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March Madness

When a Tea Party protest and an immigration rally collide.

Walking across the Capitol lawns yesterday morning, a little Hispanic girl noticed something exciting: protesters massing on the steps, waving flags and chanting.

Look at all the signs here!” she exclaimed to her father (in a mixture of Spanish and English), pointing toward the white marble dome.

Her father might have explained to her, however, that it wasn’t their protest. The family was there for an immigration reform rally, which drew at least 100,000 participants. Meanwhile, on the steps of the Capitol were tea partiers taking a last stand against health care reform. On the fringes, the two groups regarded each other warily, with occasional flare-ups. “Pay your taxes and be a citizen!” a platinum blonde tea partier yelled in the general direction of the pro-immigrant protesters. Some even tried to get the Capitol police to arrest people with t-shirts that read, “Undocumented and Unafraid.”

For the lily-white tea partiers, there was no more solid proof of the mortal peril they imagine America faces than the (mostly) brown people flooding the Mall behind them. Jack Kingston, a conservative Georgia congressman, urged an assembled group to get involved in congressional races in swing districts, because the left can bring in “busloads of professional protesters”—seemingly illustrated by the buses unloading a few blocks away. “They can hire riots, because they have unions and federal employees,” he explained—plainly in evidence with purple SEIU t-shirts dotting the crowd. “I think that bringing people in here just for votes is ridiculous,” said Kaylynn Parks of Pennsylvania, who argued that the debt could be reduced substantially by stopping Spanish instruction in public schools.

And as cheers from the rally on the Mall reached all the way to the Capitol, undergirded by the faint drumbeats from a Mexican dance ritual taking place on the lawns, Representative Steve King warned the few remaining tea partiers of the danger they represented.

“What they’re about is undermining the rule of law,” King explained. “Many of them are here illegally. Those with them are sympathizers and apologists.”

“They want our health care!” someone yelled.

So much for GOP Latino outreach—which, considering how many interests the two groups share, is a very strange opportunity to miss.

The rally on the Mall was hot and dusty, with almost no space between bodies, and signs swinging everywhere. Not unlike another day last September, when the tea party had its first huge shindig in D.C.—another awakening of a usually-silent mass that wants government to show it’s listening. Indeed, despite the obvious differences, the immigrants marching in white t-shirts have more in common with the tea partiers than either side realizes.

Religion, for one: The immigration rally began with an interfaith prayer service, not unlike one held at the National Tea Party Convention last month. There were more crosses at this rally than most tea party functions, and I would guess that most of those carrying them would back Bart Stupak in his stubborn opposition to abortion. Patriotism, for another: American flags were by far the most popular accessory at the immigrant-rights rally (a flag vendor who had been selling to tea partiers changed his pitch for a new clientele: “Dos dolares, dos dolares!”). Hispanics are culturally conservative, fiercely family-oriented—the protest overflowed with nuclear units accompanied by strollers—and not necessarily wedded to the Democrats. 

“I’m a conservative, and I support comprehensive immigration reform,” read one sign. And another, with a warning for the president: “No more O-bla bla bla. Take action now—you can lose our support.”

Immigrant leaders have been broadening their base of support: NAACP president Ben Jealous spoke at the rally, a step toward mending the gap with African Americans concerned about competition for jobs. And alliances with evangelical and Catholic groups pulled numerous churches into the effort.

But Republicans, who could sure use the Latino vote in urban areas, had no speakers in the lineup. Lindsey Graham, who is sponsoring immigration reform legislation with Chuck Schumer, is already a GOP apostate. And if the bumbling tea party attempts at outreach are any example, the party has a long way to go if it wants any shot at this demographic.

“If you bankrupt our cities, no benefits for you!” one woman shouted at the protesters streaming by. “These people are pawns to bring down the capitalist system,” she explained to me. “And they lose.”

Even more friendly overtures fell flat. On the lawns, as Republican congressmen egged on tea partiers from the Capitol balcony, one lady attempted to extend an olive branch to a family of El Salvadorans living in Maryland. “You guys citizens yet?” she asked the group, walking toward them.

“No, not yet,” they shook their heads.

“You don’t want this bill to pass, you really don’t,” the woman assured them. She explained she wasn’t anti-immigrant; her husband is from Greece. But still: “This bill will kill America. You have to ask them to vote no.”

Afterwards, I spoke with the family. “They don’t want us to be here,” said the daughter. “Just the posters that they have, you can tell they don’t like us.”

Lydia DePillis is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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