Pulling up the Ladder

The Anti-Immigrant Backlash

by Doug Brugge (updated version available here.)
"Many persons who have spoken and written in favor of restriction of immigration, have laid great stress upon the evils to society arising from immigration. They have claimed that disease, pauperism, crime and vice have been greatly increased through the incoming of the immigrants. Perhaps no other phase of the question has aroused so keen feeling, and yet perhaps on no other phase of the question has there been so little accurate information."

These words, written in 1912 by Jeremiah Jenks and W. Jett Lauck, who had been part of the United States Immigration Commission, sound surprisingly contemporary. In 1995, there is a popular argument that immigrants are responsible for many, if not all, of the problems facing our country. This theme has been struck before in US history. It has arisen now in part because right-wing organizations have promoted immigrants as a group targeted for blame. For example, an organization prominent in this right-wing campaign, the American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF), in a 1992 mailing, lists immigrants as the culprits behind high taxes, wasted welfare dollars, lost jobs, high costs for education, and rising crime. AICF claims that immigrants are driving up health care costs by grabbing free care while also bringing disease into the US. Interestingly, subsequent versions of the same letter, sent out the following year, reduce their claim of 13 million illegal immigrants to 6-8 million, a number still higher than that cited by Time magazine as no more than 5 million. As Jenks and Lauck conclude in the above quote, the debate is still characterized more by angry talk than by facts.

An important ingredient in the success of the right's anti-immigrant campaign is its ability to deflect anger about the negative effects of the current US "economic restructuring" onto the scapegoat of immigrants. This tactic nests within a larger goal of capturing political gain by exploiting a popular issue. This is nothing new, but rather is a practice rooted in a long-standing history of reaction to immigration, nurtured today by a cluster of right-wing political organizations dedicated to this single issue.

The History of US Immigration

It is impossible to understand the current wave of anti-immigrant sentiment without some historical perspective. Indeed, excepting the Native American population, it is often said that the US is a nation of immigrants. Certainly, the role of cheap immigrant labor has been critical in building the US economy. Immigration has been both voluntary and forced. In early US history, territorial and economic expansion was a magnet for persons fleeing poverty and political repression. There was also forced immigration in the form of the slave trade and the annexation of one half of Mexico by the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War. This, not traditional immigration, is the reason that a significant number of Chicanos in the Southwest live in the US rather than in Mexico.

By the turn of the 19-century, territorial expansion was no longer a major force fueling immigration. The new magnet was the industrial revolution, which was in full swing and in need of labor. Today, as the US is going through another economic shift to a service and information-based economy with global reach, immigration is once again a factor.

The US has historically had a complex reaction to immigration. On the one hand, immigrants have been crucial to US economic progress at certain junctures in our economic development. On the other, there has been considerable hate and anger directed toward immigrants, based on xenophobia, religious prejudice, and fear that immigrants will take jobs from native-born workers. It is revealing to take a brief look at some of this history of immigration as told by Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States.

In his description of the colonies in the 1700s, Zinn notes that the colonies grew quickly as English settlers and black slaves were joined by Scottish, Irish, and German immigrants. Immigration was causing the larger cities to double and triple in size, but often urban poverty grew apace. "As Boston grew, from 1687 to 1770, the percentage of adult males who were poor . . . .[and who] owned no property, doubled from 14 percent of adult males to 29 percent. And the loss of property meant loss of voting rights." Indeed this often-romanticized period of US history was a time of far harsher immigration conditions than those of today.

Civil War era immigration occurred in an even more hostile environment. The Contract Labor Law of 1864 allowed companies to sign contracts with foreign workers in return for a pledge of 12 months' wages. This allowed employers during the Civil War not only to recruit very cheap labor, but also strikebreakers. Predictably, this resulted in conflict. "Italians were imported into the bituminous coal area around Pittsburgh in 1874 to replace striking miners. This led to the killing of three Italians, to trials in which the jurors of the community exonerated the strikers, and bitter feelings between Italians and other organized workers." It is interesting to note that there was no definition of United States citizenship in the Constitution until the 14th Amendment was added in 1868. A definition was needed, in part to counteract the Dred Scott decision, which held that slaves were not citizens.

At the turn of the century, the immigrant population had changed from largely Irish and German to Eastern and Southern European and Russian, including many Jews. Zinn again describes the impact well, citing the role of immigration of different ethnic groups as contributing to the fragmentation of the working class. He discusses how the previous wave of Irish immigrants resented Jews coming into their neighborhoods. At this time, there was also the added fear that immigrants would bring with them socialist ideas that would undermine the principles of this country.

While nationality, religion, and political ideology were the main basis for resentment of immigrants in urban areas during the first half of the 19-century, race was the issue when Chinese immigrants arrived, brought in to fill a labor gap and then later to work as construction workers on the railroads in the 1860s. Indeed the first anti-immigrant law, passed in California, targeted the Chinese. In 1882, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was not repealed until 1943. Even then, immigration quotas for Chinese were only raised above 105 per year by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The late 1800s were difficult for Chinese in the US--the growing trade union movement based part of its organizing strategy on advocating deportation of Chinese immigrants. Race riots on the West coast were the response of angry whites who blamed Chinese for their woes.

In 1917 and again in 1942, the US initiated guest labor programs, commonly known as the Bracero programs, that brought Mexican workers into the Southwest to work as non-citizen farm workers and fill an alleged labor shortage. Up to half a million workers were enrolled in the program at its height. The flow of undocumented Mexicans grew during this time, prompting a government effort to stem the tide by "drying out the wetbacks"--an effort to convert undocumented immigrants into Braceros. When that failed, "Operation Wetback" was launched with the deployment of a military style border patrol. The Bracero programs effectively exposed thousands of poor Mexicans to the wealth of the United States and contributed to immigration pressure. It also displaced Chicanos from rural agricultural jobs, fueling their exodus to urban centers.

The role of racism in anti-immigrant sentiment seemed to have dimmed by the late 1970s, at least according to Lawrence Fuchs, who served for two years as director of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. Commenting on hearings held by his committee in 12 major cities from 1979 through 1980, Fuchs stated that "racism [against immigrants] was not nearly as powerful a force as it once was." Fuchs attributed this decline in anti-immigrant racism to the civil rights movement and an expansion of the spirit of pluralism that it forced. This optimistic reading of US tolerance for ethnic, racial, and religious diversity parallels the optimism of that period.

Intolerance, however, was just below the surface of American politics. The appearance of a hospitable melting pot that had an accepting attitude toward immigrants proved illusory. It took only the arrival of immigrants who were politically unwelcome, such as those fleeing the repression in El Salvador, for government policies of exclusion to become explicit again.

As in the case of El Salvador, immigration has sometimes followed a pattern of growth from parts of the world in which the US is heavily involved militarily or economically. In recent years, immigration has increased from South East Asia and the Central America/Caribbean region. This sometimes results from granting entry for persons fleeing official enemies of the US, such as Cuba or Vietnam, but also draws people from countries allied with the US, such as the Philippines, Hong Kong, or El Salvador. It is likely that as global trade relationships grow through treaties such as NAFTA, the coming period will prompt greater immigration.

The Contemporary Anti-Immigrant Campaign

Right-wing anti-immigration groups have placed the 1965 Immigration Act at the center of a campaign to promote anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1965 Act, Congress repudiated the infamous 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which followed 1920s-era legislation in parceling out immigrants' visas based on country of origin. Under the banner of humanitarian values, Congress decided to allocate visas primarily on the grounds of kinship.

The 1965 law states that 20 percent of all numerically restricted visas will be allocated for skilled workers and 6 percent for refugees, with the remainder split among various family-oriented preference categories. Importantly, spouses, dependent children, and parents of US citizens were exempted from any numerical limits. It is this provision that particularly drew the wrath of the right.

In the 1980s, anti-immigrant sentiment grew during the debate over immigration reform. Supporters of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 argued that immigrants were stealing jobs and draining the economy, and that political turmoil in Mexico and Central America would spill over into the US. Defenders of immigrants argued that immigrants are, in fact, a positive force in the American workforce and that the US is historically a nation of immigrants.

The final law, authored by Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) and Representative Romano Mazzoli (D-Kentucky), and promoted by the Reagan White House, was intended to shut the door on the further flow of illegal immigrants, while ostensibly supporting immigrants by offering "legalized" status to undocumented immigrants already in the US.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act contains sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants and includes provisions for "guest workers" who are allowed to work in the US, but are denied rights or benefits. (The "guest worker" provisions were touted by Pete Wilson, then a Senator from California.)

Although many immigrants entered the legal citizenship process, despite significant obstacles, the law laid the basis for the current debate over how to effectively seal the border. Further, the guest worker program has contributed to the flow of immigrant workers to the US who have no possibility of becoming citizens.

The most recent piece of major legislation on the issue, the Immigration Act of 1990, reaffirmed the centrality of family reunification, which has been the touchstone of US immigration policy since 1965. However, the concept of family reunification is now under attack.

Rightists Fund Anti-Immigrant Groups

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is directly tied to more virulent racists by the funding it has received from the Pioneer Fund. Between 1985 and 1989, the Pioneer Fund provided eight grants totaling $295,000 to FAIR, and three grants totaling $80,000 to the American Immigration Control Foundation.

Pioneer Fund documents indicate that FAIR received another $150,000 in 1992, making it the largest recipient of Pioneer grants that year. And FAIR clearly has no qualms about receiving such funding. The Pioneer Fund also funded much of the research behind the book The Bell Curve.

It is also of note that heiress Cordelia Scaife May supports FAIR, US English, the Center for Immigration Studies, and others to the tune of $2.5 million. May's political agenda is made clearer by her foundation's underwriting in 1983 of the distribution of The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail, a book in which immigrants from the Third World invade Europe and destroy its civilization.

Raspail's novel was the emotional touchstone for a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly titled "Must It Be the Rest Against the West?" in which the authors ultimately propose rather pragmatic solutions in response to the global division between rich and poor that they perceive as "dwarf[ing] every other issue in global affairs."

The Atlantic Monthly article quotes directly from The Camp of the Saints, a copy of which they obtained from the American Immigration Control Foundation. It is instructive to read even a short passage from that book. It describes the masses threatening the white, and naturally civilized world as:

"All the kinky-haired, swarthy-skinned, long-despised phantoms; all the teeming ants toiling for the white man's comfort; all the swill men and sweepers, the troglodytes, the stinking drudges, the swivel-hipped menials, the womenless wretches, the lung-spewing hackers. . . ."
These "five billion growling human beings" are threatening the "seven hundred million whites."
Immigration, Today & Yesterday
Today there is a tendency to revise history, to extol the virtues of past immigration, specifically that which includes our ancestors, while saying that now the country is full and can hold no more. But as we have seen, the pattern of resistance to immigration was, if anything, more severe during earlier waves of arrivals. Indeed immigration today does not equal, in absolute numbers, the peak of entries around 1910. And immigration as immigrants per 1,000 residents of the US (the rate) is several times lower than at any time during the period 1850-1930.

Anti-immigrant groups have had to endorse historical immigration because the vast majority of non-native US citizens are descended from immigrants. What they do not state directly, but imply in cleverly constructed arguments, is the one thing that clearly is different today. In 1900, 85 percent of immigrants came from Europe (only 2.5 percent came from Latin America and Asia combined). In 1990, Latin and Asian immigrants accounted for more than two-thirds of all immigrants. Indeed, the population of Hispanics in the US is projected to reach 80 million by the middle of the next century, while the Asian population will rise to about 40 million.

The US has been a majority-white country and immigrant labor in the early part of this century was white, although, as we have seen, ethnic, national, and religious distinctions were critical in that time as the basis for defining immigrants as different, inferior morally and intellectually and, thus, threatening. The current influx from Third World countries faces the added dimension of race, a powerful factor throughout US history. Thus the current sentiment is as much the political twin of the racist history of exclusion of the Chinese as it is the resistance to white immigration.

The recent US military action in Haiti is yet another sign of the depth of impact that race has on immigration policy. Haitian immigrants have been widely and falsely disparaged as bringing AIDS into the US. President Clinton, however, promised fair treatment for Haitian refugees during his campaign, only to renege on that promise once in office. When intense economic sanctions failed to force the Haitian military junta out and the flow of boat people continued, pressure mounted to do something and Clinton sent in the troops. In the process, the issue of halting immigration of poor black people was elevated to the level of national security.

The Message of the Right Wing
Dan Stein, Executive Director of FAIR, writes that a public consensus has emerged "in the face of Haitian boats, the World Trade Center bombing, Chinese boats, international immigrant-smuggling and crime syndicates, persistent illegal immigration from Mexico and high profile tales of immigrant-related welfare rip-offs." Stein states that in the face of this assault we need to cut the total number of immigrants, legal and illegal: "the country needs a break to absorb and handle its critical social and internal problems. . . .We have to limit immigration significantly to preserve the nation."

In its advertisements in mainstream magazines, FAIR claims that "nowhere are the effects of out-of-control immigration more acutely felt than in the labor market. The original intent of our nation's immigration laws. . .was to protect the American Worker." In their mailings, FAIR plays on fears by telling a story of Mexicans crossing the US border "with the sole intention of having a child who is automatically an American citizen." In a brochure, FAIR writes:

"Today's challenges are very different from those faced by earlier generations. We no longer have a vast frontier to tame. In fact, we must protect shrinking forests, wetlands and farm lands. . . .We no longer need to encourage an influx of new workers as we did to fuel the industrial revolution."
Overall, the message of the anti-immigrant forces is that things have changed. At one time immigration was a good thing for this country, but no more. There is, in this view, no longer enough to go around and immigrants are cutting into the share of what could be had by good patriotic Americans. Furthermore, anti-immigrant advocates raise the specter of new immigrants failing to assimilate and forcing their culture on everyone else--a prospect that, they argue, could lead to separatist scenarios like the disaster in what was once Yugoslavia.

For instance, Chronicles, a rightist monthly cultural magazine, devoted its June 1993 issue to the subject of cultural breakdown in the US resulting from immigration. The cover, a cartoon depiction of the Statue of Liberty, features immigrant characters (with pointed ears to indicate their demon status) clawing their way to the top of the statue, whose face is grimacing in pain and alarm. The thrust of the article is the dual threat of cultural adulteration of the Anglo-Saxon American heritage and the overwhelming inferiority of Third World alternative cultures. Feature writer Thomas Fleming writes, "Arab and Pakistani terrorists, Nigerian con artists, Oriental and South American drug lords, Russian gangsters--all are introducing their particular brands of cultural enrichment into an already fragmented United States that increasingly resembles Bosnia more than the America I grew up in." This message pervades not just right-wing anti-immigrant rhetoric, but the mainstream media and the rhetoric of both political parties.

Public Opinion is Against Immigrants
Today public opinion has been swayed by such arguments and the enormous access that anti-immigrant organizations have to the national media. A Business Week/Harris Poll in 1992 found that while 59 percent of those surveyed thought immigration has been good for the US historically, 69 percent of non-blacks and 53 percent of blacks thought present-day immigration was bad. Among the reasons cited were taking jobs away from American workers (60 percent) and using more than their fair share of government services (about 60 percent). black views may be prompted by different reasons than those of whites, since it is likely that blacks are resentful of the success of recent immigrants appearing to overtake them economically, while whites see immigrants threatening what they already have.

There is a clear lack of a sense of the history of immigration in the current out-cry. Nothing so exemplifies the lack of historical connection as a story in the Boston Globe New Hampshire Edition, headlined "Son of Immigrants Offers English Bill." The legislation offered by Bernard Raynowska, a state representative from New Hampshire and of Lithuanian descent, would restrict the state's use of bilingual ballots or forms. While Raynowska's father came up the hard way after immigrating, his son now feels, "[i]n the year 2000 we're all going to be speaking Spanish, dressing Spanish [sic] and eating Spanish food." A letter to the editor in the November 10, 1991 Tampa Times echoes that sentiment when the writer recalls, through rose-colored glasses, his experience with immigrants in an earlier era. "There was no special consideration given those people, and their children required little time to become proficient in English."

What are the actual statistics to back up this anti-immigrant rhetoric? In fact, less than 1.5 percent of the US population is undocumented, according to the US Census. One quarter of immigrants in the US are undocumented. Most of these do not sneak across the border, but arrive legally and stay beyond the expiration of their visas. Only one-third of undocumented immigrants come from Mexico.

Nothing is as fiercely contested or as wildly divergent in their conclusions as studies on the impact of immigration on the economy. Anti-immigrant organizations point to a study by Dr. Donald Huddle that shows that immigrants cost the US $44 billion more than they contributed in 1993. Immigrant advocates point to the Urban Institute study that shows that immigrants contributed from $25 to $35 billion more than they took out in 1992. A study by Los Angeles County found that immigrants cost the county almost $1 billion, but give back four times that amount in taxes. The problem, however, for Los Angeles County is that the taxes go to the federal government instead of the county. Business Week estimated that immigrants pay $70.3 billion in taxes annually and receive $5 billion in welfare benefits, and another $11.5 billion in primary and secondary education benefits.

The Urban Institute reviewed a number of contemporary studies that "document" the draining effect of immigrants on the US economy in order to find underlying biases. They found that the studies vary in quality, but "the results invariably overstate the negative impact of immigrants for the following reasons: 1) they systematically understate tax collections from immigrants, 2) they systematically overstate service costs for immigrants, 3) none credit immigrants for the impact of immigrant-owned businesses or the full economic benefit generated by consumer spending from immigrants, 4) job displacement impact and costs are overstated, 5) they omit the fact that parallel computations for natives show natives use more in services than they pay in taxes too, and 6) the size of the immigrant population--particularly the undocumented immigrant population--tends to be overstated."

The Immigration Debate & the Issue of Race

It is helpful to take a step back and consider the development of race as a concept. Race is intimately associated with both the development of the US and with immigration policy. This is not surprising since this country was built on dislocation of the indigenous population and the enslavement of Africans. Such deeds are hard to justify against persons that you hold as equals. In the 19th-century, the dominant view was that Africans, Asians, and Native Americans were separate and inferior species. This was based variously on interpretation of the Christian scriptures and on "scientific" comparisons of cranial capacity. According to Gould:

"Louis Agassiz, the greatest biologist of mid-nineteenth-century America, argued that God had created blacks and whites as separate species." On the other hand, Gould noted that, head measurements "matched every good Yankee's prejudice--whites on top, Indians in the middle, and blacks on the bottom; and, among whites, Teutons and Anglo-Saxons on top, Jews in the middle and Hindus on the bottom." Drawings showing that African's heads appeared half-way between those of whites and chimpanzees were common.

Actually, race is an artificial construct. Andrew Hacker writes, "there is no consensus when it comes to defining 'race,' the term has been applied to a diversity of groups. The Irish have been called a race. . .as have Jews and Hindus. . . . In the United States, what people mean by 'race' is usually straightforward and clear, given the principal division into black and white. Yet. . .not all Americans fit into a racial designation." Most obviously, racial designations usually include Hispanic as an option--despite the fact that Hispanic covers many races. On another level, for most Asians and Hispanics, "images of their identities are almost wholly national"-- Chinese or Japanese, Puerto Rican or Mexican for example.

In the early part of this century, the terrain of defining racial differences shifted to measurement of IQ, and this was used to justify differential restriction of peoples in immigration. These tests, in particular those by psychologist, "R. M. Yerkes, who persuaded the army to test 1.75 million men in World War I, thus establish(ed) the supposedly objective data that vindicated hereditarian claims and led to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, with its low ceiling for lands suffering the blight of poor genes," writes Gould.

In the 1970s, the Pioneer Fund underwrote research by William Shockley and Arthur Jensen, who set the next stage for the IQ and race issue. They proclaimed that blacks have lower IQs than whites. It is not surprising to note the resurgence once again of this idea in the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994 by conservative social scientist Charles Murray and the late Harvard Professor Richard Herrnstein. The book develops an argument that intelligence is largely hereditary. Since blacks score below whites on such tests, this leads the authors to draw conclusions in favor of, "ending welfare to discourage births among low-IQ women, changing immigration laws to favor the capable and rolling back most job discrimination laws."

It is bitterly ironic that this was published in the same year that the movie "Forest Gump" became a smash hit by showing the basic humanity and common sense wisdom of a low IQ white man. The Bell Curve has been reviewed by sociologist Christopher Jencks as "highly selective in the evidence they present and in their interpretation of ambiguous statistics." And psychologist Richard Nisbett states that their work "wouldn't be accepted by an academic journal--it's that bad."

Indeed, along with the political climate, there already "is a police state that has developed in the southwestern United Stated since the 1980s. No person, no citizen is free to travel without the scrutiny of the Border Patrol," writes Leslie Marmon Silko of the Laguna Pueblo after describing her personal harassment at the hands of the Border Patrol in New Mexico. Significantly, undocumented immigrants from Latin America are primarily "Native Americans or mestizos (mixed-bloods) from Mexico and Guatemala," often driven out by government repression backed by the US government, while "economic refugees from Cuba (mostly white) and from the former Soviet Union (all white) are admitted to the US 'legally.'"

The Republican Party's Use of Anti-Immigrant Themes

The Republican Party has scapegoated immigrants for some time, but now immigration has moved to the center of the party's agenda and has become a platform to advance its political fortunes. David Nyhan, writing in The Boston Globe, points to California Governor Pete Wilson's reelection campaign as the flash point of the rise of immigrants as an official enemy in the Republican's electoral strategy. Nyhan writes, "Wilson looked done in by a combination of recession. . .defense cuts, population growth, job loss. . .and a plague of natural calamities. . .and the Los Angeles riots." Then Wilson found a way to invigorate his political prospects. "He pursued an increasingly harsh policy toward illegal immigrants and was reinforced at nearly every turn of the media page by the increasingly polarized electorate."

Nyhan accurately predicted that Wilson's reelection "will nationalize the anti-immigrant debate, which is becoming the most incendiary issue in presidential megastates like Texas, Florida and New York." Indeed, Wilson briefly ran as a candidate for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, promoting California's anti-immigrant policies as a national "solution."

In fact, the Republican-controlled Congress in 1995, rallying behind the "Contract With America," has taken up immigration. HR 4, the Personal Responsibility Act, would withdraw the safety net from virtually all immigrants, legal and illegal, who are not citizens by excluding them from 60 listed programs. Excepting only emergency medical services, the Republicans call for cutting off Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, school children's meals and immunizations, housing loans, job training, higher education assistance, and child care to a population of tax-paying people who have done nothing illegal.

This would fundamentally shift the relationship between citizens and legal immigrants. Historically, immigrants have been viewed as future citizens. That link between immigrant status and citizenship potential would be broken by the Personal Responsibility Act, accomplishing a major goal of the right-wing anti-immigrant forces. Clearly, "public animosity to illegal aliens has been spilling over into the attitudes toward legal migrants," notes R. Pear in the New York Times.

With liberal and progressive organizations weak at this time, anti-immigrant views are raising the fear of "others" who are "different." This sort of scapegoating--explaining away fears and social problems by blaming an unpopular group--has proved an effective strategy in dividing people and confusing them about the source of their problems. Further, the Republican claim that the Personal Responsibility Act would save the voters $21 billion over five years masks the vindictive and short-sighted nature of the bill with a promise of tax-saving budget reduction.

Proposition 187 in California

Closely linked to the 1994 gubernatorial election in California is Proposition 187, a statewide referendum that is a paradigm of the state-level strategy of the anti-immigrant movement. When the voters of California approved Proposition 187 by a margin of 59 to 41 percent, they mandated that teachers, doctors, social workers, and police check the immigration status of all persons seeking access to public education and health services from publicly funded agencies, and deny services to those in the US illegally. Those who voted in the 1994 election were 80 percent white, despite the fact that 45 percent of California's potential voters are people of color, and despite widespread protests from the Latino community.

The proposition, championed by an organization called Save Our State (SOS), was promoted as a cure-all that would reverse the many crises facing California. Despite the possibility that the initiative could cost the state $15 billion in federal funding because it violates federal privacy and eligibility laws, it enjoys widespread support. While Governor Wilson staked his successful reelection bid on endorsing the initiative, prominent Democratic elected officials voiced only muted opposition, and offered up their own plans to strengthen the Border Patrol.

Elizabeth Kadetsky has analyzed the organization behind California's anti-immigrant movement. She finds that SOS itself is "a ragtag movement replete with registered Greens, Democrats, Perotists, distributors of New Age healing products and leaders of the Republican Party." There is little question that SOS has a grassroots base that "right-wing figures have shown up to exploit." Among key financial backers were Rob Hurtt, a millionaire who helped bankroll the Christian Right's campaign for the state legislature, and state legislator Don Rogers, who is associated with the white supremacist Christian Identity movement. But SOS raised most of its modest budget from small donations.

While FAIR and SOS did not work together, FAIR did endorse the measure and was linked to the issue by Alan Nelson, a former INS director under Reagan, who later wrote anti-immigrant legislation in California for FAIR before writing Proposition 187. Kadetsky finds that "SOS's visible advocates personify either fringe populism or cynical manipulation of public sentiment for political gain."

After the passage of Proposition 187, reports of discrimination against Hispanics have been rampant. The Hispanic Mayor of Pomona was stopped by the INS and told to prove his citizenship. In Bell Gardens, a teacher asked students for their immigration papers. In Los Angeles, a bus driver yelled at passengers that they could no longer speak Spanish or Armenian. And a car accident victim was denied emergency services when he couldn't prove his legal status, to name just a few examples. Columnist Jose Armas called this "one of the most hate-charged laws ever passed" and called for support of the growing boycott of California products and tourist and convention visits.

Groundwork for Proposition 187 was laid in 1986 by Proposition 63, a successful referendum to make English the official language of the state. A local affiliate of US English, the California English Campaign, led the campaign in California. US English provided the campaign with between $800,000 and $900,000 for the initial signature drive, and continued to heavily fund the campaign. Other national organizations collaborated to coordinate the campaign, with US English taking the lead. It was an early use of the statewide referendum to tap anti-immigrant sentiment and was a precursor to 187.

English Only as a Linchpin of Anti-Immigrant Hate

Language is a key issue in the immigration debate. At the same time that there is concern that students are not learning second languages, there are attempts to make sure that young immigrants do not retain their native language. A plausible explanation is that immigrants have the wrong language: Spanish, rather than French or German. The opposition to "other" languages seems to reflect both disdain of foreign cultures and fear of the loss of English as the dominant US language and is closely associated with the racist aspects of immigrant bashing.

The language issue is often falsely framed as a concern that immigrants are not learning English and are not integrating into society. In fact, immigrants today are learning English as rapidly as previous generations of immigrants, despite longer and longer waiting lists for English classes due to government cutbacks. The hidden political agenda of English Only advocates is clear in their attacks on bilingual education and bilingual ballots. When English Only laws have passed, it has emboldened employers to restrict non-English languages at work and cities to outlaw commercial signs in various languages. It has fueled anti-immigrant sentiment, extending to citizens, legal residents, and the undocumented alike, as long as they "look like immigrants."

The danger of official English initiatives comes from their subtlety and ability to win over middle Americans who are unaware of the larger agenda. In fact, US English is a flagship organization of the right's anti-immigrant campaign. Because US English is occasionally characterized as seeking to designate a state or national language that is no more threatening than an official bird or flower, liberals are sometimes puzzled or shocked to read claims that the English Only movement is racist.

John Tanton wrote a memo in 1988 that dirtied the clean public image that US English has sought to maintain. In the memo, Tanton writes, "[a]s Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night?. . . .Will Latin Americans bring with them the tradition of the mordida [bribe]?" And, "[o]n the demographic point: perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!" The ensuing uproar led to the resignation of then-director Linda Chavez and board member Walter Cronkite.

US English has made a strong comeback in the wake of that crisis. They have hundreds of thousands of members across the US thanks to their ability to reach huge numbers of persons through mass mailings, and they can point to some 17 states that have passed official English laws. Their prime objective today is to change the US Constitution and they have legislation that has gathered some support in Congress. In addition, they have continued to oppose transitional bilingual education.

Immigration and the New Economy

One aspect of economic restructuring today involves a shift from local or national economies to a global economy. US business is moving freely without being tied to local labor forces; consequently, corporations are relocating overseas to find cheaper labor and lax environmental laws. The rise of an information--and service--based economy has contributed significantly to the dislocation of workers, since it generates a two-tier class structure of low-income jobs for most and high-income jobs for the few with the right skills and knowledge. The low-paying jobs that are being created are often jobs that new immigrants are willing to take but are unacceptable to middle class workers who are seeking jobs that allow a more affluent and secure lifestyle.

Since 1972, real average weekly earnings have fallen 18.6 percent. blacks have been particularly hard hit, seeing their family income plummet by one-third since 1973. On the other hand, in just one year, from 1992 to 1993, after-tax corporate profits increased by more than $44 billion. Between 1960 and 1988, manufacturing employment fell from 26 percent to less than 19 percent of civilian employment, while jobs in the service-providing industries (including transportation, real estate, wholesale and retail trade, service, finance, and public utilities) climbed from 56 percent to 70 percent. This has caused an uncharacteristically large-scale displacement of millions of blue collar middle class workers, as well as professionals and middle managers.

Displaced workers, along with others who fear for their livelihood, are fertile ground in which to sow anti-immigrant sentiment, since angry and frustrated people often seek some target on which to blame their problems. The right wing has organized and manipulated such anger and resentment, turned it away from corporations, and directed it against the government, decrying high taxes and the inability of the state to solve problems such as social deterioration, homelessness, crime, and violence. In addition to the target of "failed liberal policies," immigrants make a convenient scapegoat and a very tangible target for people's anger. Racial prejudice is often an encoded part of the message.

Right-wing populist themes are particularly effective at attracting working people disenchanted with the system. A cartoon in the October 1993 issue of Border Watch, a publication of the American Immigration Control Foundation, depicts "US Business Interests, Inc." as being pro-immigration. "We hire aliens cheap," reads a sign in the cartoon, implying that US corporate interests are promoting immigration and costing US workers their jobs. Under the headline, "Immigration Takes Jobs from Americans," an April 1994 issue of Border Watch claims that native born workers are being displaced from both janitorial jobs and white collar professional positions. An anonymous letter in Border Watch, identified as from a worker, captures the anti-immigrant sentiment: "[w]hen the Mexicans get powerful enough in a job situation, they kick out the 'gringos' so their buddies can take over." The anonymous writer goes on, "Just wait until they can work their way up the economic ladder, and middle class Americans will feel the sting of Mexican racism."

The Ambivalence of Liberals

Republicans and Democrats are not cleanly divided on the issue of immigration. Ideological positions on the issue are murky, among other reasons because the economic and political problems we are facing were created by both dominant political parties; thus, a popular scapegoat is useful to both. Gregory Defreitas, writing in Dollars and Sense, identifies an example of ideological divergence within conservatism: nativist Republicans want to curtail or stop immigration, while conservative libertarians endorse open borders. On the liberal side, a significant number of unionists and environmentalists see immigration as a threat to jobs and the environment.

It is the issues of jobs and the environment that provide the right's anti-immigrant campaign its strongest entree into mainstream attitudes. An indication of the success of this argument is the adoption by the Sierra Club in California of immigration restriction as an environmental cause. Population control is a related issue that can give the anti-immigrant message an acceptable mainstream spin.

The Carrying Capacity Network (CCN) specifically includes "immigration limitation" as a part of this agenda. Among the "Initiatives & Resources" offered in a 1994 publication of the CCN are an incongruous mix of ecology and anti-immigrant titles. These include "American Solar Energy Society," "Immigrants, Your Community, and US Immigration Policy," "Planned Parenthood," and "The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau."

On the National Board of Advisors of the CCN are the names Anne and Paul Ehrlich, important figures in population control circles. They recently outlined their version of the relation of environment, population growth, and immigration limitation in the January 1991 issue of The NPG Forum, published by Negative Population Growth. First they claim that the US is actually the most overpopulated nation in the world because we have a greater per capita environmental impact than any other nation. They conclude that "[t]he first step, of course, is for the United States to adopt a population policy designed to halt population growth and begin a gradual population decline."

Naturally, immigration restrictions are a part of the Ehrlichs' plan. Although they consider immigration to add "important variety to our population," they worry that to maintain "reasonable" immigration rates will mean that others will have to pay too high a price in terms of restricting their family size. Ultimately they view immigration as environmentally destructive because immigrants come from poor nations where they consume little, only to "quickly acquire American superconsuming habits." They also bring unfortunate "reproductive habits" that go against the grain of population control. They conclude that "[t]he immigration issue is extremely complex and ethically difficult, but it must be faced," if we are ever to reach the "optimum" US population size of "around 75 million people." Since this is less than a third of our current population, it raises the question of where all the rest of us will go.

Negative Population Growth has outlined the history of growing competition for jobs in the US. They tie the problem to the effort to "bring blacks into the economic and social mainstream." They point out that the addition of blacks to the workforce after the civil rights movement was compounded by the baby boom and the influx of young women into the paid labor force. The answer? Limits on immigration and "reducing unwanted pregnancy among the poor" stand out to NPG. Thus, they put a liberal spin on the anti-immigrant debate, trying to align civil rights and feminist activists with anti-immigrant themes.

Former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who is head of the 1994 Commission on Immigration Reform, is at the more moderate end of the debate. Nonetheless, she recommends cutting immigration and limiting family reunification. To her credit, she has argued for depoliticizing the discussion. Says Jordan, "Now when economic conditions become a little stringent we look around for someone to blame. Right now, the immigrant is the one getting the blame for whatever the social ill is." She goes on to ask, "[n]ow, if we are what we claim to be in our mottoes, then why don't we reinforce our identity as an accepting and caring people and try to deal reasonably and rationally with the real issues?"

The ambivalence of liberals over the issue of immigration has allowed the views of the political right to become mainstream. As has been said earlier, liberals were part of setting economic policy, and can no more explain away what they have done than can the right. Upper-level workers, primarily white and unionized, are often a base for liberalism's themes of tolerance and diversity, but are not immune from lapses of racism and have blamed "foreigners," such as the Japanese, for economic problems in the past. In fact, there has been a recent shift from Japan-bashing and "Buy American" efforts to blaming immigrants. Further, because relatively few recent immigrants are voters and immigrants do not have their own PAC's, they are not widely feared or respected by liberals in the electoral arena.

Final Words

A competitive mentality and a sense of increasingly scarce resources create a fertile soil for anti-immigrant advocates who raise the fear that newcomers will take your job, your home, and your culture--things very central to a secure life. Fear is very real, and the decline in the economic position of the average American is an understandable motivator for fear. But to blame immigrants as the source of that decline is to scapegoat an easy, unpopular target and divert responsibility from more culpable parties. Unfortunately, the message that immigrants are the problem has been all too successful. 

Doug Brugge is an occupational and environmental health scientist who serves on the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts English Plus Coalition and co-chairs Unity Boston, a multiracial, grassroots political organization. Call or write PRA for footnotes to this article. This article originally appeared in The Public Eye in the Summer 1995 issue. © 1995 Doug Brugge.

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