President Clinton's pledge to expedite deportation of as many as 100,000 illegal immigrants, most of them Latino, may imperil his administration's relationship with those segments of the Latino community who have been his most loyal supporters. Of all the political measures that can be employed toward the legitimate goal of curtailing illegal immigration -- from stricter border enforcement to employer sanctions to identification cards to state initiatives such as California's Proposition 187 -- nothing is more troubling to many Latinos, particularly those of the World War II generation, than the "D-word."
During a congressional forum on Proposition 187 last year, I maintained that the initiative's intention to deny education and emergency health care to illegal immigrants was so indecent that, should it pass, the "only humane alternative would be to deport them." When I left the stage, I was confronted by several gray-haired "politicos." They all wanted to know how I could even suggest deportation as a solution. An old man waved his finger at me and asked where I, a third-generation Mexican-American, would be had my Mexican grandfather been deported, as a boy, back to his village in Chihuahua.
Lost somewhere in our high school history lessons are the shameful stories of massive and indiscriminate deportations by an Immigration and Naturalization Service obsessed with protecting labor interests even at the expense of violating the civil rights of Americans. In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were unceremoniously deported across the border. Families were separated, mothers and fathers never heard from again. Later, in the 1950s, more than 3 million were de ported. In the most infamous example of this policy run amok, known as Operation Wetback, more than 1 million people were banished into the belly of Mexico, transported in railroad cars as one might move cattle.
Thus, Mr. Clinton's threat of a speedy deportation must have received little enthusiasm among elderly Latinos who have good memories and who, coincidentally, have the most consistent voting patterns. In the 1992 presidential election, 62 percent of .. Latinos voted for Mr. Clinton. Moreover, in some of the president's fiercest policy battles, Mexican-American grandmothers have been more inclined to stand with him than against him.
The deportation issue is troubling because it could provide an exception to this rule. Soon after the president's pledge, a Spanish-language newspaper in Fresno, Calif., ran this headline: Clinton Declara la Guerra Contra Los Illegales" (Clinton Declares War on Illegal Immigrants). It was followed by five exclamation points.
A Mexican-American woman recently told me that, with an election year looming, it was becoming more difficult to distinguish the president, for whom she voted, from Gov. Pete Wilson, who made support for Proposition 187 a cornerstone of his gubernatorial campaign. Latino members of organizations such as the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who would be furious had the deportation threat come from a Republican, have been noticeably silent, as have been Democratic Latino elected officials.
How the deportation issue will play out with middle-aged baby boomers and my generation is more complicated. Polls confirm that even those Latinos who opposed Proposition 187 -- and the overwhelming majority of them did -- concede that an open border is foolishness and that reasonable steps should be tak
en to protect the sovereignty of U.S. borders. Deportation, however unpleasant, may be a necessary trade-off for opposing XTC Proposition 187, an important show of good will that re-establishes our credibility on the issue of illegal immigration by admitting that laws and borders mean something.
Cecilia Munoz, an immigration policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, thinks that, on the immigration issue, some concessions are inevitable and flexibility is crucial. She notes that the problem, generally, is not deportation itself but the tendency of the government to abuse the process, and that not all deportations are alike. Latinos, for instance, do not typically object to deporting convicts.
But where it gets complicated is with the inevitable revision and expansion that all government policies undergo. Once the electorate's appetite has been whetted with the red meat of deportation as a viable policy option, the slope toward more aggressive ways of implementing that policy is likely to get slippery. After all, why not apprehend illegal immigrants at will for, as Mr. Clinton put it, the crime that they have already committed: illegally entering the country?
Well, then, why not raid? Why not sweep schools and churches, bars and restaurants and supermarkets, wherever illegal immigrants -- or those suspected of being illegal immigrants -- may congregate, round them up, put them in wagons and haul them back across the border and deep into Mexico or El Salvador or Nicaragua?
Sound distasteful? You bet. Sound impossible? Not by a long shot. For one thing, there are many Californians who are not bothered by sweeps and would support them, even call for them. For another, as the political bidding war of getting tough on illegal immigration escalates during next year's election cy
cle, the rhetoric on the right will probably become even harsher and the promises for action bolder. Finally, modern immigration sweeps are hardly unheard of.
It was just 10 years ago that bars in my predominantly Latino hometown were raided by local police and Border Patrol officers. I remember rows of Mexican-looking men in handcuffs being herded into green buses by Border Patrol agents. I wondered how "Mexican" I looked or how "Mexican" my father or uncle or cousin might look to an overzealous immigration official asking us to produce identification to prove our citizenship.
The president knows that illegal immigration will be a defining issue in his re-election campaign and that he has fences to mend with nativist voters in California. Fine. But let him pick up a history book and dust off his old law books; let him listen to
some of his Latino advisers before he pokes carelessly at the hornet's nest of deportations.
It was to "sensitize" the president about such issues that, during Cinco de Mayo weekend, the National Council of La Raza and New Line Films organized, in Washington, a private screening of the new feature film "Mi Familia."
The movie contains an emotional scene in which a Latina, although an American citizen, is swept from her husband and children and deported to Mexico. The idea was to educate the chief executive, just a bit, about a community to which he has had, in his own life, virtually no exposure and about which he still knows very little.
What an unfortunate coincidence, then, that the president should make his remarks about deporting illegal immigrants on the next day.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano."