HISTORY HANDBOOK: Scapegoating Immigrants, 1992
In Los Angeles during the 1992 uprising, many longtime Mexican American residents said, “We’re not the ones rioting, it’s those immigrants”—meaning Mexicans and Central Americans. At a rally where Dolores Huerta was speaking, an African American woman stood and screamed angrily at Huerta, “Go back to Mexico. We need our jobs.”
Incidents like theseand there are many more—leave us with certain questions: will African Americans be made the shock troops of an ugly campaign by racist whites to scapegoat immigrants for the social ills devastating black and other poor communities? Shall we all remain blind to the need for solidarity among African Americans and Caribbean Island Blacks, Arab Americans, Asian Pacific Americans, and Latinos—not to mention progressive whites—in combating the current international attack on immigrants? Imperatively, the times call for understanding what the hell is going on and why. Three questions confront us, as formulated by a friend: “Who is the gun pointed at? Why is the gun being pointed? What is the gun?
From the U.S. to Germany to Australia, anti-immigrant actions and policies have escalated in often deadly fashion during recent years. In the United States, President Bill Clinton wasted little time breaking his campaign promise to end Bush’s inhuman policy toward Haitian refugees. Under Bush and Clinton, some 40,000 Haitians were summarily returned to a military-police dictatorship of unbridled brutality where they would be lucky to escape immediate death. Surely this year’s award for racist immigration policy should go to the U.S. whose officials were sending unarmed Haitian refugees back to Haiti even as other officials pulled armed U.S. forces out, saying Haiti was too dangerous. Clinton’s action also gave the green light to the right-wing anti-immigrant agenda. His own proposals were aimed at a tighter Border Patrol and a speedup in reviewing asylum requests that could send people to their deaths faster.
In California, government officials have generated a tidal wave of anti-immigrant laws and programs. The governor has led the way with a stream of outrageous proposals, among them denying citizenship to children born in the U.S. of undocumented parents. Governor Pete Wilson got four passed, which include a ban on giving drivers licenses to the undocumented, requiring state and local agencies providing job training or placement to verify a person being a legal resident and increasing penalties against getting Medi-Cal benefits “fraudulently” or helping others to do so.
Not to be outshone by a Republican, California’s Democratic women Senators offered their own measures. Even the erstwhile liberal Senator Barbara Boxer urged sending the National Guard to defend the U.S. Mexico border against my relatives. Some “reformist” politicians like Representative Romano Mazzoli advocated stricter enforcement of employer sanctions. At the heart of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, these sanctions provided for penalties against those who knowingly hired the undocumented. The sanctions haven’t worked yet, but they have encouraged discrimination against anyone who looks or sounds “foreign.” As for the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, it has taken a mix of positions.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) also sparked anti-foreign, anti-immigrant sentiment. NAFTA negotiations never addressed the civil and labor rights of immigrants—only Mexico’s responsibilities to stop northbound traffic. And anti-immigrant attitude prevailed in the debate over NAFTA, the main issue being whether NAFTA would increase or diminish immigration from Mexico In California, where 40 percent of those who immigrate to the U.S. settle, has repeatedly seen ultra-rightist bombings and other violent attacks on Asian and Latino immigrants or their advocates. One image speaks to all these actions. Irma Munoz is a 20-year-old woman who immigrated from Mexico and became a successful engineering student at the University of California, Davis, and began working as an intern for a state legislator advocating less reactionary immigration policies. Two white male students at UC-Davis punched her, cut her hair, and scrawled on her arms and her back with a black magic marker: “Wetback” and “Go home you illegal.” If she told anyone about the attack, they warned, she would be killed along with “your wetback friends.” In Texas, where the second largest immigration occurs, “Operation Blockade” was instituted. A Border Patrol inspiration, it put 650 armed agents in a 20-mile-long line facing the Juarez El Paso border for 24 hours a day, supposedly to prevent “illegals” from entering from Mexico. Of course they harassed those with papers, too. Overtime costs quickly ran up to $300,000 and anybody could walk around either end of the 20-mile line, but no matter. The operation continued and was to be replicated in San Diego. Somebody fretted that the word “Blockade” implied an act of war, so the San Diego operation was called “Enhanced Enforcement Strategy.”
New York, the third main destination for immigrants, saw a tidal wave of anti-immigrant (particularly anti-Arab and anti-Muslim) hatred after the World Trade Center bombing. A September 1993 poll of 1,203 New Yorkers reported “a startlingly negative attitude on recent immigration in a city renowned for its international character.” More than 63 percent said the number of recent immigrants was too high and more than two-thirds said immigrants had made New York a worse place to live. As for “illegal” immigrants, 55 percent saw them as a serious terrorist threat and 82 percent of the U.S.-born said they believed tighter controls over immigration could have prevented the World Trade Center bombing.
Add to such hysteria, the racist depiction of U.S. shores being assaulted by boatloads of Chinese refugees. Incidents also occurred in scattered locales like Fall River, Massachusetts, where 12 white men murdered a Cambodian American and severely beat his friend while racially taunting both. At the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, an India-American student died after being set on fire by two men—one white, one African American—who said they didn’t want any more foreign students on campus.
The Rest of the World
In Germany, police reported 2,285 acts of rightist violence in 1992, mostly against foreigners, including 7 murders. On May 29, 1993, neo-Nazis fire-bombed and killed five Turks—three young girls and two women—along with other violent attacks on Turkish refugee hostels, homes, and restaurants. A German clerk in a Berlin store falsely accused a Turkish resident of stealing and when the woman’s daughter protested, the clerk said, “We got rid of six million Jews, we’ll get rid of you, too.” Chancellor Helmet Kohl refused to attend a memorial service for the firebombing victims and threatened Turks who might defend themselves. (Of Germany’s 1.8 million Turks, many came 30 years ago, invited as guestworkers, many of whom were born in Germany.) The German parliament passed a law which required changing the German constitution, that blocks most applicants for political asylum. In France, attacks on North Africans have been common, with citizens complaining that Third World immigration “is changing the French way of life.” Last June, France’s National Assembly overwhelmingly approved a new law authorizing police to carry out random identity checks and to clamp down on undocumented immigrants. In Italy a group of North African immigrant workers were beaten and stabbed by Nazi skinheads in February 1992.
Spain reported increasing xenophobia toward immigrants from Africa, as well as South America, who numbered 164,000 in Barcelona alone. An African immigrant in Madrid was murdered in an officially recognized hate crime. An appalling trafficking of workers from North Africa to Spain by boat has led to 1,000 deaths by drowning in the last 5 years, 300 in 1992 alone. Apparently nobody cares, again we find the zero value put on the life of a poor black person. In Hungary, with 50,000 refugees from the war in the Balkans, gypsies have been a favorite target for skinheads.
Britain sees constant attacks on “blacks” (which include Indians and Pakistanis). One in three Britons do not want Arabs or Pakistanis as neighbors and two of three said, in an October 1993 poll, that they didn’t want to live near gypsies. In Holland, middle-class white flight from the schools increased as the immigrant population rose. Australia began enacting tough policies in 1992 to deal with an immigration “problem” that critics say does not really exist. And, in an ultimate irony for elite folks, we find that immigrants from the Caucuses who have moved to Moscow since the Soviet Union disintegrated are resented, harassed, and attacked as “blacks.”
Three chilling commonalities surface in this geographic mix. First, in almost every country the anti-immigrant attack coincides with and nurtures a rapid growth of neo-Nazi and far-right groups. But the New Right is not a fringe creature. It includes “respectable” reactionary politicians, with a number of them winning office on an anti-immigrant platform. Second, many liberals join reactionary forces scapegoating immigrants. Some major environmental organizations have formed an anti-immigration stance for the supposed ecological damage and excess population (“immigrant women have high fertility rates”). It seems that 2-4 percent of the U.S. population causes every evil from pollution to traffic jams. Third, the attack on immigrants is usually racist (and often anti-Muslim). Paris’s conservative mayor Jacques Chirac minced no words: “they even have ‘smells’ of their own,” he said about immigrants. In the U.S. the very word “immigrant” means people of color in most people’s minds.
Immigrant-bashing and persecution embody a ruling class tactic going back centuries that blame “outsiders” for a society’s woes. Today’s message is: “Don’t blame corporate interests, don’t blame the Savings & Loan banks, don’t blame the government or elected officials, do blame immigrants.” Operation Scapegoat calls for the U.S.-born to leave their homes and cultures and not to see that most people migrate under the pressure of political, economic, or social forces. Similarly the receiving country is seen as a passive victim of invading hordes when in fact its policies may well “pull” migrants various ways. The U.S. sent $6 billion in aid to Salvador’s government during the 1980s to crush the popular insurgency. Almost 500,00 destitute, frightened Salvadorans moved to Los Angeles, mostly in the 1980s. Could there be a connection? Foreign policy, including warfare, is one answer to why people move across borders. Other politico-military reasons would be ethnic conflict, civil strife, and persecution. These have had devastating impact in recent years: the massive dislocation of people in Iraq and Kuwait caused by the Gulf War, the aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, and effects of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
The economic reasons for migration are no simple matter, but we surely need to look at immigration in relation to global economic trends today. For centuries, pressure from the failure of domestic structures to provide basic employment and subsistence has created economic refugees.
We can see the effects of contemporary economic restructuring, intended by capitalists to restore their profit rates and to hell with millions of skilled steel workers, auto workers, and others. Artruro Santamaria Gomez, the Mexican professor and author, writes of how globalization has caused a deepening U.S. dependence on the Mexican immigrant workforce, for example. “Globalization puts a competitive premium on pools of low-paid, “flexible,’ vulnerable workers,” he said in a Nation article. Mexican and other labor—especially when undocumented—is key to restructuring the U.S. economy. Historically, that labor carries great advantages for the capitalist. It is vulnerable, especially if undocumented and totally disenfranchised.
Here is the most basic function of the border—as a mechanism for defining and maintaining control over labor by the possession or lack of “legal” status. History is packed with experiences of deportation just when an undocumented worker was due to be paid or when workers began to organize for their rights; of low wages and terrible working conditions accepted because the alternative was deportation. Such crippling controls make the undocumented worker a very special kind of wage slave, more enslave than waged.
But the growth of global economic integration involves more than cheap labor, as immigrant rights activist Maria Jimenez tells us. Why does the Wall Street Journal call for a totally open center to right demand tighter control? It seems possible the Journal understands that today countries belong to an inter-dependent collectivity shaped by global trends. That it questions the role of borders in an era of galloping, global economic integration. Why try to regulate immigration with border control at a time of energetic efforts to open up national economies and create trading blocs like NAFTA?
Saskia Sassen of Columbia University, a longtime expert on immigration issues, has written about such contradictions. She points out, for example, the way overseas operations of firms have a migration impact. We can conclude, people are moved when investment moves. The real migrant is capital.
Instead of considering such realities, we are barraged wita repertory of hostile myths about immigrants. We hear regularly two key myths: (1) “Immigrants are taking away jobs.” In fact, in the U.S., the Rand Corporation, the Urban Institute, and the Heritage Foundation—hardly dens of leftism—all concluded in various studies that immigrants do not take jobs from native workers and depress wages. Newsweek has reported (and I would agree, from random observations of janitorial and other service work in a few cities) that during times of high unemployment there may be temporary displacement in some job sectors. But even if that happens, new jobs are soon created for basic goods and services.
This temporary displacement is numerically very small. Immigrants mostly work in jobs in highly exploitative sectors like the garment industry, as nannies, or in fields, with the legalized working 2-5 hours more per day than the general population.
And (2) “Immigrants use services, but don’t pay for them, and thus they drain local and state resources.” But again numerous studies show the opposite: immigrants, including the undocumented, pay more in taxes than the cost of services they use. Business Week (July 13, 1992) reported that immigrants pay $90 billion in taxes each year, while receiving $5 billion in services. (This truth was unmasked by the fact that much of the tax money goes to the federal government, not the state providing the services.) Also, immigrants use fewer services than the native-born. For the undocumented, always fearful of capture and deportation, the percentage is tiny. The director of the National Immigration Forum says less than one percent of newly legalized immigrants received general assistance in 1987-1988 and less than half a percent obtained food stamps and AFDC. As for social security taxes, since most immigrants are young, they will pay a disproportionate amount of tax for an increasingly aging population. The myths are intended to prove that the deprivation experienced today by the U.S.-born should be blamed on immigrants—that largely impoverished 2-4 percent of the population. In California, whose economic problems obviously rose from such setbacks as failed new industries and severe cuts in tax revenue under Proposition 13, its scapegoating seems ludicrous. Instead of swallowing it we should protest the real causes of the crisis.
Politics is the obvious place to find the reasons for those myths. Governor Pete Wilson’s approval rating rose seven points soon after his “get tough on immigrants” campaign warmed up. Immigrants have always been a favorite recruitment ploy for rightist forces. Such politics echo the anti-social services, anti-labor shift that has swamped much of the world over the last two decades. A key part of this shift is the intensification of racism and racism plays a key role in immigrant bashing, so often it’s hard to separate one from the other. In France Jean-Marie LePen’s rightist National Front Party has grown steadily for several years on a platform that would cut off immigration specifically of Arabs and Africans. In the long run, universally humane treatment of immigrants and refugees requires global changes in today’s economic policies and the supra-national agencies, like the World Bank or GATT who determine them. Meanwhile, we must deal urgently with the short run. That calls for two related kinds of actions: building a new civil rights movement that includes immigrant and refugee rights, and combating forces that pit people of color or workers against each other by scapegoating immigrants.
On the first front we need to begin by defining immigrant and refugee rights as a civil rights issue around which all must unite. We need a new civil rights movement that recognizes immigrants are usually non-white and are made vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because they lack citizenship and knowledge of English. At the top of our civil rights list is getting the Border Patrol under some control.
The immigrant and refugee rights struggle points to our need for a whole new world view. Does anybody really think the way to deal with an estimated one million migrants wandering the planet today is by locking some doors? There is no way that 19th century nationalism can be useful. It is profoundly backward to go on seeing countries primarily as bordered nation-states which can resolve issues like immigration policy unilaterally.
Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez is a Chicana feminist and longtime community organizer, activist, author, and educator. She is the author of Five Hundred Years of Chicano History in Pictures. This article was first published in the April 2004 issue of Z Magazine. It will also appear in the upcoming Z Reader on racism: A Fundamental Transformation Must Take Place.