Celebrity politics: Eva Longoria and immigration

When Arizona adopted SB 1070, a bill that would mandate police investigation of people suspected of being in the country illegally, Eva Longoria announced the bill was unconstitutional.  With MALDEF’s (Mexican American Legal Defense Fund) Executive Director Thomas A. Saenz, she briefed Hollywood professionals on the bill and its implications.

Longoria has a bachelor’s degree (in kinesiology, from Texas A&M Kingsville), but is not generally recognized as a constitutional authority.  She is better known as a television star, but lately, she’s been talking about a lot more.

Longoria is doing the promotion rounds, appearing on television, it seems, constantly, talking about her tv show, her cookbook, her cosmetics line, her divorce–and comprehensive immigration reform.  She describes growing up in a Mexican American family that has been in Texas since before it was an American state and learning the classic immigrant values: hard work and education.

Her politics aren’t really unusual.  She opposed Arizona’s anti-immigrant law and supports the DREAM Act.  She’s also crusaded against Texas Governor Rick Perry’s budget cuts for services to the mentally disabled (including her sister); most recently, she’s announced that she wants to be a voice for abused children in Mexico.  She’s produced Harvest, a documentary that follows the lives of three teenage Mexican migrant workers.

I  meant for this entry to be more about celebrities and politics than about Eva Longoria, but that’s the problem with celebrities and social movements: their stardom can eclipse the cause.  Although Longoria’s politics aren’t that unusual, the attention she is able to get for them is.  The celebrity advantage is overwhelming.

When Thomas Saenz wants to draw attention to the case against Arizona’s new law, its Longoria’s stardom that sets her apart from other committed individuals.  Press conferences draw more press, rallies draw more people (and press), and activists are better positioned to raise money and visibility for their concerns.  And stars can reach other stars–along with their access to media and money.

It’s an old story in America; we’ve discussed the attractions and risks of mobilizing celebrities before here, here, and elsewhere.  Celebrities are ubiquitous in American social movements and party politics, sometimes dipping into electoral politics themselves (e.g., Ronald Reagan, John Hall, Sonny Bono, Arnold Schwarzenegger).

The celebrity can bring visibility, money, and other resources to a cause.   But celebrities may be poorly informed, inarticulate, or transparently self-interested.  Career worries (read: the risk of alienating audiences) may steer them away from some issues, allies, or tactics.  And the presence of someone known primarily as an actor or athlete can undermine some sense of seriousness.

One obvious risk is ridicule from political opponents.  When President Obama made a public show of returning to the politics of immigration, he did so through a White House meeting.  At Redstate, a conservative blog, see Tabitha Hale’s reaction:

[President Obama has] chosen to prove that he’s serious about reforming immigration by inviting renowned immigration policy experts Eva Longoria, Rosario Dawson and friends to the White House to talk about immigration reform. Yes, that Eva Longoria.

First, how are Hollywood Hispanic celebrities at all a representation of Hispanic Americans? That’s like sending Britney Spears or Paris Hilton out into the world to represent the average American and shape foreign policy around the globe. Not only would it be humiliating, but it would produce no relevant information, since they are in no way representative of well, average Americans.

Second, is our President really this bereft of ideas? He repeatedly punts to celebrities on tough issues. I’m assuming that the strategy is to sway public opinion with star power in the absence of actual policy proposals, ideas, or facts. The reality is that this “strategy” will blow up when it comes time to implement some of these changes and there is no substance. His administration is already facing drastically falling poll numbers regarding Obamacare – it sounds a lot better in theory than in practice.

It seems unlikely that using Desperate Housewives stars and Oprah to help pull the country out of the ditch he likes to remind us we’re in will work much longer. It may be optimistic, but there’s mounting evidence that the American people are starting to see through the smoke and mirrors.

It’s time to get serious, President Obama. Let’s start by asking people who know something about policy what they think.

The vigorously anti-immigrant politician and radio host, Tom Tancredo, has blasted Obama for meeting with prominent Latino celebrities, including Longoria, America Ferrera, Jessica Alba, and Rosario Dawson, but not border state governors like Jan Brewer (Arizona) and Rick Perry (Texas), suggesting that this reflects Obama’s lack of seriousness.

Longoria has also been the target of advocates of comprehensive reform, who argue that Obama is using her as political cover to support his less than forceful efforts at reform.

Eva Longoria insists that she’s been doing politics well before she was famous.  Whether for gravitas or her own edification, she’s made a commitment to knowing the issues she engages.  In 2009 Longoria started a master’s degree program in Chicano Studies and Political Science at Cal State Northridge.  I wonder what she’ll do with it.

Written by David S. Meyer

May 18, 2011 at 6:09 am

Posted in uncategorized

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