Pulling Up the Ladder: The Anti-Immigrant Backlash

This article first appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of The Public Eye magazine, and has been updated by PRA staff, with permission of the author, to reflect developments since that time.

“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.” (Jenk and Lauk 1912)

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. Today there continues to be 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 U.S. history. It has arisen in recent years in part because many 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 2000 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 United States. Interestingly, previous versions of this annual letter reduce their earlier claim of 13 million undocumented immigrants to 6-8 million, and finally to “an unknown number of illegal immigrants” in 2000. As Jenks and Lauck conclude in the above quote, the debate is still characterized more by angry talk than by documented facts.

An important ingredient in the success of the Right’s anti-immigrant campaign is its ability to deflect anger about any negative effects of the U.S. economic, environmental or cultural situation 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 in the recent past by a cluster of right-wing political organizations dedicated to this single issue.

With the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon apparently in part by undocumented foreign nationals, anti-immigrant groups and politicians have used the heightened fear of terrorism to promote limiting noncitizens’ civil liberties. The aftermath of this attack, in combination with the economic recession, will undoubtedly provide new fuel to the immigration restriction movement. At the time of updating, the repercussions of the September 11 attacks are still unfolding and will certainly require more analysis as the situation develops.

History and Context

The History of U.S. 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 United States is a nation of immigrants. Certainly, the role of cheap immigrant labor has been critical in building the U.S. economy. Immigration has been both voluntary and forced. In early U.S. 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 United States rather than in Mexico.

By the turn of the 19th 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 United States is going through another economic shift to a service- and information-based economy heavily influenced by globalization, immigration is once again a factor.

The United States has historically had a complex reaction to immigration. On the one hand, immigrants have been crucial to U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”

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 (Zinn 1980).

While nationality, religion, and political ideology were the main basis for resentment of immigrants in urban areas during the first half of the 19th 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 United States 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 United States – 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 (Daniels 1988).

In 1917 and again in 1942, the United States initiated guest labor programs, commonly known as the Bracero programs, that brought Mexican workers into the Southwest to work as noncitizen 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 (Briggs 1983; Garcia y Griego 1983).

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 responses to a 1984 survey, Fuchs stated that the immigration policy “had been transformed to one virtually free of considerations of color, nationality or religion” (Fuchs 1990). 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 U.S. 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 for government policies of exclusion to become explicit again.

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 is about equal, in absolute numbers, to the peak of entries around 1910. And the rate of immigration as immigrants per 1,000 U.S. residents is several times lower than at any time during the period 1850-1930, because the U. S. population as a whole is so much larger (Simon 1992).

Anti-immigrant groups have had to endorse historical immigration because the vast majority of U.S. 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). By 1990, Latino and Asian immigrants accounted for more than two-thirds of all immigrants (Lapham 1993). Because recent immigrants tend to settle in five or six states, these increases have contributed to areas where people of color are in the majority. The population of Hispanics in the United States is projected to reach 96 million by the middle of this century, while the Asian population will rise to about 34 million. By 2050 about half the U.S. population will consist of people of color (Population Projection Program 2000).

The United States 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 and threatening. The current influx from Third World countries faces the added dimension of race, a powerful factor throughout U.S. 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 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 United States 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.

“Louis Agassiz, the greatest biologist of mid-nineteenth-century America, argued that God had created blacks and whites as separate species” (Gould 1977). On the other hand, 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” (Gould 1981). Most scholars now identify race as 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.” For example, racial designations sometimes include Hispanic as an option and at other times include it as an ethnicity under “White.” 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 (Hacker 1992).

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. In the 1970s, the Pioneer Fund underwrote research by William Shockley and Arthur Jensen, who set the next stage for the modern 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” (Lacayo 1994).

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 Curvehas 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” (Beardsley 1995).

Immigration and Globalization

Another significant factor in the immigration debate is globalization, as it affects regional economies and migration patterns. Immigration has often followed a pattern of growth from parts of the world in which the United States is heavily involved militarily or economically, often developing countries. In recent years, immigration has increased from South East Asia, Eastern Europe and the Central America/Caribbean region. This sometimes results from granting entry for persons fleeing official enemies of the United States, such as Cuba or Vietnam, but also draws people from countries allied with the United States, such as the Philippines, Hong Kong, or El Salvador. As global trade relationships have grown through treaties such as NAFTA and FTAA, so has immigration increased.

These agreements have also allowed U.S. business to move 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 U.S. workers (Mead 1994; Bernstein 1991). It generates far more low-paying 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.

Between 1983 and 1995, the bottom 40 percent of households lost 80 percent of their net worth, adjusted for inflation, while the top 1 percent increased theirs by 17 percent. In 1999 even after nine years of economic growth, average workers were still earning less, adjusting for inflation, than in 1970. In contrast, the top 1 percent of households have more wealth than the entire bottom 95 percent (Collins, Leondar-Wright, and Sklar 1999). 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 and 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 February 1996 issue of Border Watch, a publication of the American Immigration Control Foundation, argues that “Immigration is enriching the business elites that seek cheap labor” and creating “unpleasant low-paying jobs that do not sustain an American standard of living.” The article concludes, “for ordinary middle-class and working-class Americans, immigration has brought alienation, culture-clash, and loss of jobs.” 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” (1993).

Patrick Buchanan, in his 2000 presidential candidacy on the Reform Party ticket, softened his anti-immigrant rhetoric while continuing to blame immigrants for the problems of the least skilled native-born workers. In a January 18, 2000 speech, “To Reunite a Nation,” Buchanan proclaimed that many immigrants’ “contributions to Silicon Valley are extraordinary,” but that most immigrants are unskilled and are bringing wages down. He claimed, “Americans today who do poorly in high school are increasingly condemned to a low-wage existence; and mass immigration is a major reason why.” He also blamed mass immigration for threatening the country’s “common language,” “common culture,” and “common identity” (Buchanan 2000). Buchanan’s anti-globalization stance goes hand in hand with his xenophobia and White supremacism. In 2001, under Buchanan’s leadership, the Reform Party voted to support a ten-year moratorium on immigration (Bottorff 2001).

The Modern Anti-Immigrant Movement

In the 1980s and 1990s right-wing anti-immigration groups placed the 1965 Immigration Act at the center of a campaign to promote anti-immigrant sentiment and built upon it. 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. Its provision that exempts spouses, dependent children, and parents of U.S. citizens from any numerical limits particularly drew the wrath of the Right (Gillespie 1994).

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 United States. Defenders of immigrants argued that immigrants were, in fact, a positive force in the American workforce and that the United States is historically a nation of immigrants.

The final law was intended to shut the door on the further flow of undocumented immigrants, while ostensibly supporting immigrants by offering legalized status to undocumented immigrants already in the United States. The Immigration Reform and Control Act contained sanctions against employers who hire undocumented immigrants and included provisions for guest workers who are allowed to work in the United States, 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 1996 debate over how to effectively seal the border. Further, the guest worker program, which George W. Bush is currently seeking to expand, contributed to the flow of immigrant workers to the United States who have no possibility of becoming citizens.

In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress responded to the economic downturn and heightened anti-immigrant sentiment by passing three laws that seriously diminished immigrant rights (Discussed further in this paper under “The Republican Party’s Use of Anti-Immigrant Themes.”) Although the family-based immigration preferences so maligned by the Right survived, they were fettered by new economic sponsorship requirements, and the laws were a decisive victory on other fronts for the anti-immigrant cause.

The Messages of the Right Wing

To attract different constituencies, the anti-immigrant movement uses multiple messages that focus on a range of issues, from economic and environmental to cultural and social. For example, Dan Stein, Executive Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, claims that a public consensus has emerged “in the face of Haitian boats, the [1993] 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, documented and not: “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” (Stein 1994).

In an advertisement that ran in Mother Jones, FAIR claims that “mass immigration has become America’s most environmentally destructive policy” (Federation 1999). On the other hand, an advertisement in the conservative news weekly Human Events says “Immigration is the common ground for those who want to undermine our values and undermine the middle class!” (Federation 1997). 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. (Federation n.d.)

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 resulting in the “Balkanization” of the United States. For instance, Chronicles, a rightist monthly cultural magazine, devoted its June 1993 issue to the subject of cultural breakdown in the United States 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 not only pervades right-wing anti-immigrant rhetoric, but also can be found in the mainstream media and the rhetoric of both political parties.

Eugenicists Fund Anti-Immigrant Groups

FAIR, is directly tied to more virulent racists by the funding it has received from the Pioneer Fund. Between 1982 and 1996, the Pioneer Fund gave over $1 million in grants to FAIR, and $183,000 to the American Immigration Control Foundation (Institute for the Study of Academic Racism 2001). FAIR clearly had no qualms about receiving such funding from a group that has funded segregationists, eugenicists and much of the research cited in The Bell Curve.

It is also of note that heiress Cordelia Scaife May supports FAIR, U.S. 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 has fueled anti-immigrant sentiment on the Far Right since its distribution in the United States by 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 womanless wretches, the lung-spewing hackers… . (Raspail 1987)

These “five billion growling human beings” are threatening the “seven hundred million whites” (Raspail 1987). Although this fear of “brown hordes” overrunning Whites is an undercurrent in the rhetoric of most anti-immigrant groups, it is rarely so explicitly stated.

The English Only Movement

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 U.S. 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 adult 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, U.S. English is a flagship organization of the Right’s anti-immigrant campaign. Because U.S. 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.

Then U.S. English Chairman John Tanton wrote a memo in 1988 that dirtied the clean public image that the organization had sought to maintain. In the memo, Tanton wrote, “[a]s Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night?” 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!” (Tanton 1986). The ensuing uproar led to the resignation of then-director Linda Chavez and board member Walter Cronkite.

U.S. English has made a strong comeback in the wake of that crisis. They have over a million members across the United States thanks to their ability to reach huge numbers of persons through mass mailings and advertisements, and they can point to some 26 states that have passed official English laws, 10 since 1990. Their prime objective today is to change the U.S. Constitution and they have legislation that has gathered some support in Congress. In addition, they have continued to oppose transitional bilingual education and Puerto Rican statehood.

Public Opinion Is Against Immigrants, But Also In Flux

In the mid-1990s, public opinion was swayed by the arguments and the enormous media access of anti-immigrant organizations. A Business Week/Harris Poll in 1992 found that while 59 percent of those surveyed thought immigration has been good for the United States 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 (over 60 percent) and using more than their fair share of government services (about 60 percent) (Power 1992).

More recent polls though indicate a shift in public opinion about immigration. Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s a majority of those polled favored decreased levels of immigration. In March 2001, however, only 43 percent preferred a decrease. In 1993, 56 percent said immigrants cost taxpayers too much but by 2000 this number was down to 40 percent (Gallup New Service 2001). Factors influencing such shifts include the economic boom of the late ‘90s and the decreasing need for scapegoats, the success of the 1996 anti-immigrant legislation, which may have satisfied some anti-immigrant fervor, and a liberal backlash against Proposition 187.

Not surprisingly, a Zogby poll released by the Center for Immigration Studies and conducted within two weeks of the September 11 attacks found most respondents disagreeing that “the government is doing enough … to control the border and to screen people allowed into the country,” and agreeing “that a dramatic increase in resources devoted to border control and enforcement of immigration laws would help reduce the chances of future terrorist attacks” (Center for Immigration Studies 2001).

Milestones of the Anti-Immigrant Movement

Proposition 187 in California

The Republican Party scapegoated immigrants for some time, but in the mid-1990s immigration moved to the center of the party’s agenda and became 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 1994).

Closely linked to the 1994 gubernatorial election in California was Proposition 187, a statewide referendum that was 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 United States without documentation. Those who voted in the 1994 election were 80 percent White, despite the fact that 45 percent of California’s potential voters were 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 and enjoyed 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 found that SOS was “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 had 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 then-state legislator Don Rogers, who was 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 found that, “SOS’s visible advocates personify either fringe populism or cynical manipulation of public sentiment for political gain” (Kadetsky 1994).

After the passage of Proposition 187, reports of discrimination against Hispanics became 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 (Armas 1994). Proposition 187 was struck down in the courts by U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer based on a 1982 Texas decision, Plyler v. Doe, that undocumented children have a right to public education under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Despite this setback, the proposition’s ultimate impact was felt in the Republican Congress that in 1996 responded to frustrations and fears exploited in the Proposition 187 campaign with a series of laws that placed severe restrictions on the rights of all noncitizens.

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 U.S. English, the California English Campaign, led the campaign in California. U.S. 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 U.S. English taking the lead. It was an early use of the statewide referendum to tap anti-immigrant sentiment and was a precursor to 187 (Colorado Coalition, n.d.).

The Republican Party’s Use of Anti-Immigrant Themes

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” (Nyhan 1994). Indeed, Wilson briefly ran as a candidate for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, promoting California’s anti-immigrant policies as a national “solution.” And after the 1996 elections, the Republican-controlled Congress, rallying behind the “Contract With America,” took up the issue of immigration. Over the course of five months it enacted three laws that severely infringed on immigrants’ civil liberties and access to a public benefits.

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, enacted in April 1996, resulted in the indefinite detention of deportees from particular countries, the long-term detention of some asylum seekers, the deportation of legal immigrants for sometimes very old non-violent offenses, and the dramatic increase in the incarcerated immigrant population. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) or the Welfare Reform Act, enacted in August, which made citizenship an eligibility requirement for a range of federal benefits, allowed states to discriminate against noncitizen immigrants in administration of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid and greatly reduced eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and food stamps. Cutting benefits to immigrants accounted for $23 billion or half of the savings the act was expected to generate. One month later, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) with the stated aim of decreasing “illegal” immigration. It increased Border Patrol and penalties for immigration violations while also increasing the earning requirements of those legally sponsoring new immigrants and requiring them to sign legally-binding Affidavits of Support.

While previously the laws had seen the primary distinction as between documented and undocumented immigrants, in 1996 a harsh distinction was also drawn between citizens and noncitizens in relation to their access to public benefits, their due process rights and other civil liberties. It put into effect many of the provisions that California’s Proposition 187 had sought, but ultimately failed, to enact.

Advocates sponsored the Fix ‘96 campaign in an attempt to roll back the harshest components of the ‘96 laws. One important victory came in June 2001 with three Supreme Court decisions which barred indefinite detention for those who cannot return to their home country, ended the deportation of noncitizens convicted of crimes before 1996 and restored judicial review to those facing deportation. After the September 11 attacks, the USA PATRIOT Act (standing for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”) gave broad powers to the Attorney General to detain and deport noncitizens with very limited judicial review. For example, the Attorney General can detain a noncitizen if he certifies that he has “reasonable grounds to believe” that the person would endanger “the national security… or the safety of the community.” Someone charged with an immigration or criminal offense can be held indefinitely if the Attorney General reviews the detention every six months. The law also defined a new crime of “domestic terrorism” that can be applied to civil disobedience that results in violence and greatly expanded the governments’ surveillance powers eliminating much of the legal checks created after the McCarthy era. In addition, George W. Bush signed an executive order allowing for noncitizens, including U.S. residents, to be tried by secret military tribunals which need not meet constitutional standards. For example, the tribunals may use evidence gained by hearsay or torture. On Dec. 6, 2001, Attorney General Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee that those who criticize the administration’s measures “aid terrorists” and “give ammunition to America’s enemies.”

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 both dominant political parties created the economic and political problems we are facing; 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 have seen immigration as a threat to jobs and the environment (Defreitas 1994).

The issues of jobs and the environment make liberal organizations susceptible to the Right’s anti-immigrant campaign. For example, within the Sierra Club, a six-year battle culminated in a 1998 referendum seeking to change the Club’s neutral position on immigration (which the organization had reached in 1996) to a position of immigration restrictions as part of a national population program. Although the referendum was defeated by a 20 percent margin, the campaign was extremely divisive, further alienating people of color from the mainstream environmental movement. Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, a leading proponent of the new policy, simplistically argued that reducing immigration levels was more feasible and broadly popular than reducing overconsumption or average U.S. birthrates. More recently, efforts by anti-immigrant groups to blame suburban sprawl on immigrants have tempted some environmentalists to accept the scapegoating.

Conversely, conservative organizations have used liberal arguments to take advantage of this ambivalence and attract a liberal constituency. The Center for Immigration Studies has put out numerous position papers expressing concern that immigration is harming African Americans and the poor. One article pulls together quotations from various 19th and 20th century civil rights activists to “remind us of the logic underlying black Americans’ heritage of protest against mass immigration as a fundamental impediment to black economic progress” (Center for Immigration Studies 1996). Blaming immigrants for the widening wage gap, CIS also argues that labor’s support of immigrant rights mean that workers “have lost the support of the most effective champion they ever had” (Briggs 2001).

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. Despite union campaigns to recruit immigrants, which silenced some anti-immigrant sentiment among the rank and file, such workers are not immune to lapses of racism, and have blamed immigrants for their own economic problems. Others have created unnecessary divisions in designing what they hoped would be winnable strategies on immigrant advocacy questions. For instance, during the Proposition 187 campaign, liberals split and many scapegoated undocumented immigrants while claiming to support documented immigrants. Because relatively few recent immigrants are voters and immigrants do not have their own PACs, they hold limited influence in the electoral arena, despite lip service from Democrats.

Finally, the George W. Bush administration has offered some Democrats a way to “support” undocumented workers by allowing them to remain in the United States through proposed guest worker programs. These programs were also part of an attempt to counter the anti-immigrant image of the Republican Party and to attract Latino voters. With the recent terrorist attacks it is unclear what will come of these guest worker programs, but it is unlikely that legalization proposals will have enough support to pass. At the same time the Bush administration’s pro-immigrant message has gotten lost as the focus has shifted toward increasing the appearance of security and immigrants of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent become the primary scapegoat. Unless liberals call for protecting the civil liberties of citizens and noncitizens alike and discourage blaming immigrants en masse for the actions of a few dozen people, then again immigrants will suffer as the country seeks to assign blame.

Final Words

An atmosphere of fear, a competitive mentality and a sense of increasingly scarce resources create a fertile soil for anti-immigrant advocates who raise the alarm that newcomers will take your job, your home, and your culture, or worse threaten your sense of safety. Fear is very real, and the decline in the economic position of the average American and the threat of violence are understandable motivators of fear. But to blame immigrants as the source of these problems is to scapegoat an easy, unpopular target and, at times, divert responsibility from more culpable parties. Unfortunately, the message that immigrants are the problem has been all too successful.


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