The current immigration debate in the United States reminds me of the plot of “Waiting for Godot.” In Samuel Beckett’s play, two men wait in vain for a man called Godot, who never arrives. The same could be said about immigration policy: For years, we have been waiting for a new law that never appears.
Last week, when Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed the most anti-immigrant bill in the country into law, she said that politicians in Washington have done nothing at all to resolve the situation of the 11 million or 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. And that’s true.
But, in a purported effort to fill that legal vacuum, Gov. Brewer approved several potentially discriminatory measures. It is now a crime to be without papers or identification in Arizona. It is a crime to help or transport undocumented immigrants. And the police are authorized to act as immigration agents and detain anyone suspected of living in this country illegally. This is a persecution of the weakest. George Orwell’s Big Brother is alive and well in Arizona.
But one question: What exactly does an undocumented immigrant look like? I speak English with an accent and my skin is brown. Is that reason enough to stop me at the airport in Phoenix? And what would happen if I traveled without my passport? Could the authorities take me to jail or fine me? Yes, they could.
Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat in the House of Representatives, has similar reservations. In a statement released on April 20, he said: “I am Puerto Rican, I was born in Chicago, and my family has been U.S. citizens for generations, but look at my face, listen to my voice: I could get picked up. Is this what we want in America?”
The new law, which amounts to legalized racism in Arizona, is only possible because the current federal immigration legislation is useless. We have waited for two decades for some kind of real reform, and none is in sight.
The last immigration reform was enacted in 1986 when, thanks to President Ronald Reagan, 3 million undocumented immigrants were legalized. It was a generous reform, but an incomplete one: It didn’t include an effective plan for the orderly entry of new immigrants. By 2000 there were 6 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
That’s when we started to hear promises of real reform. In February 2001, President George W. Bush told me in an interview that a binational commission would look into helping those undocumented immigrants. But years went by and nothing happened.
By 2007, when Bush finally tried to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, he was so unpopular and his political capital so eroded that the proposal didn’t even pass a vote in the Senate. That truly felt like the end.
Then Barack Obama rescued the immigration issue during his campaign to capture the Latino vote. It worked: Almost 7 in 10 Hispanics voted for him. But the pledge he made to Latinos — in an interview I had with him in May 2008 — has not been fulfilled, either: He promised to present a proposal for immigration reform within his first year in office, but 15 months have passed without any sign of one.
There is a growing sense of grievance in the Latino community toward Obama: first, because he didn’t keep his promise, and second, because many people believe that if the president had fought for immigration reform with the same determination he showed during the health care debate, things might have turned out differently — that bill in Arizona might never have been signed into law.
The Arizona law reveals American society’s deeply rooted racism. And the fact that it passed means that so-called “Latin power” is not as powerful as we once thought. It means that the Republicans who favored the bill, including Gov. Brewer, haven’t learned their lesson, and Hispanics will continue to vote against them.
If there is any silver lining to Arizona’s new law, it’s that the issue of immigration is now front and center on the national stage, and with a renewed sense of urgency. Seeing what’s happening in Arizona, those on both sides of the issue are now clamoring for long-term solutions.
At the end of Beckett’s play, one of characters says of Godot: “… He won’t come this evening but surely to-morrow.” Many have said the same thing about immigration reform: It may not have come yet, but it’s coming.
A reminder: Beckett published his play in 1952, and Godot still hasn’t shown up.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
(April 28, 2010)