News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Yes, they're breaking the law. So have many others.

There’s a mantra the nativist love to chant indignantly: “Illegal immigration is a crime. These people are breaking the law.” In reality, Americans have willfully broken the law en masse several times in our nation’s history. When that’s happened, we’ve usually had the good sense to change the law. And in some instances, we’ve even called the lawbreakers heroes.

Take Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, the U.S. made a futile attempt to ban booze and what did it get us? The birth of the Mafia. The total prohibition of alcoholic beverages was so absurd that ordinary citizens simply flaunted the law. And the black market for spirits they created gave rise to organized crime. Hmmm. Should we try this again with at least 12 million people? We already have a booming industry in fake work documents. What’s next when we turn a population the size of Illinois into felons?

Another massive wave of law breaking took place during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Beginning with Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of the bus, large numbers of African-Americans publicly broke the law to challenge the Jim Crow system of racial segregation in many parts of the American south. “But they were U.S. citizens!” many will be quick to add. Yes, that’s true. However, in our nation’s past we’ve also elevated law breaking by non-citizens to heroic status. I’m speaking about Texas.

It’s a dirty little secret but the first illegal aliens in Texas came from Tennessee. Stephen Austin, the father of Anglo Texas, received permission in 1823 to bring “300 families” into the Tejas province after years of wrangling with the Mexican government. By that time, tens of thousands more Anglo squatters had moved into the region. These illegal immigrants, mostly from Tennessee, thumbed their noses at the Mexican government when asked to leave – or at least pay their taxes. When General Santa Anna moved his troops north to evict these squatters, just over a hundred of them holed up in place called the Alamo while the rest retreated to form an army under Sam Houston. Only a military victory over the Mexican army made the Anglo squatters of Texas “legal.” So let’s not get too high on our horses about “illegal immigrants.” We’ve been there and done that.

The final piece of law breaking which we revere today was perpetrated by British citizens who openly disobeyed the laws of Parliament and king, refused to pay taxes, and formed an insurgent army in 1776. Ironically, today’s self-styled patriots who have taken it upon themselves to protect our borders from the illegal hordes call themselves The Minutemen.

Am I advocating open borders and a free pass to everyone already here illegally? No way. But we need to use some sense in solving this problem. As Eugene Robinson points out in the Washington Post, screaming “amnesty” every time someone suggest any type of compromise serves little purpose – except to deepen the gulf between Latinos and the rest of our society. And calling anyone who opposes open borders a racist is no better. The time has come for us to use reason – and not self-righteousness – in finding a way out of this mess. Because when it comes to willfully breaking the law, the U.S. lives in a glass house.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez

Author of America Libre