In October of 1984, I attended the annual dinner of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) and heard campaign speeches delivered by then President Ronald Reagan and former Vice-President Walter Mondale.
Mondale spoke first. His speech was a litany of promises on a string of issues and mostly fell flat. In fact, Mondale's only applause lines came when he mentioned the name of his running mate, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, an Italian American, much beloved by her ethnic community.
When it was Reagan's turn, he walked to the podium and, after a moment of silence, he began. As I recall the gist of his remarks, they went something like this:
My grandmother, like yours, came to this country with nothing but her hopes and dreams. She worked hard driven by the conviction that if she did, in America, her dreams could become a reality. I stand here the beneficiary of her hard work and the fulfillment of her dreams.
At that point, there wasn't a dry eye in the room, and I said to myself "Reagan just won the Italian vote."
As a Democrat, I was more than a little peeved because that immigrant narrative had long been a Democratic Party staple. For decades, the base of the party had been America's urban ethnic immigrant communities. That we should have surrendered that narrative and that base to Reagan was flat-out wrong.
I recall this story as we are in the midst of a national debate over comprehensive immigration reform. A bill has passed the Senate and the matter now moves to the House for its consideration. Listening both to advocates for reform and to the media discussion of immigration has been disconcerting. It is framed as a Latino issue, with "Latino" and "immigrant" becoming interchangeable terms.
Pointing to the states where the Latino vote looms large, Democrats gloat that if Republicans don't get this issue right, they will never win the presidency. Some Republicans sharing this view are urging their party to adopt a reform agenda so as to cut into the Democrat's advantage with Latino voters.
Last night, CNN featured a presentation comparing the role the Latino vote plays in presidential, Senate, and Congressional elections -- arguing that while that vote is critical on the national level and important in several key Senate contests, most Republican lawmakers in Congress come from districts that have no Latino voters and so are immune to pressures to pass immigration reform.
As the campaign gears up to pressure Congress to act, advocates are again targeting Representatives who come from districts where the Latino vote is a factor or districts where businesses that benefit from immigrant labor (again read "Latino") are important.
All this misses the point.
As two of my colleagues, State Senator Jim Rosapepe (an Italian American) and former Congressman Bruce Morrison (an Irish American) often point out, immigration is not only a Latino issue, it is an American issue. It is fundamental to the American narrative -- who we are and what we hope to remain.
As Bruce once noted, if the issue is framed as undocumented Latinos knocking on America's door saying "let us in," it narrows its potential to win. But if it is presented as America, the welcoming nation of immigrants, opening its doors and saying to the newest wave of immigrants "your story is ours, and we want to welcome you as our ancestors were welcomed", it has broader appeal and can win.
Some opponents of reform hone in on the issue of the "undocumented" as if this group were exclusively Latino. They speak of them derisively as "law-breakers," a unassimilable group that would change the character of the country and be a drain on the economy. This has been done in an effort to stereotype, marginalize, and demonize all immigrants.
This argument is wrong on several counts. Firstly, being "undocumented" is not new in America, nor is it limited to one ethnic group. In the last century, there were millions of undocumented Irish, Italian, Polish and other European immigrants who found refuge in America. Even today, if you look at the tallies of youngsters who have applied for "Deferred Action" (President Obama's compassionate attempt to defer deportation for young people who were brought to this country by their parents), Europeans are in eighth place on the list of all applicants.
Immigrants have always been derided as "lazy," "different and unable to fit in," and a "drain on the economy." This was said of the Irish, the Italians and the Eastern and Central Europeans. In a marvelous study compiled for the Immigration Policy Center, researcher Jeffrey Kaye compares the recent bigoted statements made by politicians in Hazleton, Pennsylvania (who are themselves descendants of immigrants) with the statements made about their ancestors when they first arrived in America, a century ago. They too were defamed as "lawbreakers," " a drain on public funds" and "not able to assimilate."
Hazleton achieved national notoriety when its City Council passed an ordinance against Hispanic "illegal immigrants." Hazleton, which had been steadily losing population over the last century, had been experiencing a bit of a rebound largely due to the influx of Latinos. Boarded-up stores had reopened and abandoned homes were now occupied with families. In reaction to the ordinance, many immigrants, including those who were citizens, left Hazleton. My brother John, who had been brought in by the city's Chamber of Commerce to study the economic impact of the ordinance noted that he had never before seen a city "commit suicide."
The lesson here is clear. Moving forward, advocates for reform need to reframe the immigration debate by recapturing the immigrant narrative and investing white ethnic Americans in the issue. A majority of the populations in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin are immigrants and the descendants of immigrants from Europe and Mediterranean countries. For them, immigration is not just a Latino issue; it is their story -- our American story. It is, as Reagan reminded that NIAF audience, personal to each of us and it is our collective self-definition as a nation.