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Monday, April 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Where is Hollywood on immigration?

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Here's how it goes, pretty much: Controversy hits. Celebrities chime in. You've got your Kanyes trash-talking Bush after Katrina, and your Martin Sheens railing against the war in Iraq. You've got Susan Sarandons and Tim Robbinses agitating for Haitian refugees, and on a really good day, you've got Gulf Coast Savior Sean Penn commandeering a small boat, not just talking the talk, but rowing the row. Now the immigration debate is hot. But the celebrity squawk is, well, not. Where are the celebrities? Hello, Hollywood? Hellooo?

OK, Salma is on board. Last week, Salma Hayek became the first Big Name to Speak Out, telling the New York Daily News:

"As a human being, I find this situation intolerable. As an immigrant, I find it offensive. And as an American citizen, I find it disheartening. The work that these immigrants do directly affects the health of the U.S. economy." She closed her production company last week "in solidarity with the immigrants" and will close it again May 1, "in observance of the protests."

And Eva Longoria, who's promoting her new movie, has been speaking — carefully — about the debate:

"We're a land of immigrants and nobody is from here," she told the Houston Chronicle this week. "I do understand the economic value of illegal workers. If you deport all the Mexicans at once, there'd be a serious dent to our society and economic structure," she said. But then there was her other hand: "I understand the need for stricter borders because of bigger issues like terrorism. So, I don't think our administration can afford for this to end badly."

Many famous lips have remained zipped. It's not that Latino entertainers are not interested in the subject, their publicists said. What they are is: unavailable in Maui (Carlos Santana), or mid-divorce (director Robert Rodriguez), or "just busy doing other things and isn't paying too much attention" (Jimmy Smits).

"Nobody is speaking out on their behalf, including myself," says Esai Morales of "NYPD Blue," "and I feel guilty."

The only reason he's now talking is "you called to ask me a question." But, he adds quickly, "I've been actively supporting immigrants." He explains: "It's almost like ... I'm constantly speaking out on Latino issues ... and I get a little tired of hearing myself talk."

Since you asked ...

And others spoke up, once we called.

Susan Sarandon: "It's very easy to blame immigrants for the disastrous state of our economy, the failure of the health-care system, the educational crisis, the disappearing middle class and just about every ill that makes this country unwelcoming to the immigrants. That is a smoke screen to distract us from the real sources of these problems. I stand with the founders of this country and the sentiment written on the Statue of Liberty."

Ron Silver: "I think President Bush, on this issue, is on the right side of history, and the Republicans should think long and hard about which side they're on."

Elizabeth Avellan (production partner and soon-to-be-ex-wife of Rodriguez): "I'm very proud of Bush for standing up. ... He's saying, 'You guys are being irrational' — and racist, if you ask my opinion. ... He's standing up and saying, 'We have to find a good solution for these people.' "

Not that immigration is easy. It's one thing to come out in favor of eradicating breast cancer or childhood leukemia — who could argue with that? Immigration is a whole lot mushier.

"It's early, it's complicated and it's political," says celeb expert Joe Dolce, editor in chief of Star Magazine, "and stars don't need to have political viewpoint."

Not only do they not need one, having one can be hazardous.

"On polarizing issues such as immigration, [they] say, 'I'm going to alienate 50 percent of my fan base. This directly affects my bottom line,' " Us Weekly Editor in Chief Janice Min notes.

And in all likelihood, many celebs employ illegal help, a fact that encourages the silence: "You'd be hard-pressed to find a celebrity in Hollywood who has a legal cleaning woman [or] gardener, pool boy, nanny," says Min.

Yet, if we look at this in the crassest light possible, don't the stars realize that those hundreds of thousands of people who have marched nationwide are consumers, moviegoers, and CD and DVD buyers, ripe for an outspoken hero to court them?

Wearing his protest

Daddy Yankee, the Puerto Rican pop star, apparently does: When he performed with Snoop Dogg last month, in front of 18,000 fans in Los Angeles, he wore onstage his "Alto a la HR4437" T-shirt (Stop House Resolution 4437), the bill that would make it criminal to help illegal immigrants, make it a felony (rather than a civil infraction) for them to be here and add more walls along the Mexican-American border.

The celebrity silence is a far cry from the courageous voices that decried the Vietnam War and rallied support for the civil-rights movement: people like Ossie Davis and Harry Belafonte, whose careers suffered, or Dick Gregory and Eartha Kitt, who were on President Nixon's infamous enemies list.

Grass-roots marches

Still, the groundswell of immigrant-rights-marches surprised not only mainstream America but Hollywood, too.

"It really is like spontaneous combustion," noted Ralph Neas, president of Washington-based People for the American Way. "Everything has been organized virtually from the ground up, and I think everybody, including the celebrities, is just catching up with this movement."

Which is where Felix Sanchez, pro bono chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, comes in. He's trying to connect organizations working for immigration reform with "a number of senior high-level Latino celebrities."

"Generally, it's not the actor/celebrity trying to find the organization, it's the organization trying to reach out," he said. Because this issue was led by lesser-known grass-roots groups, "neither could find each other."

Can celebrities make a difference? Will the people who care about Salma Hayek's latest film care about a much more serious side of their Hollywood stars?

Us Weekly recently posted on its Web site an item about Hayek on the immigration issue, Min said, and an item on a fight between Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Simpson.

Responses to the Lindsey-Jessica fracas: 180.

Responses to Hayek and immigration: 0.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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