In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 18: Michael’s Story

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Phoenix, Az

Traveling Companion: James Garcia

Events: Dream Act Vigil at John McCain’s office; preview of James Garcia’s Play, The Eagle and the Serpent; interview with U.S. Senate candidate Rodney Glassman

His name is Michael. He didn’t tell me his last name, and I didn’t ask, because he is undocumented. I’ve always thought that “undocumented” was a politically correct euphemism for illegal, but it is entirely accurate in Michael’s case: if there was “illegality” involved, it wasn’t his doing. His parents brought him here from Mexico when he was seven. Michael’s parents worked hard in Phoenix and he went to school. In high school, he found the love of his life: the U.S. military. He was a ROTC battalion commander. He dreamed of joining the Marines.

One of Michael’s great heroes was Senator John McCain–not just for his war record, his astonishing courage as a prisoner of war, but because he was simpatico. He seemed to understand the immigration conundrum and co-sponsored a sane, bipartisan bill (with Senator Ted Kennedy) to resolve it.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle in May 2005: “The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 would create a three-year guest worker visa, renewable once, for up to 400,000 foreign workers per year who get formal job offers. It also would allow illegal immigrants already in the United States to pay a $2,000 fine and enter the guest worker program … Guest workers could apply for permanent legal residence and then citizenship, also something Bush has not proposed.” This has a lot in common with the AgJOBS bills currently in Senate and House committees. – Katy

He also co-sponsored a bill that would enable Michael to live his dream. It was, appropriately, called the Dream Act and it would provide a path to citizenship for children whose parents brought them here illegally–if they completed college or joined the military. (McCain often attended the incredibly moving ceremony that took place in front of the Faw Palace in Baghdad every July 4: dozens of soldiers, sailors and Marines who were not citizens would take the oath together and become Americans.)

But that was a different John McCain. A good part of the Senator’s honor and dignity disappeared during the 2008 presidential campaign. The rest of it evaporated this year, as he faced a right-wing primary challenge for his seat. He has walked away from his positions in favor of cap-and-trade legislation, away from his immigration reform bill–and away from his Dream Act. He voted against it, as a rider to the Defense Appropriations bill this week.

In response to protest about his Dream departure in May, McCain issued this statement: “Senator McCain understands the students’ frustrations, but elections have consequences and they should focus their efforts on the President and the Democrats that control the agenda in Congress.”

He has also walked away from his humanity, which brings us back to Michael. A week ago, Michael and three friends tried to enlist in the Marine Corps. They went to a local recruiting office and were turned down because they had no document that could establish legal residence in this country–no temporary visa, no green cards, nothing. Then they went to McCain’s Phoenix office to seek some help, but weren’t able to tell their story to anyone.

Joe Klein interviews Michael, an undocumented Mexican immigrant that wants to join the Marines but can't because of his status. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

They decided to return the next day, submit a letter to the Senator and do some infantry drills outside his office (they had performed in statewide ROTC drill competitions). Michael and his buddies were part of a close knit–and pretty sophisticated–network of Dream aspirants, and some of their friends set up an outpost in front of McCain’s office and began a vigil in support of Michael’s plea. Obviously, this was a carefully planned protest, which will continue until the Dream Act is voted up or down. (Senator Carl Levin has said it will continue to be a rider on the Defense Appropriations bill.)

Last Friday, Michael returned to McCain’s office with his letter–and there was the Senator. “He was rushed to his car outside. He wouldn’t even look at me. I slapped my letter under his windshield wiper.”

One wonders what sort of American hero would refuse a patriotic kid like Michael–a young man who only wants to serve his country–the civility of a conversation. A frightened one, perhaps. “I am a prisoner in this [immigration] war,” Michael said, using a line that he had doubtless worked on a bit. “And John McCain holds the key to my cell. But he won’t even look at me.”

Earlier yesterday afternoon, I visited with McCain’s Democratic opponent in the general election, Rodney Glassman. He has an interesting dilemma and an interesting strategy. The dilemma is this: he is young (32) and relatively unknown outside of Tucson, where he served as a city councilor. “McCain’s unfavorables are about the same as my unknowns,” he says–in both cases, 55-60%. He strategy to get known is hilariously bold: he’s pro-pork. “The average state gets about $45 per citizen back in taxes from the federal government. Arizona gets about $15. You go around the state and you see all these projects that other Senators would have gotten funded [as earmarks]–a health clinic here, a bridge or a highway there–and he hasn’t,” Glassman says. “We’ve got 10,000 Navajo veterans who don’t have a VA facility on their reservation. They have to drive six hours for treatment. And McCain hasn’t even helped them. The economy in this state has tanked. 50% of the homes are upside-down [that is, with mortgages larger than the value of the house], 75% in Maricopa County [Phoenix]. And where is McCain? If we received the same amount of government funding as other states, we might be in a little bit better shape.”

I asked the Glassman campaign for sources here and did my own digging. The 55% unfavorable rating for McCain comes from a recent Rasmussen report. The report also shows that only 1 in 4 people don’t know enough about Glassman to have an opinion of him, but they said their 55% unknown rating came from internal polling. The latest numbers they had on earmarks were actually from 2008, showing $18.70 per capita in Arizona, but the most recent numbers from, for FY 2010, show $15 per capita. (The lowest is Wyoming with $11; the highest is Hawaii at $318.) This backs their 50% stat for underwater mortgages but they retracted the 75% stat. And fin.

McCain and I once were close, but haven’t been on very good terms for several years. He personally–according to former aides–had me kicked off his campaign plane in 2008 after I asked a question he didn’t like at a press conference. So I didn’t bother to contact his office about this. But I’m offering the Senator space now–as much as he wants, here on Swampland–to respond to Michael and his friends, and to explain why he was so rude to them.

James Garcia (L) and Joe Klein at the opening of James Garcia's new play in Phoenix, Arizona. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

Finally, a hat tip to James Garcia, who agreed to be my traveling companion even though yesterday was a very big day in his life–the first public preview of his new play, The Eagle and the Serpent, an abridged history of Mexico. James is multi-faceted and multi-talented. In addition to being a playwright, he works for the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and is a director of a Latino cultural center in downtown Phoenix. He took me around Phoenix, introducing me to leaders of his community, who are trying to cope with the notorious SB1070, the new state law that would allow police profiling of Latinos in an effort to find illegal immigrants.

There were several memorable moments, but I’ll focus on one: We met with Roberto Reveles at a Mexican restaurant at noon. He is a well-known and beloved figure in Arizona, a long-time Congressional aide who was the legendary Morris Udall’s chief-of-staff and has returned home and taken up the cause of his community. He also serves as the director of the local ACLU. “This is how bad it is,” Roberto told me. “We have started giving people a piece of paper to paste on their refrigerator with the names of local community service agencies–and we have told them to put aside a little money in a safe place. So if their kids come home from school and their parents have been taken, they have money and know who to call.” Tears welled in his eyes. “That’s the daily reality the angers the hell out of me. We allow species like Mexican wolves and spotted owls safe passage across the border, but not humans whose ancestors were here, and who traveled back and forth on this land long before the first Anglos arrived.”

I’d also like to thank my old pal Fred DuVal for convening a sparkling group of Arizona’s civic leaders, of both parties, for a conversation at his home. This was one of the most important, heartfelt and revealing moments of the entire trip and I’ll deal with it in greater detail sometime soon.

Now, on to Vegas.

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.