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The Tuesday Column
When Illegal Immigrants Become Heroes

In 1995, Jose Gutierrez was a 14-year-old orphan in Guatemala when he decided to do what 700,000 other Guatemalans had done — enter the United States illegally. Two thousand miles and 14 freight trains later, Gutierrez crossed the Rio Grande. He was promptly arrested by the Border Patrol. Being a minor and without a family, he was spared deportation and turned over to California’s welfare system. He spent the next four years in foster homes, learning English, attending and graduating high school, getting his medical needs taken care of by the public health system. As the lexicon of neo-flag-wavers would put it, Gutierrez was freeloading on the American taxpayer.

When he turned 18, Guetierrez got himself a Green Card. He planned to be an architect. Not quite having the means yet, in 2002 he joined the Marines. A year later he found himself shipping off to Kuwait. And in the first hours on the first day of the Iraqasion, he was killed on the outskirts of Umm Qasr, just inside the Iraqi border. He was the first of 2,322 Americans (so far) to be killed in the war. He is, as the lexicon of neo-flag-wavers like to say, a hero, a patriot, among America’s finest.

So. Which is it? Freeloader? Illegal immigrant? Criminal? Or hero?

I kept thinking about Gutierrez, on this third anniversary of the war, as accounts of marches for immigration rights multiplied (half a million people turned out in Los Angeles on Saturday, 300,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in Denver) and as the machinery of xenophobia began hing its counter-attack with that mixture of faux-legalisms and table-turning. This from Right Wing Nuthouse, a blog that bears its name well: “Does anyone else find it just a little bit absurd that the left, who have been ranting for 5 years about Bush placing himself above the law, now wish to put millions of people not only above the law but beyond the law as well?”


That’s what talking points — as effective and simplistic as they are mendacious — are made of. Comparing the president’s lies on the run-up to war or his domestic spying program to a nobody schlepping it across the Rio Grande diminishes presidential lawbreaking to something the nanny next door might have done. In other words, whatever Bush did was not a big deal. But the reasoning works only if it concedes that laws are being broken either way — which, of course, Bush loyalists won’t do: In their view, the guy crossing the Rio Grande is a lawbreaker and a threat to the nation more serious than Bush could ever be; it’s only the liberals who want those criminals in here, “beyond the law.”

I wish I was only putting up a straw man, but this is the sort of thinking that goes from a 5-watt dimwit online to a 10-watt dimwit with a talk show to a 50-watt dimwit on the floor of Congress, with a vote worth 350,000 people, or a few million if the dim bulb is a senator. The U.S. House of Representatives has already approved a bill that would make felons of all undocumented immigrants and those who’d so much as give them work or refuge, including religious institutions. The Senate takes up the measure today, with various alternatives that attempt, but fail, to be more humane.

The guest-worker program is a cop-out the way “civil union” for gays is a cop-out. Both ideas recognize that legal rights are owed individuals who currently don’t have them. Neither goes all the way to equal rights, which should be the uncompromising principle of any law. We don’t need guest-worker ghettoes on the European model, which is what a guest-worker program will give us. We need what we’ve always had: Avenues to citizenship for all immigrants, whatever their designation. Instead, we get Right Wing Nuthouse-like rhetoric that demonizes immigrants.

Actually, illegal immigrants are presently “beyond the law,” in that underground economy immigration opponents fear and profit from (the 1990s, illegal immigration’s go-go years, are economically America’s richest). An immediate amnesty and road to citizenship for however many illegal immigrants are in the country would bring them within the law’s protections, along with their taxes, along with the immense benefits immigrants have always brought to this country. Imagine the number of illegal aliens the recruitment-challenged military could turn into heroes then.

The irony is that imprisoning or deporting Gutierrez, when the Border Patrol had the chance, would have spared him a pointless death in a useless war for a country where Gutierrez’s “illegal” likes are reviled as criminals and threats to America’s security and way of life. The bigger irony is that Gutierrez was killed by his own side. “Friendly fire” just about sums up the neo-flag-wavers’ war on 11 million “illegal” immigrants.

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