a slogan: March today, vote tomorrow. We're going to reach out to all the people who are unregistered voters, especially in the Latino community, and tell them they should start voting. They should let their voice be heard every time, not just this time but every time."

The Latino population of Dallas is now being estimated at more than 40 percent of the total population and growing. Voter turnout by Latinos in city elections is often in the low single-digit percentages of eligible population. But black turnout can be equally execrable; whites only vote big in the last bastion districts far north; if Gustavo Jimenez gets even a part of his wish, the balance could turn quickly here.

And here's another reason it could happen: It struck me Sunday that the city might not resist such a shift. In the past, all of these demographic recalibrations were automatically assumed to be explosive, because the groups involved were assumed to be mutually insoluble.

But I don't see that here. Not now. I definitely see and hear that kind of animosity in the immigration debate in the parts of the United States that are farther away from Mexico, where Anglo politicians and pundits write about Mexicans as if the word itself were a pejorative.

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.

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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