“Roberts flunks the civil-rights test.”
Roberts is no friend of Latinos
- Ruben Navarrette Jr., San Diego Union-Tribune
Thursday, September 22, 2005
San Diego — I CAN READ a scoreboard. I understand that it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Senate will approve the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice of the United States. And this tells us as much about the weakness of the Senate as it does the strength of this nominee. The institution would be a lot stronger if senators stopped indulging their egos by going on about how they would have decided individual cases and paid more attention to things that might shed light on a nominee’s character.
Things such as an offensive memo bordering on bigotry that Roberts wrote while working as a young lawyer in the Reagan White House and for which Roberts didn’t have a satisfactory explanation during his confirmation hearings.
The memo dates back to September 1983, when President Reagan was gearing up to support pending legislation in Congress that would legalize the status of millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States, most of them from Mexico.
Apparently, the 28-year-old Roberts assumed that granting amnesty would put Reagan in good stead with the readers of a Latino publication called Spanish Today, for which the president had been asked to prepare some remarks. So Roberts suggested that these remarks include a reference to the fact that the administration supported legalizing illegal immigrants.
First, the fact that Roberts would even make such a sweeping assumption shows that, at least at the time, this Harvard man’s understanding of the complexity of the Latino community didn’t extend beyond the No. 3 combination plate at whatever Mexican restaurant the Washington elite were spending their lunch hours. That community includes Cuban Americans who — thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives legal residency to Cuban refugees who reach U.S. soil — tend not to get worked up over immigration. Mexican Americans do get worked up. But they’re conflicted over amnesty for illegal immigrants, with polls showing the ethnic group divided on the subject.
What’s worse is what Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called the “inartful” way in which Roberts phrased his assumption, telling White House Counsel Fred Fielding: “I think this audience would be pleased that we are trying to grant legal status to their illegal amigos.”
Illegal amigos, huh? Nice.
Schumer asked Roberts if he regretted using that term. That’s where the nominee made his most critical mistake. Unlike the naive assumption that all Latinos think alike or the sophomoric reference to “amigos,” this was Roberts in real time. All the nominee had to do was blame the phrase on a poor attempt at humor, or better yet, admit he was wrong and apologize.
Not Roberts, who decided to come out swinging on the amigos memo. This was no big deal, Roberts said. The memo was simply “a play on the standard practice of many politicians” who, when they speak to Latino audiences, will “throw in some language in Spanish.” Roberts had more than two decades to come up with a better explanation than that, and I’m disappointed he couldn’t pull it off.
Here’s the problem: The word “amigos” isn’t in and of itself offensive, but what is offensive is the context in which the word is used. The tone of the memo is dismissive and disrespectful and condescending. As the grandson of Mexican farm laborers, I know when someone is looking down their nose at people who do that kind of work. Roberts’ comments suggest that he didn’t have a very high opinion of either U.S.-born Latinos or Latino immigrants. Among those who hold that view is Hector Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Flores initially gave Roberts’ the benefit of the doubt as to his qualifications.
Since then, more has come to light. Not just the memo, but also about Roberts’ criticism of affirmative action and support for a Texas law — later declared unconstitutional — that prohibited undocumented immigrant children from attending public schools. All of this convinces Flores that the nominee lacks the “real world experience” of dealing with Latinos and other minorities.
“Roberts flunks the civil-rights test,” Flores told me this week.
LULAC opposes the Roberts nomination, as do a number of other Latino organizations. You can’t blame them. With demographics changing and the minds of Americans slamming shut, with vigilantes on the U.S.-Mexican border and Congress diving back into the insulting debate over English-only laws, these are perilous times for the nation’s largest minority — times when it pays to know who your amigos are.