The Immigrant in All of Us

"Fellow Immigrants."

Thus did President Roosevelt address the Daughters of the American Revolution at a time when anti-immigrant fever ran high.

I know what you’re thinking. Your parents, or grandparents, or great great grandparents, came here legally. Maybe there was no quota that made it impossible for them to come here legally. Or maybe, like me, you never quite got the whole story straight.

I know my grandfather had to go to Argentina first, that he got sick there and lost all his hair, that he finally got some kind of papers to come to this country.... But the whole story? Not exactly.

My grandfather always spoke English with a heavy accent. My parents were born here and had no accent. English is the only language I speak.

Same thing for Rosie. Rosie is my babysitter of 17 years. She came here more than 20 years ago, slept on a floor, took any job she could find. Her children were born in El Salvador, her grandchildren were born here.

Both her sons served in Desert Storm, one in the Marines, one in the Army.

She’s a citizen now, and so are all her children, and her grandchildren, of course. With the help of the GI bill, she put the two boys through college; her daughter earned a Master’s Degree with her mother’s help.

With my help, Rosie bought a house. I’ve paid Social Security since long before she became a citizen, not so I could be confirmed to some job I’ll never get, but so she could retire when my kids go off to college.

Rosie’s children speak perfect English, but they also speak Spanish. Her grandson speaks only English, and goes to school with mostly Korean children. He is picking up some Korean words, but his first language is English. Like mine.

Rosie’s children, I was somewhat troubled to learn, lean Republican. They favor a strong military, and are fiscally conservative. But the Republicans could easily lose them forever if they continue to mishandle the immigration issue. George Bush, if you believe what you read, understands what many of his fellow partisans don’t: People who work hard, pay their taxes, support their families, and have lived in this country for many years, deserve an opportunity to become citizens.

On the other hand, many Republicans, and many of the louder voices on the air at FOX, take a more shrill approach. Ann Coulter wants to force the "illegal aliens" to build a wall and then deport them all once they’ve finished. Sean Hannity finds it an intriguing idea. Both of them, if I’m hearing right, would label undocumented workers as felons, no matter how long they’ve been here.

I favor a common sense approach. So do most Americans, if you believe the polls. We need to draw a line between the newest arrivals and long time residents, between those with families here, and those who just crossed the border. We need a sensible border protection plan, but we also need a system that allows people who have tried to follow the law to become citizens and not to become felons.

A sensible immigration policy should not be limited to those with professional degrees. My grandfather didn’t have a professional degree. Did yours? He came here for opportunity, and there was nothing he wanted to do more than make sure his children and his grandchildren got the education denied to him. That’s not the Russian way or the Salvadoran way; it’s the American way.

I read the obituaries every day, especially the section on military deaths, and there they are, the "illegal aliens," as Sean and Ann call them, and their children, dying for our country. Are these the people we want to label as felons?

You would think that the people who would be most threatened by undocumented workers would be those who would be competing with them for jobs: unskilled African Americans, for instance, who are at the very bottom of the economic ladder. But these are not the people I hear ranting on the radio, and carrying on on television.

What are white middle and upper class conservatives so angry about? Why is Ann Coulter so mad? Those who claim to support family values need to explain why it is that they would break up families and clog prisons with phony felons to score points against immigrants.

There is no question that immigration will be a major issue in the midterm election, and perhaps in 2008 as well. Unlike the legislature of my state, I don’t favor boycotts to express my position. But if radical Republicans carry the day in Congress, they are likely to lose the war of the ballot box.

Just remember the lesson of one Michael Huffington, ex-husband of you know who.

Twelve years ago, Huffington was almost elected to the United States Senate, running as a strong supporter of Prop 187, which would have denied all government benefits to illegal immigrants. And then it turned out that guess who took care of his own children? That’s right. One of them.

He blamed his wife. The voters blamed him.

The lessons of history are clear: Before you start giving speeches, check out who mows your lawn and takes care of your kids.

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but hypocrisy is the curse of even smaller ones.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the Fox News Channel.

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