By Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez
(Editor’s note: the following remarks were delivered on the House floor the week of March 19)
Last Thursday, a different kind of March madness took place in the NCAA basketball tournament.
In a game between Kansas State and Southern Mississippi, Angel Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican point guard for Kansas State, was met with taunts by Southern Miss students while he was getting ready to shoot a free throw.
The taunt: “Where’s your green card?”
That wasn’t the only March madness. Earlier this month, in San Antonio, Texas, fans of Alamo Heights, a predominantly white high school in San Antonio, chanted during the regional basketball championship trophy presentation. Their chant: “USA”
Why did they chant “USA”?
Because their team had defeated San Antonio’s Thomas Edison High School, a team of mostly Latino players.
One U.S. citizen asked to produce his green card, one entire team of Americans taunted as if they were foreigners.
These young people, subjected to hatred and bigotry, handled it well.
Angel Rodriguez ignored the taunts and played a great game. If he hadn’t been busy helping Kansas State win, he might have mentioned that he’s from Miami, or that all Puerto Ricans are citizens.
I’m impressed that the kids from Thomas Edison High School kept their cool. They deserve our praise not only for being good basketball players, but for being good kids.
Southern Mississippi and Alamo Heights have apologized for the taunts. That’s an important step in the right direction.
But that’s not the issue.
The issue is why people think it’s OK to treat Latinos as if they are second-rate Americans. Why so many people seem to think that being Latino means being a suspect. Why do they look at a young man named Rodriguez and think he doesn’t belong in this country.
Because misguided kids taunting Latinos isn’t really the disease – it’s just a symptom.
The heart of the sickness is more troubling. The truth is, when it comes to Latinos, and immigrants, far too many so-called “leaders” in our nation are starting the taunts.
On the campaign trail, and on the talk radio circuit and Fox News, and even here in this chamber, these “leaders” act like the biggest bullies in the schoolyard.
If elected officials have no boundaries when it comes to scapegoating and demonizing immigrants and Latinos, then why should young people at a basketball game know any better?
Why does a Puerto Rican, American citizen basketball player get taunted about a green card?
It’s easier to understand when you hear the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President promoting a national immigration policy that makes all Latinos look like suspects and all immigrants look like criminals.
Mitt Romney has said that Arizona’s anti-immigrant law – a law that essentially demands racial profiling of anyone who “looks” like they might be an undocumented immigrant – is a ”model” for our nation.
But that’s not all Mitt Romney has said to America’s Latinos.
He has said that 11 million immigrants, most of whom are Latinos, should “self-deport” themselves. Even if they have lived here since they were children and have American citizen families.
He’s attacked our first Latino Supreme Court justice.
He’s proud of the support of anti-immigrant extremists, including the author of Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws.
He’s attacked the Dream Act, a perfectly reasonable bill that rewards young people for doing well in school and dreaming of a better future.
And Mitt Romney’s hardly a lone voice.
One member of this House said he would be for any measures to stop illegal immigrants “short of shooting them.”
Another one of our colleagues called undocumented immigration a “slow-rolling, slow-motion terrorist attack on the United States.”
Pat Buchanan wrote a book entitled, “State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America.”
Folks like Buchanan and Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs regularly use words like “hordes” and “swarms” to describe immigrants.
Maybe Mitt Romney thinks he’s just saying what he needs to say to get the Republican nomination. And maybe some elected officials think their extreme rhetoric doesn’t really carry outside of the halls of this Congress.
But America knows better.
And so does a Kansas State basketball player, and a group of good kids from San Antonio, Texas. They know that words matter very much.
So here’s my advice to the Romneys and Buchanans of the world and a few of my colleagues here in the House:
instead of bullies, why don’t you be leaders? And why don’t you try some words that bring people together, instead of insults that tear people apart.
Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez is in his tenth term in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Illinois’ Fourth District in the heart of Chicago.