Awakening from the DREAM Act: Sen. Rubio vs. Frank Sharry

By Stephen Steinlight on June 2, 2011

The DREAM Act amnesty, the sole piece of immigration legislation to come before the 111th Congress where it was defeated despite the fact that the Democrats got pretty much everything else they wanted in an unethical Lame Duck session where dead men walking acted as if they had received a fresh mandate, refuses to die, at least die a quiet, seemly death.

It was reintroduced in mid-May by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durban (D- IL), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and 30 other Democratic senators, and in the House by Representatives by Howard Berman (D-CA), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-FL) and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). Its reintroduction is a political gesture, pure and simple, an exercise in pandering to and dishonestly jollying along a grossly stereotyped Hispanic community in advance of the 2012 elections. Its supporters know the bill has no chance of passage. The 2010 mid-term elections saw a sea change in the balance of power in the House of Representatives, from border doves and pro-amnesty supporters to border hawks and enforcement advocates as Republicans retook the chamber in a decisive victory.

In addition to utilizing the DREAM Act to trade on and exacerbate crude ethnic identity politics, sending the message that Democrats are passionately pro-Hispanic while Republicans are heartless xenophobes, its reintroduction has also provided an occasion for Democrats and open-borders advocates to try damaging the political credibility of a rising star in the Republican Party, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a native-born American whose parents were born in Cuba.

Rubio has handled himself with admirable poise despite finding himself between a rock and a hard place. The open-borders Hispanic media and some Hispanic national and local pols allege his opposition to the DREAM Act is also pandering – in this case to Republican "anti-immigrant nativists." If they stopped to think about the accusation, they would be forced to recognize, at least in private, that if the senator is "pandering" it is to the vast majority of Americans from every race, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, socio-economic status, etc. who draw a sharp distinction between their positive feelings about legal immigration and their detestation of the illegal kind. That is to say, he's not pandering at all. Perhaps the most objective observation that can be made of this anti-Rubio gambit is that it takes a real panderer to think everyone is playing the same game.

Scurrilous attacks on the senator's stand which, given the obvious pressures, shows his steely civic virtue and uncommon political courage in today's smarmy political world, have not come only come from within the Hispanic pro-illegal immigration lobby. The "Benedict Arnold" rhetoric hurled at the senator has also been employed by an Anglo who has taken up the White Man's Burden to define the requirements of Latino ethnicity for someone of Cuban heritage.

The part-time imperial anthropologist is Frank Sharry, former Executive Director of the extremist identity-politics National Immigration Forum who now heads the (suspiciously) patriotically titled pro-amnesty group "America's Voice." Adding his voice to the lynch mob of usual suspects, Sharry has said of the senator: "To be against comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship and against the DREAM Act defines you in the Latino immigrant community as a hard-liner and an enemy of the community."

The implicit basis of Sharry's attack on Rubio is a fractious, divisive multicultural vision that refuses to accept that America is a nation, "E Pluribus Unum" be damned. We are no more than the sum of our parts, an agglomeration of competing ethnic diaspora communities pushing their narrow interests in a Hobbesian free-for-all instead of a pluralistic country in which a sense of greater national belonging surmounts identity politics. The oddest thing about this unwholesome view of our national life is that it is maintained not only as a descriptor, but also as an ideal. This conception of the United States is one of the principal tenets of the worldview of the National Immigration Forum. In that post-American organization, in which it was my misfortune to attend the occasional meeting representing the American Jewish Committee, this assumption routinely expressed itself in the bitterest anti-Americanism. It is no exaggeration to state the organization's support for illegal immigration was premised on the view that illegal immigration is but one of many forms of just retribution an imperialist America deserves to pay. Should any member of that organization dispute this characterization, I invite them to take a lie detector test along with me.

Showing fidelity to an inclusive, pluralistic vision of American society, one rooted in respect for the rule of law and based not on narrow and immediate parochial interest but a broader national one, Rubio did not hesitate to voice his opposition to the DREAM Act on Telemundo, one of the nation's leading Spanish media outlets, immediately upon its reintroduction. Leaving none of the usual wriggle room, he made it immediately clear he would vote against the bill. He restated his opposition to the bill to Politico, stating, "We need an immigration system that works in order for America to grow and prosper economically. But we have to have laws. We have to have a legal immigration system."

Speaking in personal terms of his family's immigration experience, Rubio told the interviewer at Politico his family escaped Cuba in the late 50s and lived, successively, in New York City, LA, and Las Vegas before settling among the many Cuban refugees in West Miami. Hardly a child of privilege, his father did odd jobs, worked as a bartender, and his mother was a maid in a Miami hotel.

When Rubio spoke about his immigrant experience in his interview with Politico, the tone and substance of his remarks are indistinguishable from what one might hear from any one of millions of descendents of immigrants who came to the U.S. legally. Totally absent from his narrative – and what distinguishes it from the "stories" the pro-illegal immigrant advocacy groups routinely tell – is any sense on his part of being aggrieved, of regarding the dominant culture as his enemy, of being treated prejudicially, of having uncertain loyalties or primary loyalty elsewhere, of questioning the very validity of our borders, and of expecting one form or another of entitlement or restitution.

Rubio states:

Immigration to me is a deeply personal issue. My parents are immigrants, my grandparents were immigrants, my wife's family were immigrants, I've grown up around immigrants, continue to live around immigrants, so I know immigration about as well as anybody who's involved in it.

I believe immigration is a key part of our legacy of our country, and it's a critical part of our future as well. And we need an immigration system that works in order for America to grow and prosper economically. But we have to have laws. We have to have a legal immigration system.

Earlier we suggested the one-size-fits-all approach taken by the Democrats to the Hispanic community, especially to its supposed monolithic stand on immigration, is itself a crude ethnic stereotype. Within the Hispanic or Latino community, neither of these catch-all descriptors is normally recognized as denotatively accurate. And, no, it is not more hip to say Latino than Hispanic, though that myth appears widespread among younger left-liberals. Within the many communities that make up the generality referred to crudely as "Hispanic" or "Latino" are groups that feel themselves to be and are indeed distinct in numerous vital ways: in the kind of Spanish or Indian languages they speak, their histories, familial and social structures, folkways, attitudes towards and level of formal education, denominational affiliation or other avenues of religious expression, artistic predilections, relative strength of group solidarity, feelings towards the United States and their countries of origin, assimilative capacity, balance between peasants and laborers and professionals and entrepreneurs, political beliefs, etc. To be Mexican is not the same as being Cuban; to be Dominican is not identical to being Puerto Rican; to be Guatemalan is not the same as being Nicaraguan; to be Argentinian is not to be Colombian.

These points are so self-evident it is almost embarrassing to feel they need to be made, but given the egregious way "Hispanics" are lumped together for the sake of Democratic Party electioneering, it is critical to emphasize differences.

A very obvious one likely plays a role in explaining the strong stance Sen. Rubio takes as a friend of legal immigration but as an opponent of the illegal sort. Undoubtedly a large reason for this is his very different vision of America from that Frank Sharry & Co. Rubio sees a diverse and pluralistic nation, but one nation, one that can yet be formed into a more perfect union. Sharry, a post-American, sees an oppressive force in the world comprised of rival special interests whose opposition to each other is natural but, with luck, can be combined into coalitions and directed against the oppressive regime itself.

In addition to that difference in terms of political vision, there is the special quality of the immigration history of Rubio's family. They did not steal across the U.S. border to profit at America's expense, retaining primary loyalty to their country of origin. They did not send money back to communist Cuba while taking jobs from Americans and building savings by which they wished to live their retirement in their native country. These transnational low-skill migrant workers who make up most of the so-called "immigrants" presently in America from Mexico could not be more different from Cubans. It would be more accurate to describe the Cubans who came to America as refugees rather than as immigrants – let alone as "undocumented immigrants." They fled communist tyranny. Like the largely uneducated Mexican rural peasants and unlettered and unskilled Mexican workers, many Cubans arrived destitute, because the Castro regime had systematically robbed them of everything they had earned under the capitalist system they had overthrown. But many arrived with a strong entrepreneurial spirit and re-established themselves relatively quickly in America, flourished, and saw their children, if not themselves, attain the "American Dream." Because they fled a tyranny, they were also powerfully drawn to America for political reasons. They identified with America because it was a free society that would permit individual liberty and initiative. That perfect match has helped create a model minority.

Thus, when Sen. Rubio speaks about immigration, his language is precisely the same as that employed almost unconsciously by the descendants of the immigrants who came in the Great Waves. But the difference between that shared understanding of what immigration ought to mean and of the importance of the rule of law in a pluralistic but cohesive society is altogether distinct from that of Frank Sharry and his ilk, for whom the immigration experience is not connected to a dream but rather to a nightmare of oppression through a skewed vision of the past as well as the present.

Topics: DREAM Act