• by Raul Yzaguirre • IDRA Newsletter • February 1996 • 

My family has lived in what is now the United States since 1723; six generations of Yzaguirres have been American citizens by birth. I have been privileged for the past 20 years to serve my country and my community as the head of a prominent civil rights organization. I have met with presidents, have dined with cabinet members and senators and have broken bread with captains of industry.

And yet, like each of my forebears, my status as an American is questioned on an almost daily basis. Every time someone mispronounces my (admittedly unusual) name, asks when I came to this country, questions my nationality, comments on my speech accent, or even “compliments” me on my English, I get “the feeling.” I find it difficult to explain to those who haven’t had it – a combination of anger and frustration, fear and humiliation, sadness and regret.

Each generation of Yzaguirres has known “the feeling.” My great-great grandfather knew it; he became an American citizen through conquest and had both his old property rights previously guaranteed by the Constitution of Mexico and his new right to vote guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, ignored. My maternal grandfather knew it, when in the 1920s he barely avoided a lynching for violating a curfew and later in the 1930s when he escaped deportation because of his Mexican origin. My father knew it, though he too was one of the “lucky ones” who escaped massive harassment in the 1950s. I knew it even as a youth, when I was counselled to carry an ID card at all times “for my own protection” to prove I was an American.

My entire professional career reflects an attempt to assure that my children and my grandchildren would be spared “the feeling;” today, in the 1990s, the United States teeters on the brink of institutionalizing it. A well-motivated desire to find an easy, simple solution to the problem of illegal immigration, combined with the seductive allure of new technology, has led to calls for a sweeping new policy that requires that all Americans be approved by a government computer before being permitted to work. This is not a new debate; the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) has questioned the wisdom of such schemes for two decades. But anti-immigrant hysteria in this country has grown to levels that parallel the 1930s and 1950s, when thousands of my forebears’ friends, relatives and neighbors – citizen and noncitizen alike – were unlucky enough to be “repatriated back” to Mexico, a country in which many had never before set foot. In the midst of this hysteria, the facts unearthed from our research and the arguments stemming from our analyses have been dismissed and our motives challenged by some.

So NCLR retained the services of an eminently qualified consultant, one thoroughly familiar with the issues but with no axe to grind, to carry out an exhaustive analysis of the issue. I think the results speak for themselves. As the debate moves forward, these new “Big Brother” verification schemes will be exposed as inaccurate, ineffective, discriminatory, costly and subject to abuse.

Under this system, those who have the misfortune to have their names mis-spelled in computer records or have their records mixed with someone else’s, will lose job opportunities. Who among us hasn’t been assigned debts that were not ours by a credit bureau computer, or had our records “lost” by a government agency or even been told that, as far as the computer is concerned, we were no longer alive? Who among us doesn’t fear the unwarranted disclosure of sensitive or personal data by a massive web of inter-connected data bases? The emerging public exposure of these verification schemes will graphically illustrate for every American “the feeling” that I and every other Latino knows so well; as a result, I believe such schemes will be rejected.

The question of immigration control is a serious one; it deserves earnest analysis and thoughtful consideration. It does not deserve a simplistic and dangerously flawed “magic bullet” that will divert attention and resources away from less intrusive, less dangerous, less discriminatory, less costly and ultimately more effective alternatives.

Raul Yzaguirre is president of the National Council of La Raza. The above is reprinted from the foreword to the NCLR publication State of Hispanic America: Racing Toward “Big Brother” (1995) with permission. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]