While the majority has rejected in the primaries immigration as a wedge issue, the politics of divisiveness remain entrenched in the mainstream. As a result, the poisonous residue of immigrant scapegoating has accumulated in the margins, fueling the rise of hate groups setting their sights on Latinos, regardless of citizenship status.
According to a recent study published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes are on the rise, with attacks on Latinos increasing in tandem with the intensification of the immigration debate. Since 2000, the number of hate groups has swelled by 48 percent, and attacks on Latinos have spiked by 35 percent between 2003 and 2006. While anti-immigrant candidates are repeatedly thrashed in national elections, this has not stopped their like-minded progeny in the street from taking matters into their own hands, confident that their actions are legitimized by what’s happening around them.
This can be attributed to fact that the anti-immigrant movement — from Cable-TV pundits and radio shock-jocks to partisan “research” organizations such as the Center for Immigration Studies — has crafted in the public mind the archetype of the undocumented immigrant as Latino, as criminal, and as a threat to the “American way of life.” This has opened the gates for the re-emergence of traditional hate groups, and fertilized the soil for the growth of new ones.
More significantly, the anti-immigrant right’s strategy of “attrition through enforcement” has been incorporated into every level of government. This cruel and inhumane philosophy posits that undocumented people will be encouraged to “self-deport” if their lives have been made sufficiently miserable through restrictive measures, selective punishments and the constant fear of capture and detention.
In the first two months of this year, state lawmakers across the country have introduced 350 bills that tighten the screws on immigrant families. The proposals include provisions that increase employer sanctions, prohibit access to driver’s licenses, permit law enforcement to engage in immigration enforcement, and deny access to social services and benefits.
At the federal level, Republican and some Democratic lawmakers are trying to muscle through a vote on the SAVE Act (Secure America through Verification and Enforcement Act of 2007), a draconian measure that dramatically expands the machinery of detention and deportation and requires a national database for workplace verification, while offering hard-working immigrant families no opportunities for legalization and no reprieve.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has been conducting its own low-intensity war against immigrants. In recent years, the number of raids, detentions and deportations has skyrocketed. According to federal statistics, about 280,000 people are currently being held for immigration violations in 15 detention centers and 400 state and local prisons across the country.
The department estimates that it will deport upwards of 200,000 people this year after rounding up people from workplace raids, door-to-door searches and through “collateral arrests,” innocent people detained in the course of serving arrest warrants to others. While some arrested and deported have undoubtedly committed criminal acts, most are victims of circumstance.
In fact, a recent study published by the Public Policy Institute of California (the state with the largest undocumented immigrant population) demonstrated that the incarceration rate of “non-citizen Mexican males” is eight times less than U.S.-born males. Overall, U.S.-born men are 10 times more likely than immigrants to be found in correctional facilities. While facts can be stubborn, they can also be ignored when inconvenient.
In such a polarized environment, where Latinos are racially profiled and immigrants are dehumanized and persecuted as “illegals,” and “criminal aliens,” the hate-filled and the weak-minded will rally to the cause in their own violent way. Only if the new generation of politicians listens to the majority — and those who stand for human rights and legalization continue to push for it — the voices of divisiveness will be truly marginalized.
Justin Akers Chacon is a professor of U.S. History and Chicano Studies in San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.