Facing manipulation on immigration

October 31, 2007|By Robert Koulish

In the year and a half since more than 1 million people took part in "A Day Without an Immigrant," right-wing nativists have taken the legislative offensive against immigrants and the rule of law by proposing more than 200 local anti-illegal immigrant ordinances and resolutions around the country. These resolutions are a piece in a larger post-9/11 movement to convince Americans that foreigners threaten the American way of life. Although racist, manipulative and unconstitutional, they are surprisingly effective.

The manipulation originates with the idea that "illegal aliens" were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and continues the idea that America is being invaded by aliens. These canards tap into post-9/11 anxiety. The scholar Ole Weaver's idea of "securitization" suggests that by labeling immigration as a security issue, authorities (including officeholders, the media and large nongovernmental organizations) legitimize efforts to move immigration out of the realm of "normal politics" and into that of "emergency politics" - a realm where allegations that have no basis in fact can trigger extreme government responses that have no basis in law.

The "emergency politics" scenario provides a mechanism for rushing anti-illegal immigrant laws though local boards and commissions. After last year's May Day demonstrations, the Federation for American Immigration Reform quickly tapped into the securitization narrative to produce cookie-cutter templates for ordinances and resolutions that would be introduced around the country. FAIR and the vigilante border-control group Minutemen Civil Defense Corps then found opportunistic local politicians who introduced versions of the FAIR template in potentially hospitable locales.

When it comes to immigrant bashing, the best evidence fails to get in the way. Consider the Valley Park, Fla., ordinance that imposed fines on landlords who rented to illegal immigrants and suspended the licenses of businesses that hired them. The Valley Park ordinance is the brainchild of Mayor Jeffery J. Whitteaker, who pushed the ordinance through the local Board of Aldermen without any debate or research to support additional claims in the ordinance that "illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates" and "contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools." Virtually the same language appeared in the Hazelton, Pa., ordinance, the country's most famous anti-illegal immigrant ordinance. Mayor Louis J. Barletta, responsible for the ordinance, admitted at trial that he had no data on any city service, from sanitation to fire calls, that could prove his contention that illegal immigrants were draining city services and budgets.

Closer to home, Frederick County Commissioner Charles A. Jenkins this year proposed excluding illegal immigrant children from school because he irrationally concluded that they were responsible for the increasing costs of Spanish-language classes in the county. (The effort failed.) In Anne Arundel County, local businesses are being made to enforce immigration laws, and in Prince William County, Va., the same misuse of logic is responsible for curbing county services to illegal immigrant families and increasing the workload for local police by adding enforcing federal immigration law to their normal duties.

As damaging as such policies might be, the ordinances and resolutions also have no basis in law. The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that it was unconstitutional to deny illegal immigrant children access to public school. Such laws also violate well-established principles of federal prerogatives over immigration matters.

Further, racist effects are felt in each community where these proposals have been introduced. They separate Latinos from the rest of the community and tear at the social fabric in Latino communities based on immigration status.

Of course, there is nothing new about anti-immigrant fear mongering. But the "securitization" phenomenon mass-produces and localizes fear in novel ways. This is seen in the uniformity, speed and antidemocratic outcomes associated with the ordinance campaign, which come uncomfortably close to forcibly relocating Latino communities around the country.

In his new book, The Assault on Reason, Al Gore laments that "reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions." Clearly, right-wing groups and allied local politicians suppress the best evidence about illegal immigrants so as to promote a predetermined, ideologically driven policy.

We should all decry this manipulative and racist "assault on reason" in the local anti-illegal immigrant ordinance campaign.

Robert Koulish is a political scientist and France-Merrick professor of service learning at Goucher College. His e-mail is rkoulish@goucher.edu.

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