Our Anti-Immigrant Racism Is Rooted in History

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Our Anti-Immigrant Racism Is Rooted in History

Immigration reform protesters take part in a Moral Monday March in February 2014.  (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/flickr/cc)

When actor Sean Penn asked, “Who gave this son of a bitch a green card?” in reference to Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s winning the best-picture trophy at the 2015 Academy Awards, many came to Penn’s defense, saying it was just a joke between friends. But others didn’t take kindly to the actor’s tongue-in-cheek treatment of a serious issue that has affected millions of families. Iñárritu himself brushed off the criticism, saying he thought Penn’s joke was “hilarious.” But as author Daniel José Older tweeted, “Iñárritu’s reaction is irrelevant. I’m happy he’s not offended. Doesn’t change that the rest of us have to deal with racist bs.”

Indeed, the recent news that a federal judge in Brownsville, Texas, has placed a hold on President Obama’s executive action on immigration underscores the precariousness of immigrant life. Just hours before applications were scheduled to be accepted, Judge Andrew Hanen blocked a program announced by Obama last year, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), that would have offered millions of undocumented people the chance to have temporary relief from deportation.

Twenty-five states are ready to sue the administration over the executive action, and according to one immigrant advocacy group, the suit was filed in Brownsville because, “The Judge has a history of opining well beyond the scope of his jurisdiction, and an anti-immigration bent.” The suit was likely written by notorious anti-immigrant activist and Kansas’ Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who warned hysterically that DAPA would mean “all of these illegal aliens will be eligible to feed at the trough filled by hard-working American people.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are desperately throwing up legislative roadblocks to DAPA by holding hostage funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

The political and cultural marginalization of undocumented immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, has a long and lurid background in the United States. A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times highlighted the little-known history of lynchings of Mexicans. According to the authors, William Carrigan and Clive Webb, thousands of Mexicans were reportedly lynched in the late 1800s to early 1900s, in numbers second only to those of African-Americans.

Carrigan is a history professor at Rowan University and author of “Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928.” In an interview on “Uprising” about the lynchings, he explained the fluid nature of Latino citizenship historically, saying, “in the middle of the 19th century, all of the individuals [who were eventually lynched] would have been Mexican citizens at one point, but then many became US citizens after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.” Carrigan pointed out that most of the victims were poor laborers and that “racism and prejudice” were “critical factors.”

He cited a macabre incident in 1873 in Corpus Christi, Texas, in which seven Mexican shepherds were killed, their bodies found hanging from a tree. The goal of such incidents of historical mob violence against Mexicans, according to Carrigan, “was to intimidate Mexicans into abandoning South Texas, returning to Mexico.”

Carrigan maintained that understanding the violence of U.S. history is “important for our ongoing civic debate.” He explained, “Mexicans and white Americans don’t remember the past in the same way, and this makes conversation and dialogue about current politics very tricky. Whites are largely unaware of this violence against Mexicans and don’t understand when Mexicans put modern-day anti-Mexican nativism and violence into this historical context.”

But the violence continues today. Just as the historical lynching of Mexicans was second to that of African-Americans, today Latinos are seemingly killed by police violence in numbers rivaled only by those of black victims. While the federal government does not track police killings by race, some statistics are available, such as this chart of New York Police Department injuries and killings broken down by victims’ race. An undocumented Mexican immigrant farmworker named Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Wash., and a 17-year-old queer Latina, Jessie Hernández, in Denver, Colo., are just the latest victims on a growing list of Latinos killed by police.

While Mexicans are no longer lynched—at least in the traditional sense—the contemporary goal of anti-immigrant conservatives has its echoes in past attempts to drive them back over the border. In 2012, during a presidential primary debate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney openly explained that the answer to the problem of immigration is “self-deportation,” which he characterized as what should happen when “people decide that they’re better off going home because they can’t work here, because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.” It turned out Romney had received advice on his immigration policies from none other than Kobach, the purported author of the current federal lawsuit against Obama’s DAPA program.

Of course, Obama himself is no friend to immigrants and has well earned the epithet of “deporter in chief.” Under the president’s harsh immigrant detention and deportation policies, those who are caught in an enforcement dragnet are “Warehoused and Forgotten,” as the title of this ACLU report on immigrant detention centers aptly describes.

Just days ago, thousands of undocumented immigrants at a detention facility in Raymondville, Texas, rioted over lack of medical care. The Willacy County Correctional Center is a privately run prison nicknamed “Ritmo” for its resemblance to conditions at the notorious U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay. Prisoners were being housed in large Kevlar tents where they were exposed to weather, insects and constant sewage problems. They experienced sexual abuse, physical assaults and more. It is no wonder they rioted and left the detention center in ruins. It is the third time that a privately run prison housing immigrants has faced an uprising.

It is fascinating to hear views from inside Mexico of how the U.S. treats Latinos and immigrants. Alejandro Solalinde is a well-known Mexican Catholic priest and human rights activist. Deeply moved by the brutal treatment of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico in an attempt to get to the U.S., Solalinde founded Hermanos en el Camino, a shelter in Mexico that provides migrants with humanitarian aid and education. During a visit he made to the U.S., I spoke with himabout conservative anti-immigrant attitudes. He said plainly, “Immigrants are not a threat. They are not terrorists. They’re a great opportunity for the U.S. Immigrants are very intelligent. They have a great cultural and spiritual richness to share with everybody.”

When asked why conservatives continue to vilify immigrants, Solalinde said he understood that at its heart, anti-immigrant sentiment is rooted in a deep existential fear of the “other.” Essentially, the U.S. has had “waves and waves of immigration from all over the world, and little by little the U.S. has integrated them. What happens with the Latinos is that it’s a different plate to digest.” He clarified that “it’s not the same thing to cross the ocean, or come from Asia, as it is to be on the other side of the border ... their culture is a part of them, and they’re not going to ever fully assimilate. But they’re going to form new cultures. So people fear them more because there are more of them.”

Our society has targeted immigrants, and by extension Latinos in general, through mob violence and lynchings, criminalization of their legal status, racist bigotry, cultural oppression and police violence. Solalinde opined, “You don’t have to kill an immigrant with a bullet. You also kill an immigrant with discrimination, with injustice, to not recognize them, to deny them citizenship. They’re human beings.”

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio, soon to be on Free Speech TV (click here for the campaign to televise Uprising). She is also the Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a US-based non-profit that supports women's rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence."

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