Wednesday, November 21, 2007
What can I say? Bill Richardson rocks.
While John Edwards and Barack Obama were taking shots at Hillary Clinton during the recent CNN Democratic debate in Las Vegas, the New Mexico governor was focusing on his own candidacy and delivering one of the best performances of the night.
Even those who believe that Richardson is really auditioning for a vice presidential nomination would have to concede that the audition is going well.
Just think about the novel way in which Richardson, in answering a question from the audience about the tone of the immigration debate, did something that is practically unheard of in the dizzying pander-monium of the 2008 campaign: He scolded the audience and told them that not only do we have a dysfunctional border that is being breached by illegal immigrants, a dysfunctional system that makes it too hard for people to enter legally, and a dysfunctional Congress that won't tackle the issue in an honest and productive way, but even the way we discuss these issues is dysfunctional.
For one thing, too many Americans keep falling into old habits and repeating a historically familiar depiction of immigrants - legal or illegal - as inferior to natives, defective in their culture, slow to assimilate, prone to criminal activity and devoid of any positive values. Or, as Republican presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo contends in an outrageous television commercial, terrorists in the making.
Tancredo's point was not lost on the person who asked the question during the Democratic debate. George Ambriz, a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, noted that one thing shaping the immigration debate is the claim by some that controlling illegal immigration is linked to the war on terrorism. He then asked the Democratic candidates if they agreed that these two things should be linked.
Richardson seized on the question to make a pitch for more civility in our discourse.
"We should stop demonizing immigrants," he said. "We should stop doing that."
Amen. You don't hear that sort of thing often enough from politicians, even from liberal Democrats who like to portray themselves as more progressive on immigration policy than those retrograde Republicans. It should be clear by now that immigration is one issue that cuts across party lines and makes some Democrats sound downright Republican.
Nor would you expect to hear it from Hispanic politicians, many of whom might fear being tagged as overly sympathetic to illegal immigrants. That's the risk that Richardson faces whenever he talks about immigration.
The last time I heard something similar to what Richardson said, it came from someone who is an immigrant - California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, like Richardson, has the advantage of living far from Washington and having the real-world perspective of a border governor.
Schwarzenegger has been saying for more than a year that Americans should channel their anger over illegal immigration toward the federal government and not toward immigrants.
I know what you're thinking - that these governors are wrong and that the angst that many Americans feel isn't over "immigrants," just "illegal immigrants."
Sure, sure. It's a lovely sound bite but one not based in fact. Anyone who believes that nonsense hasn't been paying very close attention to the immigration debate. It may have started off being about words such as "legal" and "illegal," but that lasted about 18 seconds. From there, the debate meandered into the cultural swamp. It became about the outrage that we have to "press 1 for English" and how it's bad manners to wave the Mexican flag and how cities should be able to outlaw taco trucks or dictate the number of people who can squeeze into a single-family house. It became about whether we should admit educated and skilled immigrants rather than those whose only qualifications are a strong work ethic and hope for the future. And it became about whether it is time to impose a moratorium on legal immigration to aid the assimilation process for those already here.
Once we went down that road, of course, things were going to get ugly. And, of course, the debate was going to be acrimonious. And, of course, the subtext of the discussion was going to go from anti-illegal immigration to anti-Mexican, just as it has. No surprise there.
That's why it is crucial that people speak out against this sort of thing, especially if they happen to be running for president. We ought to be grateful that at least one has - Bill Richardson.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page B - 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle