Talking Immigration at the Federalist Society
The Republican Party continued to tear itself apart today, amidst the wreckage of a six-course luncheon on the third floor of a Chinese restaurant a block past the Friendship Arch, courtesy of CNN, the Federalist Society, and Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez.
Gutierrez had been invited by the Federalist Society, a clubby group of conservative lawyers whose symbol is the purple silhouette of James Madison, to deliver the administration line on immigration to a divided and rebellious base. I was there with two tables of Cato interns who had gotten a forwarded invite that promised free lunch and a trade talk, Cato being a public policy think tank, which is like an aquarium for reasons I've already explained.
The Secretary arrived late into plattered ruins of spring rolls, dumplings, fried rice, chicken or pork shining sticky with sweet & sour or choked in teriyaki, amid red Chinese lanterns, and red lacquered woodwork, and baroque chairs, and banquet tables. James Madison's purple visage was flanked at the podium by two bejeweled and golden dragons. He trailed Secret Service, a cameraman, staff assistants. An introduction by the D.C. chapter president included jokes about the astrological signs of Democratic congressmen and a crack at Senator Joe Biden.
Gutierrez's speech was an odd mixture of realistic policy goals, technophilia and calls for tolerance. He pushed unmanned drone patrols on the border and, most disturbingly, a national biometric identification card without which nobody would be able to seek employment. He spoke of his own experiences coming to the US as an immigrant from Cuba via Mexico forty years before, and got a sudden, brittle flourish of applause after calling for new arrivals to learn English, as he had. The microphone volume cut in and out, the CNN cameraman looked bemused and swore, shuffling in orange polo, smiling an odd sick sort of smile everytime the audio failure obliterated a sentence.
The Secretary gently denounced deportation by pointing out the logistic and moral pitfalls of expelling 12 million people from the country - "Are we going to use buses? A fleet of 747s? Where will we send them?" - and raised the question of the 3 million children born to them here, now US citizens. He mentioned amnesty and claimed Bush's plan was far more rigorous, pleading for a middle ground between the extremes of amnesty and deportation. A dozen people, their faces compressed with inchoate rage, got up and walked out of the room. "Nation of immigrants" was used at least four times, and contrasted to "nation of law." He asked that this "emotional" issue not be clouded by antagonistic and disruptive rhetoric, meaning nativist posturing, though not in so many words. He invoked the President, underlining his status as messenger.
Questions came, and the room, between the crackling and sudden hush of the microphones, the rebellious hum of exiting suits, felt stretched tight as a balloon. An old, old man, shrunken into hollow collapse with his age, asked, or tried to ask, a question that circled and circled around the unnamable. He tried to say, Perhaps immigration is a good thing, or was, at the turn of the century. When immigrants could be counted on to espouse American values of hard work, advancement. But what does what do? - he paused. What does one do about a collection of immigrants who do not share these values? Who do not have the education - or perhaps the drive - to succeed, quite, like - and he trailed off. The suggestion hung in the air like cigarette smoke. Lazy Mexicans. It had a physical presence. You could reach out and touch the curdled racial tension in the room.
Gutierrez swallowed it. He adopted the reasonable, businesslike tone he'd followed for the duration of the speech. He suggested that perhaps those people working ten, twelve hours a day to put their children through school and send home remittances were in fact hardworking. He mentioned the overwhelming consensus of economists that immigration was good for the economy. He repeated that unemployment was the lowest in four decades, and that unemployment among illegal immigrants was even lower. He pointed out the wave of Irish immigrants at the turn of the century had not exactly been a wave of doctors and lawyers, and that this did not mean that they could not rise. He did not say, Give me your poor, your huddled masses, and given the room that was probably for the best.
He fielded one last question that saw the questioner attempting to strip citizenship from children born on US soil. There was applause, and he was presented with a leatherbound edition of James Madison's writings.
Meanwhile, across the country, Republican border state constituents are mailing their Congressional representatives bricks. Three different friends in three different offices confirm them piling up in the mailslots. One staffer has started building a wall around her desk. Another, working, to her eternal shame, at the RNC fundraising commission, makes calls and hits registered party members who tremble with righteous anger at Bush's immigration policy. "I'm not sending you a god-damned dime," one said, "until you build that wall."