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It wasn’t so long ago, perhaps a generation, that when a journalist was facing a deadline and bereft of ideas, he’d dip into the well of evergreen topics and write about the gruff but wise cabbie who had the pulse on the city. Whether it was local politics, the reason a star ballplayer was in a slump or where to find a satisfying yet affordable Italian restaurant, the writer’s readers could depend on Mac or Joe or Abe to speak the truth. College students sometimes took jobs as “hacks,” as cabbies were once called, to help defray the cost of tuition; metro columnists might moonlight for several months driving a taxi, hoping to produce a long magazine article or even a book.

Cabbies, today, are of course no longer caricatured as irascible but lovable lugs who can be counted on for engaging chatter, an infallible sense of direction and shortcuts. As the Times’ Clyde Haberman wrote last week, after the ineffectual one-day taxi strike, most drivers—almost all of them immigrants—tired of being abused by their bosses and passengers alike, are seeking a measure of “dignity” and “respect.” In a way, New York’s cabbies—and those in other East Coast cities—are the counterparts of the Mexicans and South Americans in California and the Southwest who pull weeds, cook, toil on farms for low wages and perform jobs that others, born in this country, have no interest in.

You’ll remember that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an overwhelming number of cabbies—and newsstand operators, for that matter—immediately placed American flag decals inside the cars they drove, usually out of fear that they’d be identified as “ragheads” who by dint of accent or name would be associated with the Islamic militants who, the paranoia played out, after a dinner of curry would retreat to a secret “cell” meeting. As someone who doesn’t drive and has used taxis more than a dozen times a week for over 20 years, I don’t understand the antipathy that so many city-dwellers have toward these men (and very occasionally women) who work hard, long and dangerous hours in an effort to eke out a meager living. Yes, it can be a momentary bother if you draw a cabbie who can’t navigate a route from 6th Avenue to Tudor City without instruction and are also rude in the bargain, but that’s not so different from a snippy saleswoman at Barneys or imperious doorman at the Tribeca Grand.

And it’s only getting worse as the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment has risen in the country and demagogues like fringe presidential candidate Tom Tancredo have whipped up a frenzy about deporting illegals and building a fence on the country’s borders (as if that would do any good). Two weeks ago, I wrote in this space about Rudy Giuliani’s backtrack on this contentious issue (despite his horrific flaws, he was a champion of immigrants as the city’s mayor) in an attempt to appeal to Republican primary voters.

And shame on John McCain, who once upon a time sponsored legislation with Ted Kennedy to provide a “path to citizenship” for immigrants, only to purposely miss a Senate vote last week on the “Dream Act,” an important, if scaled down, bill that would allow young illegal immigrants the opportunity to become American citizens after demonstrating to officials that they had no criminal records, graduated from high school and spent at least two years in either college or the military.

Although the Republican presidential hopefuls are trying to outdo each other in their contempt for meaningful immigration reform—and George W. Bush, who as governor of Texas and until recently as president was sympathetic on the issue but has unconscionably joined the “English-only” mob, had dirty hands as well—it won’t be long before Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama start following Tancredo’s lead. It’s all about the polls: specifically, as reported in the Washington Post last week, a survey conducted for National Public Radio found that potential voters agree with the Democrats on almost all the major issues—Iraq, healthcare, taxes, for example—but on immigration agreed with Republicans by a 49-44 percent margin.

I don’t agree with many Times editorials, but the paper (sharing the unlikely company of The Wall Street Journal’s edit pages) is correct in its dismay that “hatred and fear” is spreading faster than the fires in California toward the large mass of poor, Spanish-speaking immigrants, illegal or not. As this year’s Major League Baseball season draws to a close, it’s telling that there’s no public denunciation—but rather hero worship—for wealthy players like, for instance, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Mariano Rivera, Jose Reyes, Bobby Abreu and Jorge Posada.

Tom Wolfe, in a quixotic (or perhaps just plain naïve) essay in this month’s Atlantic—which devoted, upon its 150th anniversary, much of its content to “The American Idea”—believes that the United States remains open to the “melting pot” tradition that’s helped define this nation.

He writes: “In England, France, Italy, Germany, rare are the parents who urge their children to live out their dreams and rise as far above their station as they possibly can… Only in America do visitors to other people’s homes routinely ask their hosts’ children, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’”

Does anyone seriously doubt that the cabbies and nannies and lemon-pickers who’ve arrived recently to these shores are just as determined, because of their willingness to take any job, that their offspring will enjoy more prosperous lives? That they’ll one day be treated with “respect” and “dignity”?

I hope that comes to pass, but in today’s political and cultural climate, it isn’t likely. 

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