September 2008

Anti-immigrant hatred breeds discrimination, mistreatment, harassment and death

by Christine Smith

A few weeks ago, I read the sad story of the beating death of Mexican migrant Luis Ramirez (age 25) in a small town in Pennsylvania. The details as reported in the press are sad and disgusting regarding what allegedly transpired between three white teens charged in the case and Ramirez. The story has stayed in my mind.

Remember when others worldwide regarded our nation as a beacon of light, a place where those persecuted could come to seek a better life, free from religious and ethnic persecution? Remember when you, perhaps, regarded our nation in that way?

"The Mother of Exiles," as Emma Lazarus' The New Colossus called her, was how America was viewed by those seeking a better life. To come to America was a dream, a dream and vision celebrated worldwide, and one which millions fulfilled much to the benefit of our nation. As the plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty with Lazarus' inscription spoke of the Lady of Liberty's world-wide welcome, millions came and built this nation.

Yet such a warm welcome has not awaited many. When one considers how many people desperately seeking asylum here have been denied, or even those who go through the tedious process of applying for green cards and citizenship who worry after years of living, working, and even building businesses in America about the ultimate decision due to the excruciating waiting periods, or we take a look at the immigration detention facilities across our country filled with non-violent people (including many children), we see the welcome has long been gone though my question is was it ever really there?

Whether "legal" or "illegal" is not the question; the question what is just versus unjust or moral versus immoral?

Right now, there seems to be an increase in vitriolic language against Latinos, and disturbingly, it's becoming popular and seemingly accepted in the mainstream.

Immigrations laws are immoral; they give the U.S. government the control to grant or withhold permission to foreigners wishing to enter our nation. Such power of the federal government inevitably leads to violence. It's a violence perpetrated not only by the government against those seeking life in America, but a violence advocated by citizens themselves as the rhetoric becomes more vicious, so do the attacks on Latinos.

It's been three months since the ICE raid in Postville, Iowa (the largest such workplace raid in our history). Families were separated, businesses disrupted, and all for enforcement of immigration policy against people who have built their lives and raised families in Postville for years. Who were such hard working individuals harming? What we do know is the town was harmed by this federal action. Most of the approximate 389 arrested were Guatemalan, others were Mexican, Ukrainian and Israeli. Such illegal workers pose no threat, but are targeted by the ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement). Perhaps such raids are a means to justify the existence and growth/funding of the ICE with "Homeland Security."

The anti-immigrant fervor in the United States is fueled by fear of those who cross our southern border (though many "illegals" also come here on legal visas and remain after their visa expires). But it is the Mexican immigrant who is receiving the wrath of the public. Many on the anti-immigrant bandwagon resort to hateful verbal attacks, and others increasingly express their hatred through violent speech or violence itself. Though there are those who restrain their fears to mere discussion of ideas and the facts they selectively use to support their positions, many others have chosen immigrants as the group upon which not only to to vent their frustrations, unhappiness, and hardship upon (as if immigrants were responsible for the deep emotional and economic dissatisfaction in their own lives) but to take it a step further in advocating all manner of persecution including violence.

The phenomenon of irrational and unjust persecution of a group of people has occurred throughout history. Fear of the unknown is the cause, be it for the sake of religious, regional, ethnic, economic, or other differences, the result is the same: the fearful attacking the object they view as different from themselves. In an effort to not address their fears, people often simply attack.

Religious persecution is but one example: Early Christian were persecuted by the Romans, Christians have persecuted pagans, New secularists,the Japanese, and Russian orthodox Christians persecuted Roman Catholics, and Christians have persecuted Jews and persecuted one another between denominations for centuries - differences in religious practice result in violence still worldwide. These are but a few examples, each leading to violence and death. When we take a look at regional and ethnic battles worldwide, as well as between economic classes, we see the identical process taking place: every instance of violent persecution began with a negative stereotype thereby opening people's minds (and hearts) to justification for their prejudice, discrimination, and ultimate violence. It begins with a focus on differences.

Once the bigoted prejudice is accepted, all manner of evil can result - even genocide. As prejudice begins to be accepted in a society for a group of people, it is fueled by propaganda and the words of demagogues. Derogatory slang is used against the target to dehumanize them, and once dehumanized, the discriminatory practices are easily accepted, and as the hatred of the targeted group becomes the norm in a society, then, too, violence is accepted. Examining even the most recent wars of the 20th and 21 st centuries, and the same process of dehumanization of the "enemy" leading one group, or both, to engage in all manners of evil against the other. Whether the Nazi's anti-Jewish propaganda or American anti-Japanese propaganda (but two examples-there are many), it is an evil to be rejected by any side during a dispute or conflict.

This process of dehumanization is precisely what I see happening in the United States against immigrants from Mexico (as well as from a few other nations). The assertion that Latinos are the "enemy" is becoming accepted as such hateful rhetoric increases. Cloaked in the guise of "national security" racism is being encouraged.

Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants are referred to in the most derogatory of names, not just by extremists, but by those considered "mainstream" be they talk show hosts, politicians, or others in the public eye. The result has been a significant increase in crimes against Latinos (or those perpetrators thought to be Latino because of their skin color) regardless of their immigration status.

I recommend an excellent article from the Southern Poverty Law Center entitled Immigration Backlash: Violence Engulfs Latinos (by Brentin Mock). The article provides just a sampling of some of the egregious acts of violence.

And this racist phenomenon is not new here. The U.S. federal government has a long history of discrimination resulting in death for those it deemed unacceptable to allow into our nation. A very brief sketch of federal immigration policy:

Prior to 1882, there were few restrictions on those entering the United States. But since the early 1900's, our country has favored some ethnicities above others and backed up that racism with our laws. Supposed "reasoning," similar to the "reasoning" espoused by current anti-immigrant propaganda, relied upon "studies" and "reports" which were designed to "prove" some races inferior or harmful to the best interest of society. Beginning in the 1890's, groups such as the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic American Protective Association grew in numbers as they played upon Midwesterner's fears of immigrants as they lobbied for immigration restrictions and stricter citizenship tests. And it was in 1891 that the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act forming a bureaucratic agency within the Treasury department charged with screening, processing, and rejecting immigrants (in 1875 the Supreme Court had decided immigration regulation would be the responsibility of the federal government, which was followed by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1885 and 1887 Alien Contract Labor Laws both of which restricted certain laborers from entering the country).

Defying individualism, liberty, and limited government power, followers of such thought were ready to "protect" their way of life (their political agendas which they felt threatened by the differing political viewpoints of the new settlers) by fighting hard for immigration restrictions.

Soon national immigration policy became a political tool of division subject to playing on the fears of the people to promote political agendas for acquisition of political power. Intellectuals began publishing articles opposing America's longstanding celebration of immigration in favor of an entirely opposite view promoting protectionism from immigrants who they categorized as unskilled and responsible for deteriorating the quality of life in cities. One prime example of such rhetoric came from social scientist/economist Richard Mayo Smith who wrote, "It is scarcely probable that by taking the dregs of Europe we shall produce a people of high social intelligence and morality," (1) Further, Smith in his "Emigration and Immigration: A Study in Social Science (1890) wrote, "we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that freedom of migration rest upon the right of the individual. It is simply a privilege granted by the power of the state" (2)

Throughout the 1900's, more regulations were passed giving the federal government increased control to exclude immigrants with a quota system, banned all Asians except Japanese (1917-1924), ad reduced visas and based those they granted on national origin. The legislation gave preference to immigrants from northern and western Europe. It wasn't until 1965 that the racist immigration laws drew controversy, with the bans on Asians and immigration discrimination based on race, place of birth, sex and residence being lifted. The immigration policies had resulted in thousands of Jews being turned away who sought haven from Hitler (even while quotas were no where close to being met). By 1965, the immigration backlogs were enormous for those wishing to come to our nation legally.

And, then, as history repeats itself, the U.S. government imposed strict laws again with the 1986 imposition of fines on employers hiring illegal immigrants, and in 1990 more laws restricting certain laborer immigrants over others' entry into the country. Then the U.S. Patriot Act (2001) and the merging of the Immigration and naturalization Service into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 with yet a new bureaucracy for processing called the U.S. Citizenship and US immigration Services with immigration enforcement handled by the Department's Border and Transportation Security Directorate called the Bureau of US immigration and Customs Enforcement. Once again, fearful people are rallied to target groups of people as the enemy" from whom they must be protected by their government - and liberty is lost. Thus describes the popularity of legal immigrant restrictions, and the current dangerous sentiments against "illegal" immigrants.

Immigration detention is now the fastest growing form of incarceration in the United States.(3) It's a big business now. Do a search on the detention centers and read about the conditions men, women and children are subjected to. (One such article: Families Behind Bars: Jailing Children of Immigrants By Kari Lydersen).; and another regarding the allegations of mistreatment at a Washington state detention facility where a report by the Seattle University School of Law and the human rights group OneAmerica concluded detainees are being held " in conditions that violate both international and U.S. law," see Julia Dahl's August 5, 2008 piece: Private Prison Co. Again Accused of Human Rights Abuses, Report: Immigrants in US Facility Held in "Atmosphere of Intimidation.")

An aspect of the federal government's war against immigrants is Section 287g of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), a law made in 2006 authorizing the Secretary of Homeland Security to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies. That provision is part of the problem as Latinos, who are not U.S. citizens, are reluctant to report crimes of harassment or violence for concern they may be deported. (Who can forget the arrest and detainment of Juana Villegas in Tennessee last month? A nine-month pregnant woman, stopped for routine traffic violation, ended up forced to give birth in the most disagreeable circumstances (read details here from the story as reported in The New York Times) simply because she was undocumented.

Such local collaboration with federal authorities is increasing. Sold as a means to get violent criminals off the streets, obviously the opportunity for misuse is abundant. From the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website about 287g, "Terrorism and criminal activity are most effectively combated through a multi-agency/multi-authority approach that encompasses federal, state and local resources, skills and expertise. State and local law enforcement play a critical role in protecting our homeland because they are often the first responders on the scene when there is an incident or attack against the United States. During the course of daily duties, they will often encounter foreign-born criminals and immigration violators who pose a threat to national security or public safety." Did anyone really think Mrs. Villegas was a potential terrorist, or in any way posed a threat to national security and public safety? Is Section287g simply playing on American fear of terrorism to justify the enormous budget allocated of for "Homeland Security" and its increased power?

It is such blatant disregard of individual liberty, of which free movement is intrinsic, which has caused the U.S. federal government's discriminatory immigration practices to result in much tragedy and death. Be it the enormous bureaucracy for those applying for legal status, or the enormous bureaucracy enforcing immigration laws against those who simply seek to come here but do not seek citizenship, the costs - economically and ethically - are enormous.

None of this would have happened if not for the fear-based persecution of those who differed by the populous. Immigration has sadly always been viewed as racial issue for the U.S. government.The current anti-foreigner sentiment is not new, but the continued unenlightened fear of a people who seek someone to blame for their own nation's as well as their own personal problems. It is the "us" versus them" syndrome, and Latinos more than other immigrant group are the ones targeted.

To those who cry "They're breaking the law," I say "Get rid of these unjust laws as we have others." Government regulated immigration has always, by its very nature, been arbitrary and discriminatory basing policies on ethnic and geographic (and other) biases. Such laws go against human will. They violate the natural desires of people to travel, to migrate, to seek greater opportunityand they go against the natural desires of people to not only hire others, but to welcome others into their life, their homes, their families, and their communities. There should never have been preferential immigration policy, and there should not be now.

To let supply and demand, need and want, private enterprise work freely (and work it will) is the answer. Just get government out of the way, and let people themselves determine where they wish to live, where they want to try and make a living, and who they wish to hire. Let's end government protectionism of certain businesses/industries, let's end government discrimination, let's allow people to decide who they associate with.

Until the history of moral failure of this nation's immigration policies is recognized, more will suffer. Immigrants, "legal" or "illegal," should not be expected to check their customs, beliefs, traditions, religion, language or their human rights at the border. Only a fearful people would require such irrationality and fear should never do the choosing between right and wrong.

People are dying in their quest to come to America. Human smuggling from Mexico as well as from Cuba, results in terrible suffering and death. Families suffer in federal detention centers. All because the federal government continues its immoral persecution of people simply seeking to live in America. The hypocrisy of a nation, as ours, ever trying to condemn oppression anywhere else in the world is glaring, for ours is a government which forbids such oppressed peoples to seek refuge (even as the U.S. government's imperialism destroys the economic infrastructure of many countries and creating refugees worldwide and accepting only a fraction of them).

I do not see the public outcry for the mistreatment of human beings that is occurring in this nation. I do not see public rejection of the detention camps. Nor do I see much empathy for those who die as a result of repatriation. I do not believe this is a matter of rational pro or con on the issue of immigration; I believe it is a deep rooted racial bias.

As the demagogues become more brazen in expressing their hatred, disturbed people will take it upon themselves to show their "patriotism" by violent behaviorafter all, they're only following the example of their government which they worship - with the rightness or wrongness never questioned. The "American" spirit would be welcoming, the tyrannical spirit condemning. The disturbing increase in persecution of Latinos happening now gives me a grave foreboding as to what evil lengths the U.S. government, and the citizens themselves, may ultimately accept as their hatred becomes solidified as a group war to defend their meaningless "national pride" or perhaps it would be more accurate to say their meaningless "racial pride."

(1) America in the Gilded Age by Sean Dennis Cashman, pg. 98
(2) Dividing Lines by Daniel J. Tichenor, pg. 77
(3)Few Details on Immigrants Who Died in Custody by Nina Bernstein


Christine Smith is a writer and political activist from Colorado. You may visit her blog: