Latino Activists Hope to Sculpt Political Movement

The political implications of the May 1 protest being framed as a "day without immigrants" remain to be seen, as Hispanic activists flex their organizational muscle and debate how to achieve their goals. Robert Siegel talks with Rodolfo O de la Garza, professor of political science at Columbia University and vice president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Today we're following pro-immigrant marches and boycotts across the country. In Los Angeles and Chicago, large crowds filled the streets. In New York human chains wove through Manhattan. Marchers carried signs and flags of the U.S. and Mexico. Certainly the topic was clear, but the message may elude many outsiders.

SIEGEL: Political scientist Rodolfo O de la Garza of Columbia University has written extensively on the politics and experiences of Latin American immigrants in the United States. Welcome to the program Professor de la Garza.

RODOLFO O: Thank you, it's good to be here.

SIEGEL: And I'd like to ask you about a distinction that some people make, lots of people make it ,but organizers of today's demonstrations seem to be pointedly not making it. They talk about a day without immigrants, not a day without illegal or unauthorized or undocumented immigrants. Isn't that what the protest is really about, immigrants who aren't here legally?

GARZA: Right but the immigrants who aren't here legally are completely enmeshed with those who are here legally. It can be wives, it can be children, they can be husbands. So the distinction with any given family is meaningless. So the point is, these are immigrants. Americans in the general body politic really think about legal and undocumented or illegal immigrants. They are quite supportive of the immigrant, legal or not, but they're really fixated on the legality question.

SIEGEL: You say fixated. I mean, there's a bit of a value judgment there, to be mindful of one's naturalization status is to be a bit obsessive about it. But that is an immigrant view of the, lets say the Anglo view of immigration.

GARZA: Right, but it's more than naturalization, it's the legality. And we call again that legality can change almost whimsically. In the 1950's, for example, when the Congress was protesting the presence of all the undocumented, what the INS did was to capture illegals, make them legal almost literally on the spot, and so they could tell Congress there's no more illegals in the U.S., which was true. The same number of people were here, but they had overnight become legal.

SIEGEL: I've gotten the impression over the years that among Mexican and Mexican American families, the disingenuousness, as they see it, of Americans when it comes to legality or illegality is that it's legendary in their view.

GARZA: Absolutely. What's more interesting, though, is that the Mexican American, and indeed many legal immigrants, do not favor open-ended immigration. Most of them would favor very clearly legal immigration. And so the fight for them is protecting the rights of people who are here so they don't get abused, but they're not advocating for more immigration, suggesting this distinction that we're making.

SIEGEL: Professor de la Garza, when you describe the different prospectives on the legal status that immigrants from Mexico might have, and that Americans at large might have, it's a pretty big difference. It's whether you should define legality after the fact of people being in the country or before they enter. How ultimately do you see that being resolved, that problem?

GARZA: Well, see, I wouldn't quite phase it that way. I think the more important issue is that the Mexican Americans here figure that if you're good enough to get into the country, the U.S. should leave you alone.

SIEGEL: Good here meaning adventurous, plucky enough, courageous enough?

GARZA: Yes. The way I like to talk about it is, for Mexican Americans, the contest is at the border, and if you get in you've won. For the general society is, it doesn't matter whether you're here and won or not, you're still illegal and they go after you. The difference is the definition of when the game is over. For Mexican Americans the game is over when you get into the country. For Americans, broadly speaking, the game is never over.

SIEGEL: Well Professor de la Garza, thank you very much for talking with us.

GARZA: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's professor of political science, Rodolfo O de la Garza of Columbia University in New York City.

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