When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, back in the mid-'90s, Newt Gingrich was trying to take away her healthcare benefits.
She had been a legal U.S. resident for many years, but Gingrich's "Contract with America" was bent on denying Medicare benefits to all legal immigrants who had not become U.S. citizens.
I think about my mother often nowadays, especially when I see Gingrich coming off as the immigrant-friendly option in the field of GOP presidential candidates. I remember how my mother, in her late 70s and losing her mind, was terrified by the threat of also losing her healthcare coverage.
I think of how she struggled — already in the early stages of Alzheimer's — to prepare for the U.S. naturalization exam, become a citizen and avoid becoming a victim of the "Contract with America." I remember the frustration and anger I felt when I watched her go through that. How do you teach a person who is rapidly losing her memory to memorize questions for an exam?
Her name was Lilia Perez Martinez, one of those Miami Cuban exiles who worshiped the Republican Party because of its strong anti-communist rhetoric, and one of those who felt betrayed when Gingrich tried to take away her safety net.
Many Cuban-Americans, again worshiping the Republicans as if they had actually done something to free Cuba from communism, apparently have forgotten that Gingrich was their enemy in the mid-'90s.
But I haven't forgotten the suffering he caused my mother.
It's all terribly ironic; a politician with a track record of harassing even legal elderly immigrants now is portrayed as soft on illegal immigration. That's because — in contrast with the extremist anti-immigrant measures favored by his GOP opponents — Gingrich has managed to fool some people into believing that he is offering a more compassionate option.
He is not!
In fact, his "legalization without citizenship" proposal is nothing but a farce. Since it would only apply to undocumented immigrants who have been here at least 25 years and can jump through a series of other difficult hoops, he is sure it would only apply to a small number of undocumented immigrants. He knows it creates a permanent underclass of residents without rights; it is probably unconstitutional, and Congress would never approve it. Gingrich realizes it's not nearly enough to challenge President Barack Obama for the Hispanic vote in the general election. He knows it's not going to fool many Latinos into voting for him in November.
And yet he is fooling the pundits! We hear them on television telling us that — given Mitt Romney's hard-line on immigration — Gingrich has emerged as the best option for Latino voters in the Florida primary next week.
Really? Does being "the lesser of two evils" make him any less evil?
Are they talking about the same Gingrich who, while pandering to conservative extremists, still spews a considerable amount of mean-spirited, immigrant-bashing, race-baiting rhetoric? The one who keeps vowing to make deportations "dramatically easier" and wants to "say 'go home' to lots of people."
Is it the Gingrich who says that as president he would drop the federal lawsuits against states that implement their own immigrant-oppressing laws, including racial profiling measures that affect even legal immigrants? The one who he keeps insisting on making English the official language of government and thus eliminating services in other languages?
You hear the pundits praising Gingrich for taking a bold and unpopular stance on immigration, and you see how far the political pendulum has swung to the right this country. The fact that a xenophobia-monger such as Gingrich is the best option Republicans can offer to Latino voters speaks volumes about how anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic the Republican Party has become.
A little history: When Gingrich was speaker of the House of Representatives, he and his cohorts in Congress tried to bar legal immigrants from receiving federal social services — from school lunches to disability payments for the elderly. The welfare reform law heralded by Gingrich was threatening to dismantle the safety net many legal immigrants had earned over many hard-working and tax-paying years in the United States.
In the end, my mother and many others would not have been affected, because Congress ultimately only went after those legal immigrants who came after the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act," which was enacted on Aug. 22, 1996. Since then, however, legal immigrants have been barred from receiving Medicaid benefits for the first five years.
Nevertheless, until that issue was settled, Gingrich and his band of conservative extremists gave quite a scare to thousands of elderly legal immigrants who had been here prior to 1996. My mother became one of some 500,000 elderly and disabled legal immigrants who, according to immigration authorizes, rushed to become U.S. citizens to avoid losing their benefits under the legislation that was being debated in Congress.
And she had to do it while battling Alzheimer's!
She didn't deserve to be treated that way. My mother had been a teacher in Cuba, but when she came here as a political refugee in 1962, she worked as a maid in Miami Beach hotels so that I could stay in school. For 25 years, she and my father paid their taxes and never collected any form of assistance until after their retirement. Although they were extremely grateful to this country for having given my family safe haven when we fled from Fidel Castro's communist dictatorship, my parents had not felt the need to become U.S. citizens, because they expected to return to a free Cuba someday.
Yet suddenly, the Republicans my parents always saw as their allies were the ones targeting them with mean-spirited legislation.
It was to become the last battle my mother was going to fight in life. She took it as a challenge. With the support of my brother, Beny, who coached her through the naturalization process, my mother became a U.S. citizen in 1996.
When she started the application process, a couple of years earlier, she was fully conscious of what she was doing. But by the time she raised her right hand and took the oath to become an American, she probably was unaware of its significance.
Alzheimer's finally took my mother's life in 1998. The last years of her life would have been hellish enough without Gingrich's help. But now the politician who made my mother miserable is running for president.
I concede: This is personal. Even if I didn't see Gingrich's xenophobia mongering and race baiting, even if he had not described Spanish as "the language of the ghetto" and bilingualism as "a threat" to this country, still I could never vote for Gingrich. My mother wouldn't let me.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.