The new culture war

In the ongoing battle over immigration, conservative rhetoric continues to escalate. It’s racist, and it gets results. This year, more than 30 states have passed 57 laws banning the undocumented from receiving social services or pledging National Guard troops to patrol the southern U.S. border. House Republicans in Washington staged a hearing about “cracking down” on undocumented immigrants. Republicans have been told to move ahead but avoid pissing off Latinos — their lesson from Proposition 187 in California — but a little decoding of the symbols, sound bites and economic arguments they use exposes their fear of a browner nation.

Here, then, are the six racist myths driving the immigration debate dispelled.

Immigrants are not animals. Rep. Steve Katz (R-Ariz.) presented a proposal to Congress for a “super fence” along the border. “We could electrify it,” he said, “not enough to kill somebody but enough to make them think twice. We do that with livestock all the time.” If the problem eased, he suggested, we could open it up again and “let the livestock run through.” Enough said.

Neither are they terrorists. In Colorado, a dramatic series of debates ended with the state Legislature passing a law requiring adult applicants for public services to prove citizenship. Republicans complained about being beaten down in a “Friday night massacre” because the law didn’t go far enough, according to State Rep. Debbie Stafford (R-Aurora). She wanted a ballot measure writing the ban into the state’s constitution and also applying it to people under 18.

“We’re helping to create the next generation of terrorists,” she told the Rocky Mountain News. There is no documented connection between immigration and terrorism. When making the flimsy argument that immigration threatens our national security, conservatives like to cite the example of the 9/11 hijackers. Yet, they forget that all 19 hijackers entered the country legally.

Tent cities at the border would be 21st-century concentration camps. Don Goldwater, Arizona’s leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, wants to arrest border crossers, imprison them in tents and make them build that coveted super fence. All those National Guard troops sent to the southern border would be kept busy guarding the camps.

There’s no invasion. In Idaho, Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez, modeling himself after Tom Tancredo, accused his opponents in a Senate race of “collaborating with the unarmed enemy invading America.” His grandparents were Mexican immigrants, but he fears the consequences of letting in more of their kind, calling this a war: “Either we protect and defend Old Glory at every challenge, or we all learn Spanish and get used to the chicken and worm on the Mexican flag.” (Vasquez has joined the National Advisory Committee of Protect Arizona Now, whose chair Virginia Abernethy describes herself as a “white separatist.”) There’s no evidence, however, that the Latino population will surpass whites anytime soon. The Census Bureau projects that by the year 2030, whites will be 24.4 percent of the population; Latinos 20.1 percent. Even in 50 years, Latinos won’t outnumber the white majority.

They speak English, just not “English only.” Mayor Tom Macklin of Avon Park, Fla., pushed for a new law based on a Pennsylvania precedent that makes English the city’s official language — in addition to fining landlords and denying business licenses to those who accommodate the horde. The city will remove Spanish from all documents, signs and automated phone messages. In Bogota, N.J., Mayor Steve Lonegan, generally a free-market libertarian, is campaigning to force McDonald’s to remove a Spanish-language billboard. Of course, he’ll have to change the town’s name too.

As an immigrant child, I can testify that all this is unnecessary. Although my parents allowed no English at home, I still get to experience the pleasure of white people complimenting my English. Funding for English as a Second Language classes would be far more helpful — and very likely less expensive — than prohibiting multilingualism.

They do not drain public coffers. Lamenting the strain the undocumented impose on our public services is a favorite straw man erected by nativist politicians. Yet, once again, the facts don’t support the argument. Studies in state after state show that immigrants pay their fair share of taxes. Even the undocumented pay into Social Security through false numbers. According to a 2005 study by Physicians for a National Health Program, immigrants, including the undocumented, use fewer health care resources than native-born citizens. Immigrants accounted for 10.4 percent of the U.S. population, but only 7.9 percent of total health spending, and only 8 percent of government health spending. Their per capita expenditure is less than half that of non-immigrants. Thirty percent of immigrants used no health care at all in the course of a year.

These stereotypes generate real consequences. They drive the entire policy debate rightward, so that neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to decouple immigration and national security. Even the Senate’s “good” immigration bill includes an English-only provision that could prevent FEMA and other federal agencies from serving limited English speakers.

At the local level, racism, coded or not, drives all immigrants underground and enables bigots. It won’t take a genius landlord to decide that simply avoiding brown skin altogether beats paying a $1,000 fine per person. A woman in Avon Park, the new English-only city, reported that a bartender refused to serve her sister who had a Puerto Rican driver’s license, saying, “I can’t read that.”

In another example, the Idaho Community Action Network reports that Robert Vasquez’s polarizing language has created so much fear of roundups that immigrants hole up at home and send the kids to do the grocery shopping. Vehicles carrying day laborers there have been forced off the road by others. Refugees have woken up in the middle of the night to someone banging on their doors telling them to get out of the country, and the white supremacist group National Alliance set fires at the local university to “defend” the flag. Their flyers said: “Stop Immigration! Non-Whites are turning America into a Third World slum … They are messy, disruptive, noisy and multiply rapidly. Let’s send them home now!”

Lest we believe this is only about red states, note that a woman wrote in to The New York Times after seeing the same flyer on a window in the Upper East Side.

Racism is the wedge conservatives use to distract us from real questions that need answers. If they are so upset with people draining the public treasury, they should protest real drains like the $70 billion of corporate tax income lost in offshore tax havens annually.

Politicians and immigration foes are trying to manufacture a new culture war. But the majority of Americans don’t want one and must speak up now to drown out the subtle racism dominating this debate.

Rinku Sen is executive director of the Applied Research Center and publisher of ColorLines magazine.