The high-voltage debate over illegal immigration crackling across America is not just dividing Anglos and Latinos, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, the House and the Senate. No, it’s getting increasingly personal between friends, especially those of us on the left.
So I recently discovered when I began writing for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), a nonprofit advocacy group in Santa Barbara that has focused on the state’s population spike as a result of illegal immigration and the resulting impacts on the environment, American culture and our collective quality of life.
While I have never been much for slapping generic labels on people or their viewpoints, it is fair to say that my politics have been practiced primarily on the left side of the aisle for the better part of the past three decades. I cut my teeth in the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1980s; volunteered as a foot soldier for Sen. Alan Cranston; professionally consorted with faux progressive Larry Flynt; and socially cavorted with the real McCoys, like Sen. George McGovern, Cesar Chavez and renegade tripper Timothy Leary. I supported Dennis Kucinich in 2004. When his quixotic campaign ended, I voted Green that November.
Perhaps that is why I have watched the blood drain from the faces of more than a few of my friends, cohorts and fellow journalists as I explained that I signed on as a senior writing fellow for CAPS and am now wielding my figurative pen in support of seriously cracking down on illegal immigration — that sustained human wave which I have watched erode social services, job opportunities and quality of life in Pomona, Calif., the working-class town of my birth where I have lived virtually my entire life.
The response from my cohorts — from Los Angeles’s bohemian Echo Park and the chic Westside all the way up to the Golden Gate — has been fast and more than occasionally quite furious. It seems my position, however steeped in concern for the environment and quality of life of the American working and middle class, has crossed some ideological red line, a cultural no-fly zone.
I was no longer just sleeping with the enemy — I admit I have something of a fetish for Republican women — but I had now enlisted in their cause. My long history as a contributor to the LA Weekly was suddenly recast more in the light of “infiltration.” When Rush Limbaugh read one of my columns for CAPS on the air during his drive-time morning show, I could almost immediately hear air-raid sirens blaring from my e-mail account. The bombing had begun.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry,” one friend announced in a mass e-mail.
“Believe me, I’m crying,” replied another. “I am really surprised by your vehement disdain for so many things Mexican.”
An old colleague and friend advised, “I’d like to congratulate you, but I can’t bring myself to do it,” before going for the backhand slap, “You’ve been called many things in your colorful career, but ‘Tool of The Man’ has never been one of them.” Until now, that is.
Another sounded more like a disgusted parent: “Rush Limbaugh!? Are you proud of yourself?” Some friends have dropped off altogether, offering the proverbial cold shoulder.
In short order, it seems I have devolved from a maverick liberal into a pawn of The Man, a mere dupe of the Republican Party’s Machiavellian scheme to divide and conquer the electorate with yet another wedge issue. I have become a political heretic, joining the anti-Mexican, nativist, xenophobic, saliva-drooling Gabacho mobs hyped up by “hate radio” and eager to prey upon proud-but-vulnerable immigrants whose crime is working in American fields without papers.
I would be lying if I said some of the flak wasn’t distressing to me, especially the toxic suggestion that CAPS is some “creepy anti-immigrant group” with a “final solution” approach to population control, as one of my lefty friends put it.
I found myself countering such claims by telling any of them who would listen that CAPS, in fact, is made up of former Sierra Club activists, respected academics and good people hailing from the full range of American political identities brought together to confront what we agree is a crisis. I told them I found it refreshing to be working with Democrats, Greens and — gasp — Republicans on the issue of overpopulation, which is like AIDS 20 years ago: a crisis politicians won’t talk about.
I repeatedly offered my own background of being raised on the multi-ethnic, working-class streets of Pomona, cataloging the history of my deep, real-world friendships with Latinos and Chicanos, which stands in stark contrast to the dinner-party multiculturalism that still conveniently passes as hard currency in some left circles.
And I shipped some of what I received: telling my friends that they reminded me of a low-calorie version of Mao’s Red Guards, indulgently playing make-believe revolution and bravely shouting “Viva la Causa!” from their barricades at Starbucks. “No person is illegal” plays well on their Volvo bumper stickers, until of course it is their job, property value, emergency room or neighborhood school that is SRO with impoverished refugees.
Then I realized I was just playing a time-honored game, one that’s increasingly employed against people with honest opposing points of view in order to force them to defend their character personally — and their motives politically — against a wide variety of insidious smears, rather than arguing the issues on the basis of fact and genuine disagreement.
So, now I feel far more liberated than hurt and I can thank some of my friends for confirming just how paper-thin their tolerance truly is for ideological diversity.
Indeed, the reactions by some of my friends and colleagues have splayed open to the bone just how intellectually bankrupt many self-declared progressives can be when frantically clinging to politically correct orthodoxy on the issues of illegal immigration and overpopulation.
And just how bitterly — and personally — they can take a dissenting point of view.
The good news is that real friendships are based on far more than being faithful political bedfellows and will survive accordingly.
I suspect there will be a mild culling of my larger social roster this summer, with my name conveniently vanishing, Soviet-purge style, from a few invite lists. Well, so it goes.
My close circle’s reaction has encompassed all the stages of a sudden trauma: shock, denial, anger and, among some, the slow drip of a begrudging acceptance.
I saw the glint of this social detente at a barbecue in Echo Park the other day, where I took (and gave) some lighthearted jabs before being handed a plate of ribs and beans, a cold beer and a place at the table.
As my Uncle Lorn used to say: “Here’s to champagne for my real friends, and to real pain for my sham friends.” The way it should be.
Mark Cromer is a journalist in Los Angeles and a senior writing fellow at Californians for Population Stabilization. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.