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Tom gets down with the youthful protesters


I'd like to say that I was doing some sort of high-calling journalistic duty at the federal building a week-and-a-half or so ago, but I had just gone to get some tax forms. Anyway, I parked about halfway across town (since the feds don't allow parking spaces) and walked to the building.

When I got a couple of blocks away, I was overtaken by a throng of spirited young people. As they closed around me, one kid who was wearing a Mexican flag like a shawl asked me, "Are you going with us?"

I said, "I don't know. Does it involve food?"

I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and began asking them questions. One young girl, who said her name was Yesenia, did most of the talking for them. I asked what they were protesting; no two had the exact same answer, which was cool. Yesenia did her best to explain the issues as she saw them.

I asked her if she knew the concept of "devil's advocate." She said that her English teacher always makes her take the "wrong" side when they debate. I told her that was an honor, that teachers always do that to the smart kids. The guy with the flag shawl said, "He never does that to me." Yesenia and I let that go.

"Do you guys understand that your use of the Mexican flag will, if you'll pardon the expression, alienate some people who might otherwise be sympathetic to your cause? And all this 'Viva Mexico' stuff isn't going to play well, either."

She explained that they were just being proud of their heritage. I told her that rednecks would have the knee-jerk reaction of saying, "Why don't you go back there if you love it so much?" and moderates will argue that if they understand your protest correctly, you should be waving American flags.

But then I told her that if she ever got on the "wrong" side of that debate, she should mention that people wave Irish flags and say stuff like "Erin go bragh!" on St. Patrick's Day, and similar stuff happens on Columbus Day.

I told the kids that I hadn't been in a protest march for a long time. I thought I'd show off by mentioning that I once marched with Cesar Chavez. (Actually, I was several thousand people behind Chavez in the procession, but with the mind editing that comes with the passage of time, my recollection is that I was this close to him.)

They thought it was cool and said they wished Chavez were still alive to join in the protest. I told them not to be so sure he would have been there. I explained that Chavez was all for human and civil rights, but he was, first and foremost, a union guy. He wanted what all good union leaders want--higher wages and better benefits for his members. Chavez would have hated a guest-worker program, and he almost certainly realized that illegal immigration undercut his efforts as well.

They didn't believe me. I told them to look it up or ask their teachers. One kid called me a Republican. I said that, as an old-school liberal Democrat, I wasn't for a guest-worker program, either. To me, it's just another corporate scam to help the rich get richer and make the poor stay poor. And shame on Ted Kennedy for proposing it.

When we got to the federal building, there was a good-sized crowd there. One kid grabbed the microphone from a Channel 13 reporter and started shouting into it. Is there some kind of Lupita Murillo rule that says that all of those reporters have to be 4 foot 11 or shorter?

As the kid kept shouting into the microphone, I asked Yesenia, "Is that guy a friend of yours?" She smiled. "Not right now." Another kid who was shouting was wearing a Cheech and Chong "Up in Smoke" T-shirt. Yeah, that'll really help your cause.

So, Yesenia, let's get to the "devil's advocate" thing. I told her that some people think that no new immigrants should come to this country. Is zero immigrants OK with her? She said no. How about if every person in the world wanted to come here? Is 6 billion an OK number? Again, she said no. Then the number is somewhere between zero and 6 billion. Now, who gets to decide?

Oh, how about this? What if, 10 years from now, a flood of Vietnamese refugees came into the country and started taking jobs that Mexican immigrants used to do, but for lower wages? Would that be OK? Wait, let's take it further. In 10 years, half of all the adults in sub-Saharan Africa will be HIV-positive. What if the dictators in that area decided to do some "cleansing," and they transported all the infected people to Nogales, Sonora? Would you honestly welcome them into this country? Would the American Civil Liberties Union? Would the Catholic Church?

She, like the rest of us, doesn't know the answers to those questions.

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