There is near-universal agreement that America’s immigration system is not working well. Several years ago, broad bipartisan agreement was reached on a comprehensive approach to reform that would uphold the rule of law, serve America’s economic needs, and honor our values and history as a nation of immigrants. Among the elements of principled and workable comprehensive immigration reform are improved enforcement of immigration regulations, revised guest worker policies, and some process for undocumented immigrants now in the country to earn their way toward citizenship. Unfortunately, the last major effort to achieve reform was derailed by a campaign grounded in fear, stereotypes, and a divisive nativism that is unworthy of America’s ideals.
The Obama administration has indicated that it will work with congressional leaders to move comprehensive immigration reform legislation this spring; one bill was introduced in the House in December and momentum to enact legislation is picking up. That makes this an important time, as the ball gets rolling on the new legislative push, to review the surpassing ugliness of past campaigns waged against comprehensive immigration reform and to prepare for scapegoating that will exploit the suffering caused by the economic downturn in the U.S. Since those earlier campaigns were also accompanied by a real and tragic rise in violent hate crimes against Latinos in the U.S., fair-minded Americans should be prepared to challenge and hold accountable media figures and public officials who use the debate over immigration policy to foment dangerous and destructive racial and ethnic resentments.
The Fire Last Time- And the Arsonists-in-Waiting
The public debate over comprehensive immigration reform in 2006 and 2007 was marked by appalling anti-immigrant rhetoric and was accompanied by a rise in anti-Latino hate crimes tracked by the FBI. In a report last year, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights called “the legitimization and mainstreaming of virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric” one of the “most disturbing developments of the past few years.” Among the pundits promoting “fear and loathing” on cable television was Glenn Beck, who said “our country is on fire, and the fuel is illegal immigration.” Since then, the swine flu scare and the deep economic recession in the United States have given right-wing opponents of comprehensive immigration reform new fuel for inflaming anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment. In September 2008, for instance, right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin even blamed “illegal immigrants” for the mortgage crisis.
The 2006-2007 push for comprehensive immigration reform was supported by the Bush administration, much of America’s business and labor establishments, and congressional leaders from both parties. But in spite of that broad support, the passage of reform was derailed by right-wing pundits who inflamed anti-immigrant sentiment, some members of Congress who gleefully participated in the fearmongering, and others who were simply afraid to resist it.
In October 2008, the Anti-Defamation League criticized anti-immigrant groups for utilizing the strategies of hate groups and “resorting to hateful and dehumanizing stereotypes and outright bigotry to demonize immigrants.” To the categories identified by the ADL we can now add demagoguery over the swine flu virus and exploitation of the nation’s economic woes.
Here is a review of the rhetorical strategies used to inflame anti-immigrant sentiment and build political opposition to comprehensive immigration reform.
Strategy 1: Appeal to Racial Fear and The 'Brown' Threat to 'White' America
Some academic research suggests that people’s attitudes toward immigration are strongly influenced by their level of prejudice toward Latinos. While many opponents of comprehensive immigration reform were careful to proclaim their respect for Hispanic immigrants who are in this country legally, a number of pundits trafficked in raw racial and ethnic politics, suggesting that “brown” “third-world” hordes were overwhelming and changing America.
A classic of this genre is former Rep. Tom Tancredo’s November 2006 comments about Miami, Florida:
Look at what has happened to Miami. It has become a Third World country…. You would never know you’re in the United States of America. You would certainly say you’re in a Third World country.”
Right-wing columnist Don Feder, writing in Front Page Magazine in April 2007, called compromise legislation being considered by the Senate “a rape of our national identity” and said that the children and grandchildren of the “criminal aliens” who would be granted “amnesty” by the bill “won’t assimilate but be a solvent, eroding our identify as a people, year after year, decade after decade – until eventually, America comes to be comprised of disparate national groups residing in what used to be a nation.”
An anti-immigrant leader in Georgia, D.A. King, wrote in a 2004 article, “Must the United States silently suffer the incursion of one million people a year because they are brown?” A leader of Mothers Against Illegal Aliens cited in the ADL report argues “we’re in America, and we’re not supposed to be diverse. We’re one nation.”
In May 2006, pundit John Gibson warned viewers of his Fox News program that “the greatest number [of children under five] are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic.” He urged viewers to do their “duty” and “make more babies.”
Pundit and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has been one of the loudest voices in this regard, writing in May 2007:
What is happening to us? An immigrant invasion of the United States from the Third World, as America’s white majority is no longer even reproducing itself. Since Roe v. Wade, America has aborted 45 million of her children. And Asia, Africa and Latin America have sent 45 million of their children to inherit the estate that aborted American children never saw. God is not mocked.
And white America is in flight.
Also in 2007 Buchanan published a book warning that America is committing suicide because the “majority” is “not reproducing itself” and warning that “white folks” are now a minority in Texas and New Mexico.
Response to Inflaming Racial Fears
America’s history has been shaped by generations of immigrants who came here to seek a better life and who have helped to build this country. Many Americans would be surprised to know that the kind of fear-mongering rhetoric heard above was heard a century ago regarding “mongrels” from eastern and southern European countries, who were decried as “invasive species” threatening to replace “Nordic” or “Teutonic” Americans.
Claims that America has been built by and for white people, whether from David Duke or Pat Robertson, are not only historically inaccurate, they also violate basic American values and principles of decency. Politicians who encourage or repeat those kinds of divisive racial claims do not deserve to be treated as if their opinions merit respect. They should be forcefully challenged.
America today is undoubtedly a more diverse country, racially and ethnically, than it was a century ago. Some people fear that diversity, and some obviously are willing to exploit those fears. But in a world in which economics and culture cross borders freely, America’s diversity is a strength, not a weakness.
Strategy 2: Appeal to Racial Resentment by Portraying Immigrant Rights Advocates as Racists
A corollary strategy to stoking fears among non-Latino Americans that “their country” is being taken away from them is to accuse immigrant rights advocates and Latino leaders of being racists. This is similar to the way right-wing leaders have worked to inflame racial resentment among white working class voters by saying, as Glenn Beck did, that President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred” of white people and “white culture” and that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was an anti-white racist whose career was devoted to denying equal justice and opportunity to white men. In April 2009, for example, Rep. Steve King denounced the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus as “separatist” organizations.
During the last major push for immigration reform, accusations of racism against Latino leaders and immigrant advocates flew fast and furious. In March 2006 right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin called L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante “Latino supremacists” and described the protests against the 2006 GOP House bill as “militant racism” marked by “virulent anti-American hatred.”
Anti-reformers have also smeared the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization. In 2006 and 2007, NCLR was attacked by right-wing pundits and politicians, including radio host Michael Savage, who called NCLR “the Ku Klux Klan of the Hispanic people” and said it was “the most stone racist group I’ve ever seen in this country.”
There are signs that the attacks on NCLR will return as debate over immigration policies heats up. In December 2009, Media Matters reported that right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro had attacked NCLR, calling it a “quasi-criminal group” and comparing it to the group the far right loves to hate, saying that many of NCLR’s chapters “run like local ACORN offices.”
Response to Racial Resentment Strategy of Portraying Latino Leaders as Racists
Pundits and politicians who foment racial resentment by portraying Latino leaders as racists (or similarly by portraying President Obama as an anti-white racist) are playing with fire. Fanning racial and ethnic tensions in an increasingly diverse nation is an inherently caustic strategy, one that threatens to leave communities divided and, even worse, to encourage the growth of violent extremism and hate crimes.
Many of the irresponsible charges of racism against NCLR and Latino public officials are grounded in the false notion discussed in the next section that these leaders espouse a “brown” racialist nationalism and are seeking to return the western United States – “Aztlan” – to the control of Mexico. Much of this criticism comes from a misinterpretation of the term “la raza” to mean “the race” when in fact it refers to “the people” or “the community” and is identified in a number of dictionaries as referring broadly to Mexican-American or Spanish-speaking communities. In particular, some have accused NCLR of espousing a philosophy of “for the race everything, outside the race, nothing.” That language, from a 1960s student group document, has never been NCLR’s motto and has in fact been unequivocally repudiated by NCLR:
NCLR’s critics falsely claim that the statement “Por La Raza todo, Fuera de La Raza nada,” [“For the community everything, outside the community nothing”] is NCLR’s motto. NCLR unequivocally rejects this statement, which is not and has never been the motto of any Latino organization.
Strategy 3: Portray Immigrants and Their Supporters as Invaders, Conquerors, Enemies of the U.S.
Another line of attack against immigrants and their advocates is the claim that U.S. sovereignty over the southwestern United States is threatened by a deliberate “reconquista” strategy being waged by the Mexican government and “illegal immigrants” to take back for Mexico land lost to the U.S. in the 19th Century. This line of attack puts Hispanic Americans, including elected officials, in the category of suspected enemies, along with anyone who supports immigration reform efforts.
The late Rep. Charles Norwood, writing in Human Events Online on April 7, 2006, warned that “The final plan for the La Raza movement includes the ethnic cleansing of Americans of European, African, and Asian descent” out of areas of the U.S. formerly under Mexican control. Norwood proposed a multiple-part loyalty oath for NCLR that he said the civil rights group must agree to in order to avoid being banned from testifying before Congress or getting federal funds. Norwood wrote that any group that agrees to his loyalty oath “should be welcomed into that fold…If not, the American people will know there’s a wolf in their midst and take the necessary precautions to defend our Republic against an enemy.”
Similar was this April 2006 assertion by director Ronald Maxwell (Gods and Generals, Gettysburg) in an open letter to then-President Bush published in the Washington Times:
“This is invasion masquerading as immigration. It may already be too late to avoid a future annexation of the Southwest by Mexico or the evolution of a Mexican-dominated satellite state.”
In May 2006, CNN correspondent Casey Wian, appearing on Lou Dobbs Tonight, called Mexican President Vicente Fox’s visit to Utah a “military incursion.” Also in 2006, Michelle Malkin told Bill O’Reilly and his viewers that “the intellectual underpinnings of reconquista” – which she defined as the belief that “the American southwest belongs to Mexico – are “embraced by the vast majority of mainstream Hispanic politicians.” She responded to the May Day 2006 protests by writing that, “Reconquista is Real” and saying:
“The homegrown multiculti-mau-mau-ers know exactly what they believe, and they know exactly what they are doing. They aim to mainstream the “Stolen Land” mantra and pervert history. They aim to obliterate America’s borders by sheer demographic and political force.
And they are succeeding.”
Some right-wing activists also portrayed non-Latino supporters of reform as enemies of U.S. sovereignty:
- An American Conservative Union alert to its activists in April 2006 warns of “a growing number of left-wing America-hating radicals who are using the amnesty issue to drive a hate-filled agenda.”
- Pat Buchanan, in a May 31, 2006 WorldNetDaily column titled “The state at war with the nation,” wrote, “‘Our Enemy, the State’ is an exact description of a regime that seeks to convert into law a Senate amnesty for millions of illegal aliens….”
- In 2007, Bill O’Reilly said supporters of the immigration reform bill “hate America” and “want to flood the country with foreign nationals, unlimited, unlimited, to change the complexion” of our society.
In portraying American sovereignty at risk, these anti-immigrant leaders have allies in some traditional Religious Right leaders like the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, who has been warning activists for years that the U.S. government is preparing to sell out American sovereignty to a North American Union encompassing Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. At her How to Take Back America Conference this spring, Schlafly welcomed anti-immigrant activist and GOP official Kris Kobach to lead a workshop on illegal immigration.
Responses to Fearmongering About U.S. Sovereignty
It is a historical fact that much of the land in the Southwest was taken from Mexico in the 1840s, and it is true that some protestors pushing back against anti-Latino sentiment during recent debates have used rhetoric of the “we were here first” variety. But it is sheer McCarthyism for anyone to suggest, as Michelle Malkin did, that the “vast majority” of mainstream Hispanic elected officials believe the southwestern United States belongs to Mexico and are therefore represent threats to national sovereignty. National organizations representing Hispanic Americans, such as NCLR, are working hard to help Latinos achieve the American dream, not repudiate it.
There is no evidence that the growing Latino population in the U.S. – most of that growth, by the way, is from births, not immigration – is not interested in the responsibilities of citizenship. Latinos work hard, pay taxes, and contribute to their communities. Latino citizens are the fastest-growing part of the U.S. electorate, and advocates are actively working to pass immigration reforms that will include a path for unauthorized immigrants to earn American citizenship.
One frequent charge made by anti-immigrant voices to support their “reconquista” claims is that Hispanic immigrants are not interested in learning English. But that’s simply not true. According to the Pew Research Center, these immigrant families reflect the same trend as previous generations of immigrants: while new immigrants may struggle as they work to learn English, their children speak it fluently. According to Pew, “Nearly all Hispanic adults born in the United States of immigrant parents report they are fluent in English.” Pew also concludes:
As fluency in English increases across generations, so, too, does the regular use of English by Hispanics, both at home and at work. For most immigrants, English is not the primary language they use in either setting. But for their grown children, it is.
Strategy 4: Portray Immigrants as Criminals and Terrorists
An important part of the far right’s anti-immigrant rhetorical tactics during previous immigration debates at both local and national levels was portraying undocumented immigrants as criminals responsible for new waves of crime (a persistent portrayal not backed up by crime statistics) or as potential terrorists. Rep. Steve King, for example, has called “illegal immigration” a “slow-motion Holocaust,” and a “slow-motion terrorist attack on the United States.”
A November 2005 fundraising letter from the American Conservative Union’s David Keene is typical:
“Thousands of people are sneaking across the US border every day. Who are they? Why do they come? What do they want? I can’t tell you that but I can tell you one irrefutable fact: each and every one of those people is a criminal…Why do these people come here? Some come to the US for the economic opportunities, for a chance at a better life. Others come with the intention to do us harm, planning terrorist attacks or planning a life of crime, such as drug dealing.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, one of several groups treated by conservatives in Congress and the media as mainstream despite its ties to white supremacists (see sidebar), wrote on May 1, 2006 in National Review Online, that “the illegal alien marchers are morally identical to burglars demanding that the homeowner rearrange the furniture.”
In 2008, CIS research director Steven Camarota argued in Time magazine that “even if immigrants are less likely to commit crimes, their children and grandchildren may be more likely to end up on the wrong side of the law.”
Rep. Steve King, a leader of the House Republicans’ “Immigration Reform Caucus” used what he called “extrapolation” to make up frightening albeit fictional statistics during the 2006 debate, such as one claiming that 12 American citizens “die a violent death at the hands of murderous illegal aliens each day.”
D.A. King, identified by the ADL as a founder and leader of a Georgia-based group opposed to the immigration of Hispanics, was reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April 2007 to have told a Newton County Republican Party meeting that undocumented immigrants are “not here to mow your lawn – they’re here to blow up your buildings and kill your children, and you, and me.”
Response to Fearmongering About Crime and Terrorism
Claims by anti-immigrant activists and some local officials that unauthorized immigrants are responsible for crime waves are anecdotal at best, and are refuted by crime statistics. A debunking of Steven Camarota’s claims by MALDEF noted:
The President’s Council of Economic Advisors, for example, reports that immigrants have lower crime rates than U.S. natives and that immigrant men ages 18 to 40 are less likely than other U.S. residents to be incarcerated. The Council found that “[t]he direct evidence on crime rates shows that localities that receive large numbers of immigrants do not experience increases in relative crime rates.” Moreover, a Public Policy Institute of California study concluded that among men ages 18-40 – the age group most likely to commit crimes – those born in the U.S. were 10 times more likely than immigrants to be incarcerated…
Mr. Camarota, in endorsing immigration restrictions based upon the imagined future activities of immigrants’ children and grandchildren, adopts a revealing approach in his anti-immigrant rhetoric. In doing so, he makes clear that immigration policy is not, in fact, his primary concern or that of his organization; race-based stereotyping and anti-Hispanic hatred are.
Strategy 5: Portray Immigrants as Carriers of Disease and Weapons of Bio-Terrorism
Portraying Mexican immigrants as unclean and unsafe has a long history in the United States; a recent Smithsonian exhibit on the Bracero migrant-worker program during World War II showed workers being doused in DDT at the border. Before Lou Dobbs left CNN on a wave of controversy over his anti-immigrant grandstanding, he suggested that immigrants from Mexico were responsible for an epidemic of leprosy in America, a claim he did not withdraw even after those claims had been thoroughly debunked.
ADL’s 2008 report points to this gem from the Mothers Against Illegal Aliens website from November 2007:
The next time you eat in a restaurant or sleep in a hotel or motel….just remember to bring your own food, dishes, untensils [sic], glasses, towels, and maybe your own water. The person who cooked your meal or made your bed may very well be the one who picked your fruit and vegetables, yesterday….and we’ve heard the stories about what they do in the fields….haven’t we?
More recently, right-wing radio host Michael Savage was one of many to use the 2009 swine flu scare to drum up fear against immigrants, telling his listeners “illegal aliens are carriers…this is a disaster.” Savage also suggested that the flu might be a terrorist concoction planted in Mexicans as a way of delivering it to the U.S. He wasn’t the only one peddling that flu-as-weapon theory.
Response to Portraying Immigrants as Disease Carriers and Weapons of Biowarfare
Claims that immigrants are causing an epidemic of leprosy (thank you, Lou Dobbs) and other diseases is simply not true. And there is no evidence whatsoever to support the speculation by some right-wing pundits that the H1N1 flu was created by terrorists and implanted in immigrants from Mexico as a weapon of biological warfare. Spreading that kind of baseless and inflammatory speculation indicates that the speaker is not interested in serious policy debate, but is simply denigrating immigrants in order to make punitive policies more palatable to the American public, which is still inclined to support comprehensive reform. As journalist Edward Schumacher-Matos wrote in a May 2009 op ed:
Demonization of Mexican and other Latino immigrants is fueling hate crimes and violence against them, and it’s time for America’s leaders and media to put a stop to it all. The swine-flu scapegoating of Mexicans over the past two weeks by some radio and television talk show hosts reflects the abandon with which many local officials, anti-immigrant groups and even an unthinking mainstream media create popular resentments, dehumanize immigrants and provide justification for the extremists among us to act violently.
Strategy 6: Stop Reform by Shouting 'Amnesty'
Opponents of any legislation that would provide an earned path to citizenship grabbed onto the word “amnesty” and plastered it even on legislation that required fines and significant other requirements for law-abiding immigrants to earn a path to citizenship. Decrying “amnesty” became a way to oppose any reform short of mass deportation without saying so directly, and we should expect “no amnesty” to be a rallying cry of those who oppose any responsible approach to reform. Indeed, Pat Buchanan has written, “‘Comprehensive’ is the code word for amnesty.” He has insisted that “America is now risking national suicide…if a path to citizenship becomes law, nothing will stop the next invasion.”
In early 2007, some Republicans waged a campaign to try to keep then-Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida from becoming chairman of the GOP based on his support for comprehensive reform. The anti-Martinez organizing led RNC member Paul Senft to complain, “With some people, the issue of amnesty is a litmus test and anything short of a concentration camp is amnesty.”
In 2007, as the 2008 presidential primary campaigns were getting under way, Politico said, “Political pandering was at a peak during a recent Republican presidential forum in New Hamsphire. Most of the 10 GOP White House hopefuls blasted the Senate bill as ‘amnesty,’ even though it calls for a steep path to legalization for most of the 21 million illegal immigrants.”
Response to Denunciations of 'Amnesty'
When pundits or political leaders try, as a number of elected officials and Religious Right leaders have done, to come across as reasonable while obstructing reform, they may say something like, “I support reform, but I can’t support amnesty.” They should be asked to define “amnesty.” If they define it as rewarding lawbreaking, ask them whether it is fair to apply such a sweeping term to a system that would require unauthorized immigrants to pay a fine, learn English, and spend time earning their way toward citizenship. If they call even a policy like that “amnesty,” they will be unmasked as obstructionists who are more interested in demagoguery than in finding workable solutions to the question of how to deal with millions of unauthorized immigrants now living and working in our communities. Most Americans understand that mass deportations are not a workable solution; politicians who support that kind of extreme measure shouldn’t be permitted to portray themselves as proponents of reform while waving a “no amnesty” banner.
Strategy 7: Denigrate Reform Efforts as Vote-Buying
Several right-wing leaders have suggested that Democratic supporters of comprehensive immigration reform are selling out the national interest in order to win votes from the growing Latino community. Said Texas-based Religious Right figure Rick Scarborough in 2007, “The Democrats know it’s to their advantage to bring in Third World hordes who will one day become Democratic voters.”
In a similar vein, a March 2007 Minuteman HQ.com alert about Kennedy-McCain legislation included this language: “The new bill is designed to lure more Hispanic votes, casting aside the concerns of law-abiding Americans working hard day after day to live according to the rule of law.”
More recently, Rep. Steve King responded to the introduction of Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity legislation this way:
This isn’t about America’s prosperity. This is about expanding the dependency class in America, trying to create a permanent dependency class so it will permanently vote for Democrats so they can be permanently in power, permanently undermining our liberty, our free enterprise system, and our Constitution and the rule of law itself. That’s what this is about; it isn’t about helping people, and I think Gutierrez knows that.”
Response to Allegations of Partisan Vote-Buying
Bogus claims that support for comprehensive immigration reform is just about buying Hispanic votes for Democrats are exposed as false by the fact that the most recent push for reform was supported by then-President Bush and then-Senator John McCain, who would become the GOP presidential nominee in 2008. Immigration reform legislation passed the Senate in May 2006 with a bipartisan 62-36 majority; Senate compromise legislation in 2007 failed to muster the 60 votes to end debate, with senators from both parties split on allowing a final vote on the legislation, which the New York Times called a “cornerstone” of President Bush’s domestic agenda.
While some GOP strategists and Religious Right leaders (see sidebar) are worried about the long-term impact of conservative anti-immigrant rhetoric alienating American Latinos, the fastest-growing ethnic group in America, it is right-wing pundits who are making crass political calculations that they can make short-term political gains by using racially inflammatory rhetoric around immigration to win votes from white working class voters. (See sidebar). The current economic challenges will make those divisive tactics more tempting, with anti-immigrant sentiments being dressed up in pro-worker rhetoric.
Strategy 8: Portray Anti-Immigrant Stance as 'Pro-Worker' (While Voting Against Worker Interests)
The huge job losses in the American economy over the past couple of years and the real suffering being experienced by millions of families create an atmosphere that is ripe for anti-immigrant demagoguery. Some anti-immigrant activists will push this as part of the angry right-wing faux-populism that they have fostered in the health care debate. Immigration reform, we will be told, is being pushed by Democrats who want to buy Latino votes and by big-business Republicans who want to provide companies with a supply of cheap labor.
It is clear that the party’s “tea party” wing will be happy to politicize immigration reform and try to pit American workers against immigrants. Consider Rep. Joe Wilson’s folk-hero status on the Right after he shouted “you lie” when President Obama said in a congressional address that the health care reform legislation would not make benefits available to unauthorized immigrants.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who has written that the Bible supports border-focused immigration policy, exemplifies Republican readiness to use both jobs and health care to stir anti-reform sentiment. Here’s Rep. Smith in the Washington Times on November 20, 2009:
“If it was not bad enough that illegal immigrants take jobs that rightfully belong to citizens and legal immigrants, now they will get health care benefits that should go to Americans,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “If they were not in the country, we wouldn’t have to worry about emergency room or health insurance costs at all. And Americans would have these jobs.”
Smith has plenty of company. Last fall a dozen Republican U.S. Senators wrote to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to complain about the administration’s intentions to move immigration reform, saying “we strongly encourage you to cease any discussion about enacting a legalization program that will only hurt US workers and make it harder for law abiding citizens to weather this economic downturn.”
Republican House members have also gotten into the act with a letter to President Obama, which includes this:
American jobs continue to disappear at a staggering rate, and 15.1 million Americans are now out of work. At the same time, according to the most recent estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, seven million jobs are held by illegal immigrants.Any action your administration takes to prevent illegal immigrants from getting jobs will help ensure that an American has a job.
Former GOP Rep. Virgil Goode writing in Town Hall in December, called for a moratorium on all immigration, saying “It is pure madness to continue to keep flooding our country with millions of foreign workers when our own citizens cannot find jobs.” He urged the president to recover jobs “stolen by unauthorized immigrants.”
Pat Buchanan is of course more than willing to stoke this fire, saying that white working class voters “watch on cable TV as illegal aliens walk into their country, are rewarded with free educations and health care, and take jobs at lower pay than Americans can live on – then carry Mexican flags in American cities and demand citizenship.
Of course, when anti-immigrant voices aren’t accusing immigrant workers of stealing jobs, they’re accusing them of coming here not to work. An alert from the Center for Individual Freedom in 2007 said that “while we can not dispute that some of them are hardworking people looking for a better life, far too many have come to freeload.”
Response to 'Anti-Immigrant = Pro-Worker' Argument
Two recent reports confirm that immigration benefits the American economy, and that immigration reform would boost the nation’s economic prospects. “Raising the Floor for American Workers: The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” written by UCLA’s Dr. Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda and published by the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center, says comprehensive immigration reform that includes a legalization program for unauthorized immigrants and enables a future flow of legal workers would greatly benefit the American economy – to the tune of $1.5 trillion in added U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years. The report found that a deportation-only policy would result in a loss of $2.6 trillion in GDP over 10 years.
An August 2009 report by the conservative-libertarian Cato Institute also found that an emphasis on enforcement and reduction of immigration would “have a significant negative impact on the income of U.S. households.” Specifically, the report states, “A policy that reduces the number of low-skilled immigrant workers by 28.6 percent compared to projected levels would reduce U.S. household welfare by about 0.5 percent, or $80 billion.” In contrast, says the Cato report, legalization of low-skilled immigrant workers “would yield significant income gains for American workers and households.”
An economic analysis published by the Immigration Policy Center in 2009 noted that as of 2008, “immigrants who arrived during the last decade were only 5.5 percent of the U.S. workforce.” The report found that “there is little apparent relationship between recent immigration and unemployment rates at the regional, state, or county level.” It’s worth noting that according to the Wall Street Journal, the current recession has hit foreign-born workers harder than native-born workers; immigrants currently have a higher unemployment rate than Americans in general.
There have been some reports suggesting that under the current system unauthorized immigrants may have an impact on the wages of lower-paid Americans, which is one reason that organized labor unions are supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Undocumented workers without any legal protections are subject to exploitation by employers and therefore less likely to advocate for fair wages or to report abusive working environments. Moving those workers out of the shadows while establishing more effective controls on immigration are among the priorities of American labor unions that are supporting comprehensive immigration reform.
Meanwhile, a look at the voting records of those members of Congress crying crocodile tears over the supposed impact of immigrants on the well-being of American workers makes it clear that hard-line anti-immigrant members of Congress have appallingly anti-worker voting records in Congress. A December 2009 study by America’s Voice Education Fund makes the facts clear:
Of the 87 House members who got an “A” from anti-immigration group FAIR:
- 68% voted against increasing the minimum wage
- 83% voted against extending unemployment compensation
- 93% voting against equal pay for women
- 94% voted against the Employee Free Choice Act
- 93% earned an F from the AFL-CIO
- 95% earned an F from SEIU
These Members of Congress are essentially arguing that more native-born Americans should take the most dangerous, low-paid, and potentially exploitative jobs – while voting against measures to make them safer and better paying. This pattern led Eliseo Medina of SEIU to say, “it’s shameful to watch these members demonize immigrants while championing policies that are bad for workers at every level. It’s like watching a fox claim to be president of the chicken protection league.”
Strategy 9: Push Divisive Black-Brown Wedge
Anti-immigrant forces have long tried to use immigration as a wedge between Black and Latino communities, a political strategy to create divisions among progressive political leaders and activists. One element of the strategy is demonizing African American civil rights leaders and elected officials who have worked for passage of comprehensive reform. For example, in 2002, Dan Stein of FAIR accused black leaders of being “willing to sacrifice the interests of millions of African-Americans (and other Americans as well) whose jobs, incomes, education opportunities and access to social services are compromised by the more than one million new immigrants each year.”
In 2006, FAIR founded Choose Black America, a group designed to inflame anti-immigrant sentiment in African American communities. That group no longer appears active but it spawned the Crispus Attucks Brigade, led by Los Angeles activist Ted Hayes, which has formed coalitions with anti-immigrant Minutemen. Language on the Crispus Attucks Brigade website calls illegal immigaration “Mexico’s and other nation invasion masquerading as immigration” and “deliberate economic warfare on all United States American citizens, especially American Black peoples.”
In May 2006, Hayes held a sparsely attended rally in D.C. and called illegal immigration “the greatest threat to black people since slavery.” After a Hayes-organized anti-immigration rally in Los Angeles that turned angry and tense, LA Times columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan decried the “messy, saddening, surreal mix of too many things, notably black nationalism twisted into ‘my-country-right-or-wrong’ patriotism” but she also said she understood some black Americans’ “raw anger at being consistently at the bottom of the economic food chain” and feeling as if immigrants were being given greater consideration and opportunities. Kaplan also attended a 2007 symposium sponsored by the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies on “Black Americans and the Challenge of Immigration,” which drew a range of academics and others focused on issues of diminishing black political power and the impact of undocumented immigrants on jobs and wages for poor blacks.
There’s evidence that the widespread economic suffering will create new openings for those trying to push Black-Latino divisions. In February, Cord Jefferson posted on the popular African American website “the Root” an article titled “How Illegal Immigration Hurts Black America,” which anti-immigrant NumbersUSA happily promoted via twitter. Jefferson quoted Mark Krikorian from the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies, who is happy to push the wedge: “To be blunt a lot of employers would rather not deal with black American workers if they have the option of hiring a docile Hispanic immigrant instead.” CIS has also recently touted a poll purporting to show that African Americans and other minorities support deportation of undocumented immigrants rather than a path to citizenship.
Responses to Pushing a Black-Brown Wedge
Defeating efforts to widen Black-Latino divisions on immigration requires understanding and acknowledging the severe economic challenges facing African Americans, especially those facing young African Americans with limited education. It is true that unscrupulous employers take advantage of vulnerable undocumented immigrants to evade wage and safety laws in ways that hurt workers across the board. But that won’t be solved by demonizing immigrants; the solution is comprehensive reform that includes stronger workplace enforcement, the kind of reform being championed by organized labor, the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and others. As Tyler Moran, Policy Direction at National Immigration Law Center, says: “Worksite enforcement must be part of comprehensive immigration reform. However, the real answer to ‘enforcement’ at the worksite is making sure all workers can exercise their labor rights, increasing enforcement of labor and employment laws, and closing the gaping loophole that allows immigration enforcement to trump labor law enforcement.”
James Johnson, writing on Imagine 2050 to challenge Cord Jefferson’s post on the Root, cited a Princeton University study documenting that issues other than immigration are actually at the root of the unemployment problem for African Americans, which Johnson describes as “discriminatory hiring practices that lock Blacks out of jobs and advancement, poor educational systems that reduce employment opportunities, outsourcing of jobs historically held by Blacks to other countries, and labor laws that make it more difficult for workers to organize unions to help protect their wages and benefits.”
There are examples of on-the-ground coalition work resisting the wedge strategies: in San Francisco in 2008, Black and Latino carpenters teamed up to fight a divide-and-conquer strategies of a major construction company which sought to pit the groups against each other. In Mississippi, Black and Latino shipyard workers and their advocates organized to stop near-slavery conditions among Indian men who were brought to the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an exploitable and vulnerable workforce.
In 2007,commentator Roland Martin noted the challenges of maintaining black-brown coalitions at the local level when the focus was on community leaders’ fighting for a shrinking “minority” slice of the pie in a time of diminished resources. Said Martin: “Blacks are not the enemy of Hispanics, and vice versa. The enemy is a lack of quality of education, being shut out of the economic levers, as well as poor health care.”
President Obama directly addressed the “black-brown divide” during his campaign, saying, “We have to stop letting those in power turn us against each other. No place do I see this more than in our immigration debate. I am tired of people using this as a political football. We need to solve this problem.”
Decency in Debate
There is virtually unanimous agreement in Washington that the current immigration system is not working. The debate we are now entering into should be about how we try to fix the system.
Comprehensive reform is a major challenge: it must address how we police our borders to better control the flow of immigrants into America; how we design guest worker programs that meet our economic needs while protecting the interests of American and immigrant workers; and how we deal realistically and honorably with the millions of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. who are currently contributing to the economic and cultural life of our country. There is room for plenty of legitimate debate over the contours and details of reform proposals.
But the nature of the debate itself will tell us a lot about the state of American politics and culture, and whether our elected officials and other public figures will have the courage to stand up to those who will use the occasion to exploit difficult economic realities, fan ethnic and racial divisions, and lie about the impact of immigrants on American life.
People For the American Way Foundation calls on Americans to equip themselves with the facts about immigration and immigration reform, and to be vigilant in challenging public officials and pundits who spread fear and false information. Lou Dobbs’ departure from CNN after turning his show into a seemingly full-time attack on undocumented immigrants is evidence that people raising their voices in opposition to falsehoods and intolerance can have an impact on public debate.