The caller was calm, articulate and hateful. “It’s one less illegal alien to worry about,” said John on my Talk Radio 790 phone line in Los Angeles. I had been discussing the tragic death of a 10-year old, Joanna Ramos, who died several hours after a fight with an 11-year old schoolmate in an alley next door to the Frances Willard Elementary School in Long Beach. The children had apparently been brawling over a boy, and my other callers and I were lamenting both the death and the fact that girls that young would resort to violence over a boy.
The immigration status of the fifth graders involved in the desperately sad episode never occurred to me. The fact that it not only occurred to John, but defined his thinking about this middle school catastrophe shows how raw and visceral the issue of illegal immigration gets in Southern California. This is where the immigrant rubber meets the angry citizen road. This is where barely a lawn is tended, toilet cleaned, baby cared for or dish washed but by an undocumented immigrant.
It isn’t that they disproportionately commit crimes; they don’t. Or steal jobs. That they do the unsavory and arduous for less is less of an issue than that they clog the chronically inadequate freeways and byways, and compete with tax-paying citizens for school, hospital and other services. And they are everywhere, on television, in the markets, on the job, overwhelmingly diligent, hustling between low paying gigs trying to make a few bucks to send back to Oaxaca or Jalisco, but adding to the crowd.
The breadth and depth of the illegal immigrant population stresses the system and frays nerves. It makes L.A. tense, aggravated by non-stop anti-immigrant vitriol from Republicans running for president and screamers on talk radio. That leads to John and those who quietly agree with John and an entire category is dehumanized.
President Obama has not helped. For the first three years of his administration he tried to be tougher than the other guys. He unleashed ICE, deportations soared, and the fence was stretched and strengthened. With the election looming, the president has reversed his rhetoric and moderated his policies. So broad is the gap now between him and the GOP, he is assured the support of most Latino voters in November.
But whether or not he is elected, then what? What is comprehensive immigration reform anyway? Will it sooth the culture-stress, ease traffic or un-crowd schools?
Frustrated by federal inaction, states like nearby Arizona crafted clumsy laws aimed at controlling the undocumented with their police. The federal courts have so far prevented enforcement. But whether the U.S. Supreme Court agrees, it is not enough to scold the states for trying. It is incumbent on the president to suggest something.
This is more urgent than health care. This is the battle President Obama should have picked in 2009 when he was awash in good will and controlled both houses of Congress.
Los Angeles is doing what it can. Police Chief Charlie Beck has revived the idea of granting the undocumented a provisional driver’s license. The chief, joined by County Sheriff Lee Baca believe the move would cut down on the number of hit and run accidents involving illegal, unlicensed drivers. It would also encourage them to carry vehicle insurance.
But as ex-California governor Gray Davis in 2003 and defeated presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2008 discovered, advocating driver’s licenses or any official recognition or privilege to the undocumented, however practical and humane, can be fatal to your political health.
The resentment runs deep. And it is not just on the radio.
Geraldo Rivera is a Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.