The unlikely states of Iowa and New Hampshire have become the latest flashpoints over immigration.
Unfortunately, the Republican Party presidential candidates have latched on to the immigration issue, trying to outdo each other in their hostility toward people who move here out of economic necessity.
Front-runner Mike Huckabee, once considered an immigration pragmatist, has since announced his “Secure America Plan,” which pledges the forceful ejection of 12 million undocumented people and their families within 120 days under his administration.
Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have waged a schoolyard fight to demonstrate who has more contempt for “illegals,” attacking each other’s purported tolerance for migrant workers in their respective states.
For his part, California Rep. Duncan Hunter, another contender in the primary, has vowed to build two walls across the span of the US-Mexico frontier, since he believes one is no longer sufficient.
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who is also vying for the nomination, has decried all immigration as a “scourge on America.” His extreme views should have marginalized him – and his issue. But he blithely declared that the campaign “has been wonderful because all I’ve heard is people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo.”
The gravitational pull is also sweeping Democratic contenders in tow. While campaigning in Iowa, John Edwards declared his support for walling off the border and tightening the noose around employers who hire migrant workers, acknowledging that he now understood “how hot and divisive this issue is.”
Despite the fact that immigrants comprise fewer than 4 percent of Iowa’s population and 5 percent of New Hampshire’s, more Latinos are moving into those states. This changing demographic composition has brought ugly attitudes to the surface. “I used to swear there was not a bigot anywhere in Storm Lake, but as soon as minorities started moving in, they came out of the woodwork,” as one dissenting Iowan told the New York Times.
This reaction is blinding people to the positive role immigrants are playing. Immigration has revitalized many small towns across the country’s landscape, otherwise pock-marked by plant closures and corporate outsourcing. Immigrants provide high-productivity labor, they increase consumption rates and they expand the tax base in their new communities.
Undocumented workers are replacing a rapidly aging native-born workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the manual labor sector of the economy is growing faster than the existing workforce is able to reproduce.
This explains why undocumented workers have been so rapidly integrated into the economy over the last decade, from forestry to construction to truck driving.
It was hypocritical but not surprising, then, that two of the Republican candidates, Tancredo and Romney, both employed undocumented workers in personal construction projects in the recent past.
Ironically, most Republican candidates continue to support pro-corporate policies that decimate good jobs, while at the same time propelling people to immigrate here.
The North American Free Trade Agreement erased more than 1 million jobs in the United States, and most of them were good-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented think tank in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, when U.S. corn growers swamped the Mexican market, 1.7 million subsistence farmers and workers lost their livelihoods south of the border, according to the American Friends Service Committee.
During the televised debates, Republican frontrunners pledged to extend these same trade policies that are eroding well-paying U.S. jobs and displacing Mexican workers. In the same breath, they also promised to punish Mexican workers who then move north looking for a job. For U.S. workers, they offered nothing but an immigrant bogeyman as solace.
Pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment will only intensify racial tensions and corrupt efforts toward a rational solution. Already, according to recent data compiled by the nation’s law-enforcement agencies, the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment has provoked a 30 percent increase in violence against Latinos since 2003.
Even in Iowa and New Hampshire, the majority of voters support a less punitive approach to the issue. And a solid 60 percent affirm that undocumented immigrants in the country should have the opportunity to become citizens.
Unless challenged by facts and rational discourse, Republican demagoguery will only lead us deeper into poisonous waters.
Justin Akers Chacón is a professor of U.S. History and Chicano Studies in San Diego. He can be reached at email@example.com.