The throw-down final debate on immigration "reform," opening today at a theater on Capitol Hill, sounds and smells a lot different at Ground Zero.
Here at Ground Zero illegal immigrants are lawbreakers, often resented most by legal Hispanic immigrants and descendants of legal immigrants who make up the great majority of Hispanics. There's little solidarity with the coyotes in the U.S. Senate, for whom the illegals are merely cheap labor, to be readily underpaid and easily abused, and granted citizenship as a kind of door prize. The "debate" in Washington is far away, as if conducted in an unknown tongue.
The back-and-forth of the Senate debate seems endless and sounds unreal, argle-bargle fit only for television's shouting-and-spinning shows. "We know what they're against," thunders Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts. "What are they for?" As if in scripted reprise, Jeff Sessions of Alabama counters: "We are going to use every effort to slow this process down and continue to hold up the bill."
At Ground Zero, reminders of what's actually at stake are variously frequent, persuasive, sad, and infuriating. On the eve of the renewal of the debate in the Senate, U.S. Border Patrol agents at the border south of San Diego arrested a truck driver for hauling 70 men, women and children in a semitrailer designed for smuggling illegals.
This was no death trap. The trailer was fitted out with a deep freeze, cans of soda and bottled water, ventilating fans and a trap door to enable the illegal cargo to drop to the road and flee into the desert or through a warren of trucks and litter at a truck stop. "This is one of the most sophisticated rigs I've seen," a Border Patrol agent told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It was obviously equipped for a long trip."
The Border Patrol arrested the truck driver after an anonymous tipster called from a truck lot in Tecate, the Mexican town near the border. When inspectors looked inside the trailer they first saw only "a big wall of shredded cardboard haystacks." When they pushed the haystacks aside they found the 70 illegals huddled against the wall of the trailer.
San Diego, only a few miles north of the Mexican border, has been particularly vulnerable to the tidal wave of human flesh pouring in from Latin America over the past decades, relieved only recently by construction of the celebrated border fence. The San Diego Council on Literacy estimates that nearly a half-million adults in San Diego County are illiterate in English, and can often speak only a few English words. Many are barely literate in their native language. Volunteering to teach rudimentary English is a popular occupation of good citizens eager to do good, reprising the eagerness to help a neighbor first remarked on by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville on visiting America more than 150 years ago.
Using donated classrooms in schools and churches, 200 tutors of the Laubach Literacy Council are teaching Arabic, German, Russian and Chinese immigrants — in addition to the thousands of newcomers from south of the border — the English alphabet, and then on to enough proficiency to deal with something as basic as a water bill, a grocery list, or identifying the days of the week, colors of the spectrum, common names and brief phrases of commerce.
"One of the students in the class cleans houses occasionally and wanted to learn to say things like 'wash the sheets' or 'fix the towels,' " one tutor tells the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It's sometimes challenging to stick to the lessons exactly as they are in the lesson book."
The eagerness to help newcomers is matched by the fury of the many hereabouts, expressed in conversations at church halls, truck stops, diners and shopping malls, that similar eagerness to stop the flood at the border is tantamount to bigotry, racism, nativism, and indifference to human suffering. The notion that unlimited immigration is a civil right, and anyone who disagrees is an offense against the memory of Martin Luther King, is particularly infuriating.
Teddy Kennedy has even offended music lovers. He crooned a Mexican love song yesterday morning on a popular Los Angeles radio show in what was said to be Spanish, a plea that the pretty women of the city of Jalisco not give up on him: "... in the heights and in the lowlands, very pretty women, super good-looking." The sentiment of the senator's remembered prowess on long-ago nights seemed genuine, but the notes were sour, like his immigration bill.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.