The Human Tide is turning

Set aside for a moment, if you can, issues of Democratic and Republican politics, homeland security, official language and national identity – all the real but ephemeral concerns around which we organize our national debate on immigration reform, and think for a moment about tides.

Humans of every race, religion, skin color, language and political orientation have been migrating, like waves on the sea, across borders, mountains, deserts, oceans and mighty rivers since the beginning of recorded time.

The Roman Empire rearranged the world, Vandals and Goths rearranged the Romans, the Incas subdued much of western South America, the Spanish subdued the Incas, Mexicans kicked out the Spanish and Americans – as Europeans came to be called – tried to kick out the Mexicans.

Meanwhile, ethnic and cultural waves rolled back and forth in the wake of military and political dominions, largely irrespective of formal borders.

Thus we find California, once the domain of indigenous tribes, later controlled by Spain, then by Mexico, then by the United States, a perennially poly-ethnic place where culture and language have always comingled and where names and places richly combine English, Spanish and Native American words.

Culture and language, like weather fronts, migrating birds and organic commerce, are tidal – they respond to external influences more powerful and permanent than political platforms. The flood of Latino immigration is such a tide. It can, to some extent, be guided, directed and overseen. But it can’t be stopped, not with 380 million Spanish speakers below our Southern border.

Many Americans view this tide with fear and anger. So be it. That won’t stop the tide. And sending 12 million Spanish-speaking people back to where they came from is not practically, politically, economically or morally possible.

So, finally last year, a majority of the United States Senate approved a “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” – otherwise known as S. 744 – that, while flawed and inadequate from varying points of view, provides the first real immigration reform, and a long path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents, since the bracero acts of the 1940s.

That bill, of course, is stuck in the House of Representatives where hardline opponents don’t want it to pass.

Over the weekend, 5th District Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, made rounds in the Sonoma Valley with Rep. Luis Gutierrez, (D-Chicago) who has spearheaded immigration reform in the House for most of his 22-year Congressional career. The diminutive and feisty Gutierrez, who is Puerto Rican-American and known affectionately by some as “El Gallito,” warned a gathering of Latino leaders at Chateau St. Jean Saturday evening that, “Today they deported 1,100 people. We have to think about the tens of thousands of citizens who have been left orphans,” by deportation.

Gutierrez said Latinos are the “fastest growing group in colleges all across the U.S.” and he added that 2,000 Latinos reach voting age every day. “They are angry,” he said, peppering his English with Spanish, and the best way for Republicans to avoid electoral wrath in November, he told a reporter, “would be to schedule a vote on the bipartisan bill that already passed the Senate. We can do it,” he insisted, “we’ve never been closer.”

The tide, as they say, has turned.