In her C-SPAN interview with Dan-el Padilla, author of Undocumented, reporter Liz Robbins of the New York Times reads a provocative passage from the memoir's final page:
Immigrant brothers and sisters: Of course people will yell at you that America is not yours. That you have no stake in America, no place in America, no right to belong in America. You must not let them get off lightly with saying that. You must argue, remonstrate, shout back that your hands and feet and minds are as much a part of America as theirs are. Together we must fight to ensure that America remains not the dream of the chauvinistically minded few, but the fulfillment of hopes for many. We are in the ascendant. America is ours, and we must not concede otherwise. [Emphasis in the original.]
It is a stirring manifesto, a call to rhetorical arms. It is also a straw man distortion of the views of those who oppose illegal immigration.
Ostensibly Padilla is addressing all immigrants to the United States, calling on them to unite in self defense against American chauvinists and nativists. But I know of no one who claims that legal immigrants, those who follow the rules, have no stake, no right, no place in our country. Under those rules, the United States admits about a million people every year. They come from every corner of the globe. They have earned the right to pursue the fulfillment of their hopes, their version of the American dream.
Padilla claims their legitimacy for himself and for all other illegal immigrants. He believes the United States has no right to establish civic boundaries by establishing rules for inclusion. He asserts the right of all to be included and boasts that he and his comrades are taking over. "We are in the ascendant. America is ours." What is this if not arrogant triumphalism and mockery of the democratic society that has allowed it to happen?
One of the many holes in Padilla's memoir is the result of his inability to acknowledge something that former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda identified as an underpinning of our society. Noting the visceral loyalty that Americans have to the concept of playing by the rules, Castaneda said large-scale illegal immigration "runs counter to the legalistic nature of a society that has little else to hold it together beyond the belief in and devotion to the rule of law."
Liz Robbins is not inclined to pursue the suggestion that mass contempt for the law has a subversive effect. Instead, she is enthralled by it all, saying Padilla's final passage "almost sounded like it was from the ancient world." For her, his defiance isn't about provocation; it's about perseverance. She asks: "What do you want to leave readers and viewers of this program today with this optimism — despite everything you have been through. ... What do you want to leave people with, a lesson about perseverance?"
Padilla's response is another straw man. "America cannot be this restricted concept," he tells her. "It cannot be something that is viewed as the exclusive prerogative of those who by the accidents of fate and fortune happen to have been born here."
When I heard that, I had to restrain the impulse to shout at the television, demanding that Robbins call him on this nonsense and ask him to cite an example of such intolerance. All Robbins manages is an appreciative "huh", as if he had just said something profound. She also buys into what followed, Padilla's assertion of a universal right to immigrate to the United States "because of course, America's power projects all over the world ... and there are many people who have become Americanized without even knowing it."
So there you have it: If people anywhere like American jeans or music or movies, they have been colonized by an imperial power and have the right to claim the United States as their new homeland. The only paperwork they need is the receipt for that pair of jeans. By this standard, I should be able to demand Dominican citizenship because I'm a fan of Dominican baseball.
This brings me to the inflammatory taunt that Padilla used to finish the book. We'll look at that next.