Nativism is Big Business

Immigration is a contentious issue, but its controversy has been exacerbated by those who stand to profit tremendously from nativist scare tactics. For everyone from politicians to private prison corporations, nativism is big business.

During periods of economic recession, such as we find ourselves in today, media and politicians benefit from the scapegoating of easy and vulnerable targets. The recent recession has brought an amplification in anti-immigrant and nativist rhetoric, although such rhetoric is as old as the United States. Despite the fact that we pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, we have a profound mistrust and apprehension for the constantly changing face of American immigration. Benjamin Franklin was intensely suspicious of German immigrants (a menace to “purely white people”) whom he claimed would threaten our language, our government, and the very foundations of our society. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, recommended “build[ing] a wall of brass around the country” to protect our nation from Catholic immigrants. Like the Scotch-Irish in the 18th century, Chinese in the 19th century, and Italians at the turn of the century, each successive group of immigrants to the United States has been reviled as un-American, uncivilized, and undeserving. While the rhetoric of immigration has not changed, what has changed is who we vilify. Today, the immigrants we most despise, calculated in terms of the rising number of documented hate crimes committed against them, are Latinos and Muslims.

Despite the fact that about 75 percent of immigrants in the United States are here legally and that unauthorized immigrants make up less than 4 percent of the total population, the media make it seem as though we are being invaded by a horde of illegals intent on “importing deadly diseases, rampant crime, and international terrorism,” who “live off welfare and destroy public schools.” These last comments are quoted directly from Lou Dobbs, but the rhetoric is not his alone. Michael Savage, another talk show personality whose rhetoric on immigration is particularly vile, says that unauthorized immigrants are “killing our police for sport, raping, murdering like a scythe across America.” Bill O’Reilly insists that “the influx of immigrants will change…the whole complexion of the country.” Notice, in particular, that his comment does not center on unauthorized immigrants, but immigrants of all statuses who are people of color.

In fact, white nativism is a booming business in the United States today. Neo-Nazis and racist skinheads, who have long demonized people of color of all nationalities, have championed immigration restrictionism as a core value. In Dalton, Georgia, a Klan representative famously stated, “I have a dream that one day we will take our county back from 60,000 illegals.” Across the country, Klan and Klan-like groups are rallying in opposition to immigrants of color. Unsurprisingly, then, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has documented a recent and rapid increase in the number of hate groups—specifically white supremacist, anti-immigrant and nativist. In 2010, the SPLC counted a total of 1,002 active hate groups across the nation, a rise of 52 percent since 2000.

One particular subset of hate groups has flourished in the current political environment. The number of nativist extremist groups, which actively target individual immigrants and their families, has nearly doubled since 2008, reaching a total of 319 known groups in 2010. The most widespread of these are the Federal Immigration Reform & Enforcement (FIRE) Coalition, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, and the Minuteman Project. The growth of such nativist extremist groups seems to have slowed considerably since the passage of Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation; nonetheless, the membership base continues to rise.

Politicians also parrot the rhetoric of harm. In our national and state legislatures, as well as in stump speeches given across the country, unauthorized immigrants are blamed for overwhelming deficits, rising welfare rolls, rampant crime rates, even desert wildfires. In 2010, Tennessee representative Curry Todd equated immigrant women to rats who will “multiply” uncontrollably to the detriment of our nation. In 2011, Kansas representative Virgil Peck compared immigrants to another species of animal: “If shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a [solution] to our illegal immigration problem.”

The truth is that our politicians and media have sold us a story about immigrants and immigration that many Americans have swallowed whole, seemingly without any desire to search out evidence for these claims. In fact, all evidence indicates that immigrants commit far fewer crimes than do native-born Americans and that immigrants pay more into the U.S. economy than they take.

In 2010, immigration laws were enacted in all but four states. Among the most controversial was Arizona’s SB 1070, signed into law in April 2010. Although an injunction was issued against many of its components shortly thereafter, several states have initiated their own versions of the bill. During the 2011 legislative session, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama—all new destinations for Latino immigrants—passed copycat legislation. Immigrant advocates have stated that Alabama’s omnibus legislation—which was quietly ushered through the state legislature while most Alabamans were still recovering from the impact of the devastating tornados—makes Arizona’s SB-1070 look soft on immigration. Alabama representative Micky Hammon, one of the bill’s sponsors, summed up the law: “This is an Arizona bill with an Alabama twist” (no pun intended, I’m sure). Under the Alabama law, unauthorized immigrants are prohibited from entering into state contracts, landlords cannot rent without proof of citizenship, children must provide citizenship documentation upon enrolling in K-12 schools, and individuals who knowingly transport unauthorized immigrants can be charged with a criminal offense.

Many of these policies were considered in states across the nation, but they met with much less success. However, similar bills will be introduced or re-introduced in state assemblies throughout the country during the 2012 legislative session.

The Economics Of Immigration

In the national discussion on immigration, what is often overlooked is the fact that politicians and media personalities benefit from the scapegoating of immigrants, as poll numbers and viewership rates supposedly reflect what people want to hear. However, the complex web of intersections between the politics and economics of immigration are often less immediately obvious. For example, most Americans do not realize that the Arizona law and its copycat versions were written by lobbyists for a private prison industry, which stands to make millions—if not billions—when these laws go into effect. Housing undocumented immigrants in prison is a billion dollar industry for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The more restrictive laws we have on the books, the more money CCA stands to make.

Of course, CCA’s business model is profitable only if there is a guaranteed and steady supply of unauthorized immigrants who are apprehended on a daily basis.

Enter local law enforcement, which has been empowered recently with the authority to question and detain individuals over their immigration status. While we wring our hands over copycat legislation at the state level, even more insidious policies are quietly and non-democratically being enacted at the local level throughout the United States, in spite of opposition from counties, communities, residents, and even police chiefs, sheriffs, and police officers. These policies include Secure Communities, 287(g), and other ICE ACCESS agreements, which promote collaboration between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by increasing information sharing between the two groups or by deputizing police officers to serve as agents of immigration enforcement. What does such collaboration look like, and why is it problematic?

In the summer of 2011, I traveled to Atlanta with a group of Tennesseans to march and rally with thousands of people from across the nation in opposition to Georgia’s recently-passed copycat legislation. While there I met two young Latino men whose car had been broken into and $500 in cash was stolen. They asked me: “What should we do? Should we report this to the police?” I responded, “I don’t know. It’s risky.” We consulted first with a community organizer and then with a lawyer, both of whom were on sight to help with the rally. The general consensus was: “You could report this to the police, but chances are that the officer would detain you and report you to ICE.” You see, the two men were unauthorized immigrants and Atlanta is one of an ever-increasing number of localities with cooperation agreements between local law enforcement and ICE. When police collaborate with immigration agents, the people who ultimately benefit are those who are intent on exploiting unauthorized immigrants.

“Why did these men have $500 cash in their car? Weren’t they asking to be robbed?” Since the passage of the PATRIOT Act, it has become difficult for people without a valid Social Security number to open a bank account. So, unauthorized immigrants don’t open bank accounts and they end up carrying significant amounts of cash on their person or in their homes. Other people know this. During the 2005 “Night of Blood” in Georgia, three U.S.-born citizens seeking easy money targeted immigrant farm- workers in a string of brutal attacks that resulted in the deaths of six immigrants, many more immigrants injured, and one immigrant sexually assaulted. Across the nation, we have seen an escalation in home invasions and assaults on Latinos. Today, any Latino who is assumed to be unauthorized is a target for assault and robbery.

The deep mistrust that many immigrants have of local law enforcement is not paranoia, rather, it is based in everyday experiences. Police-ICE collaboration (PoliMigra as it has been labeled by immigrant rights organizations) encourages retaliatory law enforcement practices against unauthorized immigrants. A recent example of such retaliation occurred in Shelbyville, Tennessee, where the group Latinos Unidos de Shelbyville (LUS) has methodically recorded civil rights violations committed against unauthorized immigrants and those suspected of being unauthorized immigrants. Among other abuses, LUS has documented the regular use of racial profiling by Shelbyville police who have systematically pulled over Latinos for no documented reason other than that they look “foreign.” In September 2011, LUS released a report identifying these abuses and hosted a community forum to raise awareness of police violations. The forum was attended by the Tennessee Human Rights Coalition, the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Civil Rights, as well as local clergy and more than 100 community members. A week later, in the early morning hours, ICE officials broke down the doors of the houses of some of the leaders of this group. Some of those individuals have since been deported.

Secure Communities, and our other policies that promote collaboration between local police and ICE, do anything but secure our communities. The Secure Communities policy means that domestic violence shelters in New York have started telling their unauthorized immigrant clients not to go to the police, except in the direst of emergencies. Victims of domestic violence who report their abuse have themselves ended up in removal proceedings.

This is systemic. Despite the fact that ICE has stated, repeatedly, that they will target primarily dangerous criminals and threats to national security, their own data show that the majority of those entered into removal proceedings through programs like Secure Communities are people who have committed only misdemeanors or no criminal acts at all. In fact, a distressing number are actually victims of a crime. Collaboration between local police and immigration authorities produces an impossible dilemma for unauthorized immigrants of whether they should trust local police and report their victimization, thereby risking detention and deportation, or endure their victimization in silence.

These local and national immigration policies have created a group of people who are incredibly vulnerable and people know they are vulnerable. Employers exploit them, exposing them to harmful work conditions, paying them less than minimum wage or simply not paying them at all. People assault unauthorized immigrants, sexually assault them, and traffic them as commodities. We have created a class of people whose purpose is to be victimized.

This is a broken system that doesn’t benefit the community as a whole. It certainly doesn’t benefit most immigrants, authorized or unauthorized. But it does benefit:

  • White supremacist organizations and nativist extremist groups
  • Unscrupulous employers who threaten to call ICE when an unauthorized
    worker demands fair pay or safe working conditions
  • Executives and shareholders of the Corrections Corporation of America
    make money from imprisoning immigrants
  • Media personalities and politicians who build their careers on fear mongering 

It also benefits citizens of the United States, all of us, individually. Not only do we benefit from the cheap commodities and services extracted from exploited labor, we are further privileged in that we, as citizens, do not have to learn or acknowledge the real consequences of nativism.


Meghan Conley is a doctoral candidate in Sociology/Political Economy at the University of Tennessee.