Want to pass immigration reform? Lose the flag.
That's the advice Republican Congressman Steve Womack offered up to a questioner at a Sept. 5 town hall in Fort Smith, Ark.
In a video clip filmed by Democratic tracker American Bridge, an attendee wearing a Mexican flag identified himself as a Mexican-American Fort Smith resident and then nervously asked Womack about his position on immigration reform.
"I respect the whole border thing, I respect that," he said. "I want to ask if it is a possibility to legalize the 11 million immigrants that are here in this country, that are here and are contributing to the progress of this country."
Womack said legalization was possible, but offered a one-word answer as to whether it was likely: "No."
He then went on to give a more detailed response in which he said calls for legalization conflicted with his view of America as a "nation of laws."
Turning away from the questioner, Womack then told the audience he was concerned about the Mexican-American attendee's display of the Mexican flag.
"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 a legal circumstance with a flag of another country draped around his neck," Womack said.
That generated a round of applause from the audience, which a local report pegged as about 250 people. Womack continued after it subsided, still looking away from the attendee who had raised the question.
"I want to say this to you...this suggestion, 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 little different approach in terms of my attire when I'm appealing to an audience like this," Womack said. "I mean, that's just a little friendly advice, ok?"
The Mexican flag has been a contentious issue in immigrations debates. Critics of immigration reform during the 2006-2007 immigration debate often decried the display of flags from Latin American countries at pro-reform marches as a sign of divided loyalty. These complaints struck some as unfair given that Irish or Italian flags are generally seen as a harmless indicator of cultural pride. Nonetheless, the perception has prompted some immigration activists to make a special point of emphasizing the American flag at pro-reform events.
“Congressman Womack respects this young man’s pride in his heritage," Claire Burghoff, a spokeswoman for Womack, told MSNBC in an e-mail. "However, he firmly believes actions such as this—whether out of pride or provocation—are not constructive to the obviously divisive immigration debate.”