Don Rosenberg and I have talked about illegal immigration on the phone and exchanged emails over the years, but we had never met, until Monday.
The federal government shutdown last weekend, and temporary reopening, are about a lot of things, but differing views on immigration are at the core of the impasse. Rosenberg and I come at the topic from different directions, too, and I was curious about whether we could find the common ground that eludes Washington.
So I drove to Rosenberg’s home in Westlake Village and we spent three hours talking it over. I’d like to tell you we brokered a deal, sent it to Washington for approval by both sides, and the republic can now move forward.
But as goes the nation, so went the immigration summit in Westlake Village.
Rosenberg and his wife, an attorney, raised three children. In November of 2010, the family was shattered by the news that their eldest, Drew, a second-year law student, had been killed in a traffic accident in San Francisco.
Drew, 25, was riding his motorcycle at an intersection. A Honduran-born man named Roberto Galo hit Rosenberg at low speed and then, either in panic, confusion or an attempt to get away, hit him again.
“He backed up, drove over him a second time, and then went forward again,” said Don Rosenberg. “The rear tire was on my son’s abdomen. He was probably already dead at that point, I don’t know.”
Rosenberg began investigating the accident and the background of the driver. Among other things, he discovered that Galo was in the United States on temporary protected status, which means he could have qualified for a driver’s license.
But Galo didn’t have one. And Rosenberg found that five months before his son’s death, Galo had been stopped by police and cited for going the wrong way on a one-way street and driving without a license or insurance.
After the accident that took young Rosenberg’s life, Galo was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, sentenced to six months in jail, and was released after 43 days.
Rosenberg, a longtime liberal and registered Democrat, became an activist. His first focus was unlicensed drivers, and he found that about 7,500 deaths annually were caused by drivers with no license or a suspended license. He estimates half of those drivers were here illegally.
When I first wrote about Rosenberg five years ago this week, he railed against policies in San Francisco and Los Angeles in which unlicensed drivers, when cited, can quickly retrieve their cars and drive again. L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck said it was “a fairness issue for people who don’t have the opportunity to get licenses.”
“I’m just looking for sane policy,” Rosenberg told me at the time.
He has since evolved into an ardent foe of illegal immigration, of California’s “sanctuary state” status, of the cost of services for those here illegally, and of congressional failure to enact tougher legislation. Republican politicians cater to those who covet cheap labor, as Rosenberg sees it, while Democrats care more about immigrants here unlawfully than about citizens.
And he says the media are radically biased, producing scads of “cry me a river” stories about the plight of those here illegally while refusing to focus on the crimes they cause, including murder, or on the cost of education, incarceration and medical care.
Rosenberg makes some fair arguments, and he says they are based on research rather than driven by anguish over the loss of his son. When I pushed back on certain points or “statistics” that struck me as distortions, he pushed ahead.
To those who might think he’s a racist, he says, they’re wrong, for starters, and in his opinion, nobody pays a bigger price for illegal immigration and its impact on the economy than people of color.
Rosenberg is no fan of Donald Trump but met with him briefly when Trump was the tough-talking candidate who launched his political career on a promise to boot border violators back where they came from.
But even at that, Rosenberg was disappointed because he didn’t think Trump, or congressional Republicans, were willing to go far enough. The wall is fine, said Rosenberg, who told me he visited the border last week to look at 30-foot-tall prototypes.
“You can’t build a 31-foot ladder,” he said with a smile.
But in his opinion Trump and Congress shouldn’t even be discussing a deal for DACA recipients — those who have temporary protected status because they were brought here as children — until they tackle the bigger stuff, like birthright citizenship.
“You’ve got Chinese women coming over here and giving birth to thousands of kids and going back to China, and one day when the kids come back we’ve got to support them,” he said.
This is how the conversation went, and I figured the last card I could play was DACA.
Surely we’d find agreement there, right?
Rosenberg said he supports protected status for those who came to the U.S. unwittingly, so long as they’re crime-free, but he insists many of the 800,000 or so people in question were “rubber-stamped” rather than “screened,” and “they’re not all Rhodes scholars.”
Nobody said they were, but I’ve met a lot of pretty impressive ones.
If it wasn’t their fault they came here, Rosenberg said, “what are you going to do about the people whose fault it was?”
Clearly, we were following in the footsteps of Congress. I admit the immigration system is a manufactured mess, filled with contradiction and honest difference of opinion, but I disagree with Rosenberg’s contention that it’s all cost and no gain for the U.S.
Also, immigrant birth rates are down, illegal immigration appears to be as well, and crime is primarily a home-grown problem. If it were up to me, I’d spend more to develop the economies of countries to the south of us, and less on multibillion-dollar border walls or trillion-dollar wars abroad.
I told Rosenberg that if I lived in a country where jobs were few while corruption and narco-violence were plentiful — in part because of U.S. demand for illegal drugs — and I feared for the safety of my family, I wouldn’t hesitate to cross the border to safety and opportunity.
And what would he do?
Rosenberg said of course he’d do the same, but the U.S. has to remove the magnets that draw people north.
Back to you, Washington.