Tuesday, April 04, 2006 | They came marching six abreast. Young and brown and proud. They carried a Mexican flag and chanted, “Equal derechos!” in Spanglish.

The phalanx of about 400 students snaked between two chain link fences in San Diego. I was cycling in the opposite direction. They blocked the path. Outnumbered, I got off my bike to let them pass. They eyed me suspiciously.

“Are you with us?” they cried, challengingly.

“What are you marching for?” I flung back.

“Mexico!” cried a young man.

“Equal rights!” shouted another.

“Against the immigration bill!”

“They want to make us felons!”

With my back pushed against the fence, I anxiously searched their faces. Their adolescent cheeks were shades of pink and olive and brown, both clear and pimply.

“Where do you come from?” I asked.

“Clairemont High.”

“Where are you going?

“Mission Bay High.”

They were going from school to school, picking up students.

“Why are you protesting?” I asked a young woman.

“I don’t know. Ask him.”

“We’re protesting H.R. 4437, the immigration bill,” answered a youth with glasses. “Are you for or against the bill?”

I froze like a coyote (immigrant smuggler) I’d once seen caught in the headlights of the Border Patrol in the Canyon of the Dead.

I am a former editorial writer of The San Diego Tribune. From 1981-1987, I wrote a series of editorials advocating immigration law reform. The editorials were instrumental in the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. More than 2 million undocumented immigrants gained legal status. But the law didn’t stem illegal immigration. Today an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States.

The teenagers who were marching were born after the amnesty. Some, undoubtedly, were the children of immigrants who became citizens. Others had crossed the border illegally as children and were going to school in San Diego. The city schools do not check immigration status.

“Are you with us?” asked another student.

Yes and no. I’m as divided as the border. There are as many sides to this story as footpaths crossing the Canyon of the Dead. I’m no longer the young, crusading journalist who believed that changing the law would solve the problems of the border. I’ve seen the legacy of employer sanctions not being enforced. I’m caught between the chain link fences.

I’m haunted by the border. The fear. The exploitation. The tragedy. The hope. So much so that I’ve written a manuscript called “Canyon of the Dead.” It’s about an American journalist who crusades for immigration reform while harboring an illegal alien nanny and her child. He tells his editors he’s writing a story, but instead helps his nanny cross the border illegally, unwittingly leading her into a trap; she is assaulted in the Canyon of the Dead, but still reaches America. Thus begins the quest of the Mexican mother to be free, and raise her son as a citizen with dignity and rights. But her road to freedom ends in tragedy, and the American journalist faces a choice.

As extremists fan the flames, the job of the novelist is to portray life as it is lived, through characters who must navigate between barbed-wire ambiguities and contradictions, and make choices. I think I’ve done exactly that. I hope that this novel is discovered and finds its way to a public that cares.

“Are you with us?” echoed the marchers’ voices.

Yes, I am with you. You have the right to speak out, without threats or violence. You need to educate yourselves on this issue. To see what America gives to immigrants, and what responsibilities citizenship demands in order to preserve freedoms. You need to go back to school, to study and achieve and succeed in America.

“Are you with us?” I asked them.

The students didn’t have time for dialogue. They felt the wedge against their necks. They also felt the thrill of participating in the democratic process. That’s what’s changed since the 1986 amnesty. The new generation, empowered by rights, is fearlessly engaged in the immigration debate of 2006.

It’s déjà vu, but not all over again.

Jonathan Freedman is a writer living in La Jolla, California. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorials urging passage of the last major immigration reform act in 1986.

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