It is a story from my mother's days in Paris during World War II. The Germans were checking papers at the exit from the subway platform, effectively trapping those who got off the train.
A barrel-chested, hard-drinking Frenchman, my uncle was in the resistance but he was also part of the Paris underworld, and of great interest to the Germans. He happened to get off at the station.
With only one way out, he jumped onto the tracks and ran down the tunnel, emerging at the next station.
Since I heard that story as a kid, I have believed random checks for papers are a Gestapo tactic.
In a democratic society, people are entitled to walk along without having to show identity papers. That is a central right of a free people.
Not in our nation anymore.
A former bull rider from Mexico does contracting work once in a while on my dad's old farm. He called a couple months ago to see if there was any way we could find out where a member of his crew was being held.
Immigration agents had descended on the Oceanside barrio where the contractor lives, and picked up one of the guys on his crew.
He described the scene to me. A big group of ICE agents parked their white trucks in the neighborhood and spread out, asking anyone they came across on the street for their papers.
The news quickly spread and residents stayed indoors. But the young crewman was caught, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I told that story recently to a friend of mine who works for the Justice Department and he said, "They're still doing that!"
Like me, he had not heard of an immigration raid in a long, long time.
Decades ago, it was the INS in the Justice Department that enforced immigration laws and now it is ICE in Homeland Security.
INS agents would go to California Department of Motor Vehicle offices, for example, and guard the exits, trapping those inside. At their leisure, agents then interrogated Latinos as they stood in line to register their cars or get a license.
Or, and I reported on this, the INS vans somehow materialized when Latin moms were planning to protest for better healthcare in front of the L.A. Board of Supervisors, squelching any whisper of protest. That was when Mike Antonovich was on the board and the former head of Wienerschnitzel was the INS district director.
But even then, when my beat was immigration, I never heard of immigration agents simply descending en masse on a barrio neighborhood and asking anyone they ran across for papers.
So it is amazing to me that with a black Democratic president, a black attorney general and a black head of homeland security -- who would normally, and legitimately, be sensitive to issue of stops based on race -- immigration raids have not only been revived, but have been molded into a broad and crude weapon that includes raiding brown neighborhoods.
The offense to civil liberties is compounded by the offense to political strategy.
I was walking to work last week and, looking into a news box, saw the L.A. Times headline, "Latinos, angry with Obama, may sit out out midterm vote, hurting Democrats."
I said to myself, "No kidding," or something real close.
The ace in the hole for the Democrats is the minority vote, and especially, given their numbers, the Latin vote. No competent politician could possibly miss what happened in California when the state flopped five years ago to a majority minority electorate.
Republicans in California have not had a chance at anything close to a legislative majority since then.
Albeit more slowly, the same demographic shift is happening in other states. Lucky for the Democrats, you would think, and indeed so did the pundits at the time. But that talk is all gone.
And for one main reason. Because Obama's stance on immigration has been draconian.
And the thing is: his folks had to know it, there is no way they could not understand that draconian immigration enforcements would turn off the Latin voters. The policy was supposed to forestall a Republican challenge on the border issue, take an issue away from the party that appeals primarily to whites.
But that was a lost cause. And instead, he gave away a demographic edge that could have saved the Democratic prospects from the wave of radicalization in the pale vote.
I voted for Obama twice, and the health care law, flawed as it may be, is a great, popular, belated step towards a decent society. But I have had a hard time opening up my wallet this time, and I think there are an awful lot of folks like me.
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