Yardley Leonard, a self-identified Mexican-American wearing a white shirt with a Mexican flag on it, approached a congressman at a town hall Thursday to ask whether he would support a legalization pathway for undocumented immigrants. But after telling Leonard and the audience that he would not support immigration reform, Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) gave unsolicited and offensive fashion advice.
During the question-and-answer portion of his town hall, Womack said he could not support a legalization pathway, before telling Leonard that he disapproved of his shirt, suggesting that he shouldn’t wear a Mexican flag around an “audience like this.” Womack believes that while “anything is possible” to legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants, that the “makeup of Congress” would prevent him and his colleagues from working together. He added that supporting reform would be akin to looking the other way.:
LEONARD: My name is Yardley Leonard, I’m a Mexican-American from Fort Smith, AR. I’m very proud of my heritage. I’m so nervous I can’t even speak. I’m the son of two Mexican parents, but my question doesn’t go to Mexicans, but it goes out to all the illegal immigrants and how this country was founded by immigrants, Native American country, and you know, my question is that I respect the whole border thing, I wanted to ask if it was a possibility to legalize the 11 million immigrants that are here and contributing to the progress of this country.
WOMACK: Is it possible to legalize 11 million… I suppose anything is possible. Is it likely? In a word, “no.” Given the makeup of Congress today in how difficult it would be convince one side of the equation to look the other way on an issue that goes right to the core, one of our tenets and it’s that we’re a nation of laws. And it’s hard for me and my colleagues to look the other way on the violation of our laws because in doing that we have to ask what other things are we willing on the matters of laws do we need to look away from for whatever reason. And the reason that we’re not having an issue in this country, but was suggested maybe by a guy [Leonard] on civil disobedience a minute ago is because we are a nation of laws.[...]
[...] And I have a newspaper person asking me today that there are very strong economic reasons why it might be good to do certain things that amount to looking the other way and my response then is that decisions will be made on policy, and potential political outcomes, but it won’t be based on economics because this country and its laws are not for sale economically.
I don’t want to put this gentleman on the spot, but it does just a little bit, okay, honestly more than a little bit, it does strike me as a bit odd that I would get a question as to why we shouldn’t just automatically make it legal for people who didn’t come here under legal circumstances from a guy who’s wearing a flag from another country draped around his neck. I want to say that to you, that this suggests something, good old friendly advice, that if you want to win friends and influence people on the issues that you’re talking about, I would suggest a different approach with my attire when I’m appealing to an audience like this.
Womack may consider Leonard’s display of the Mexican flag as a show of “civil disobedience,” but his anti-immigration views are not new. As mayor of Rogers, AR, he hired two Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents to work at the Rogers police department, which prompted the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) to file a class action lawsuit against the police department for racial profiling. He also implemented the controversial Secure Communities program which gives local authorities the authority to detain undocumented immigrants. In 2012, he commended Arizona on its stringent anti-immigrant law and was “pleased that the [Supreme] Court has upheld the core provision of the Arizona law– allowing local law enforcement with reasonable suspicion to determine individuals’ immigration status.”
Even though national flags are common forms of expression in many cultures’ celebrations, such as St. Patrick’s Day, the Mexican flag, and Mexicans in particular, have prompted nativist scrutiny. As an undocumented Irish contractor said, “From my experience, we’re not singled out. If someone’s driving down the street and they see five Mexican guys on one side and five Irish guys on the other, they’re going to think that the Mexicans are illegal, even though it could be the other way around.”