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Out Of the Shadows

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Adrian didn't know all of the 20 guys who were propping him up, but he had to trust them and had no reason not to. The first 16 had formed a circle not far from the speakers' platform at Monday's immense rally for immigrant legalization on the Mall, and four other young men clambered atop them. Then some of them hoisted Adrian until the four could lift him still one level higher, and somebody else handed up a large American flag, which Adrian, perched atop this human Mount Suribachi, waved back and forth as the crowd chanted " Sí, se puede! " and "USA!"

A slight, bespectacled 18-year-old, Adrian began his journey to the Mall five years ago, when he came to the States with his mother and younger sister -- devoid of papers that could legalize his presence here. His English is excellent, though he had to leave his Baltimore high school this year (he now works pickup construction jobs) when his mother was no longer able to provide for the family. Back on solid ground, he smiled when I asked him how he knew that the band of friends and strangers beneath him could spontaneously become a human juggling troupe. "The people united," he laughed, taking one of the day's slogans and turning it into a literal answer, "will never be defeated."

The people united had themselves quite a day on Monday. In vast numbers, from the nation's capital to the little slaughterhouse towns on the prairie, the janitors, laborers, cooks, nannies, gardeners and busboys -- the background players in the lives of our professional middle class -- suddenly took center stage. To be sure, there were also lawyers and students and thousands of little ones underfoot on the Mall, but this was chiefly a coming-out party for that part of the American working class that has lived in shadows. The help became human. The mute found their voice.

Old Ted Kennedy told them that this was a day they would teach their grandchildren about; he was, for the moment, young King Henry and they were all about to do battle at Agincourt. For years, Kennedy had been leading the charge for immigrant rights on Capitol Hill; he plainly inspired their gratitude and affection. But many among the march's organizers also had quiet thanks for Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader who pulled the plug on the steadily worsening compromise legislation that was rushing through the upper house of Congress late last week.

"Nothing coming out of the Senate was good enough to survive reconciliation with the House bill," said one veteran civil rights organizer. "Our hope is to go back into the streets to get something better."

Indeed, the deterioration last week of the workable and balanced bill that emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee was so rapid that it left the immigrant, business and labor groups that had supported the committee's bill confused and divided over how to proceed. Where the committee's bill had established a clear path to legalization for America's undocumented, the bill that was coming to a vote on the floor was unworkable and nearly incomprehensible. Illegal immigrants here for more than five years could stay and become citizens; those in the States for between two and five years would have to return to a designated border checkpoint to be recertified and readmitted by the Citizenship and Immigration Services; those here for less than two years would have to go.

For this system to work, immigrants would have to produce employment records from employers many of whom hired them partly to avoid having to keep employment records. They would have to produce utility bills for apartments they shared with a dozen co-workers. And the CIS would have to perform at a level of efficiency it has never even contemplated. In the end, millions of immigrants now underground would remain underground.

The problem is that the Republicans are trying to balance a punitive nativism with a genuine solution to the problems of immigration -- much as, in Medicare Part D, they sought to solve the problem of rapidly rising drug costs with legislation benefiting the pharmaceutical industry. If these guys had written the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they would have tried to preserve segregation.

But from the evidence of the polling, which shows a clear majority of Americans now favor a path to legalization, and from their own growing ability to mobilize the immigrant population, the immigrant advocates believe that momentum is on their side. They feel what A. Philip Randolph, who organized the 1963 March on Washington, sensed when he looked out over that historic throng and spoke of "the meaning of our numbers."

In Monday's numbers, there was strength: in the 20 who hoisted a young man with an American flag, in the 12 million who are making our country new again.

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