On a brisk late morning last week, over 100 loud and colorful protesters organized by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), an organization on whose board I sit, lined up on the corner of Clark and Grand. The protesters, young and old, men and women, white, black, Arab, Latino, and Asian came to register their dismay with Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) over the anti-immigrant remarks he has made recently.
This was the site of Chicago's upscale Italian eatery, Maggiano's. The City Club of Chicago was hosting a luncheon at the restaurant and Kirk was the keynote speaker. Protesters carried signs saying "We Are America," "Get Real Mark Kirk," and handed "condoms" to guests as they made their way into the restaurant - more on that later.
I stood there for a few minutes enjoying the sights and sounds of democracy at work before I had to get inside. I had received a ticket and would represent ICIRR at the banquet. As I sat at my crowded table, I could see that many of the guests were sifting through the material protesters had handed them outside. The material quoted Kirk on his ant-Latino and anti-Arab remarks and raised awareness on the need for real solutions to the immigration crisis our nation has ignored for far too long.
Kirk was introduced and got off to an interesting start. For the first few minutes, he spoke mostly in Spanish though most of the audience was clearly white. He went on about his days in Mexico as a student and how he liked Mexico and loved President Calderon, who is one of his "heroes." It was unclear what the context of that introduction was as it really did not tie in to the rest of his speech. I suppose he had seen the protest outside and this was his beat-around-the-bush way of overcompensating for something or another.
Kirk's speech covered three areas: national security, health care and the economy. He seemed poised and articulate and managed to get a few laughs. And then all too quickly, the question and answer session came up, I managed to get my question in, and the laughter was gone:
"Congressman, what is your stance on comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), do you believe in racial profiling, and what solution do you propose for the 12 million undocumented?"
Gone was his smile, gone too was the poise, and gone was the eloquence. In their place stood a shaky and stuttering Mark Kirk.
Plodding along, Kirk began with the easy one: "I am against racial profiling."
He said it kind of quickly and unsurely, but he said it.
You see it was none other than Mark Kirk who, On November 5, 2005, during another Q&A segment at Northwestern University, stated: "I'm okay with discrimination against young Arab males from terrorist-producing states. I'm okay with that."
Now you tell me, which Mark Kirk are we supposed to believe?
If it is the discrimination-is-cool Mark Kirk, then we have a serious problem on our hands: a Congress that has racists for leaders. If it is the I-am-against-racial-profiling Mark Kirk, then that is to be welcomed. But first, he needs to put his money where his mouth is. He needs to recant his explicit support for discrimination and apologize for it. Only then will his record on the subject be settled. Until then, it remains in limbo at best.
Mind you, that was the good part of his three-bit answer to my three-bit question.
On the CIR part, Kirk took the audience on a whirlwind tour of the Mexican cartel drug war, failing to explain the significance of that to the question. Kirk does not need to convince anyone that the cartel war is bad news. The pro-immigrant community are all against it, in both heart and mind. But we are also against using it as a divergence card to escape a response to a problem that will not go away by pretending it will: our broken immigration system.
Kirk finally wrapped up his cartel sermon by stating that only when we succeed in having secured borders will there be a bi-partisan push for comprehensive immigration reform.
Secure borders are absolutely necessary, but that is not a precondition to CIR, it is part of CIR. There is no reason why other aspects of CIR cannot be rolled out in parallel with policies that ensure secure borders in the south.
Lastly, Kirk addressed the 12 million part of the question. Actually, I lied. He didn't. I am not sure what happened to that part. Either he conveniently forgot it, or he blatantly evaded it. Either way, it went right back under the carpet where it has been repeatedly shoved back, far and deep, by one weak-kneed politician after another.
Here's my issue with that: we send our representatives to Washington to tackle the nation's tough problems, not run away from them. The problems don't run away and they'll be right there waiting for them when they get back - if they ever get back.
The moral of the story is this: far too many Washington leaders simply lack a solution to our broken immigration system. That's why they mumble, stutter, or evade. But the fact is, it is broken and someone has to fix it.
When leaders like Kirk manage to come up with ridiculous responses like "passing out condoms in Mexico" or being "OK with discrimination," it is not because they are stupid. And I am willing to believe it is not even because they are racist. The fact is they come up with them because they have no real solutions -- and so they brain fart.
There is a way forward in which America can deal in a humane, civil, and fair manner with the 12 million workers in this country living in the shadows of our system; ensure strong, secure borders; and enable fair and consistent visa and naturalization programs. It's called fix what is broken, or as we call it, CIR.
President Obama has declared his intention to deal with CIR in the near future. Leaders from coast to coast have as well. But there are still far too many weak-kneed leaders who seek refuge from destiny under the let's-close-our-eyes-and-hope-it-will-go-away tree.
It's time they caught on, and it's up to us the voters to send them a clear message.