By Arnoldo S. Torres with the National Institute for Latino Policy
I want to focus on the imperative of altering the narrative set by this president and his supporters and proposing policies that are comprehensive, inclusive, and responsive to the needs of the nation. Regardless of any success or failure this year to pass any elements of immigration reform, I cannot underscore enough the urgency and importance for altering the false narrative.
Simultaneously it is imperative that Latinos prepare an immigration reform alternative that allows the public and policymakers to recognize a policy path that can be more effective and humane while protecting our border and internal security. We must not be ethnocentric but rather defy xenophobic nationalism, avoid isolation—not advocate an “open border” but be realistic, balanced, practical, and fair.
Politics have long reigned over policy on the reform of U.S. immigration law. This president’s actions and words over the last month cannot be better examples of this ugly and dangerous reality. In the past three weeks, the President ratcheted up his rhetoric on immigration at his Michigan rally. We also saw and heard in Michigan and before military audiences that despite there being more than 100 million Americans who can trace their history to Ellis Island, there are far too many who today stand in support of the very sentiments and “know-nothing” values that would have denied their ancestors entry to this nation. The words of fear, anger, and demagoguery sound so similar to what was said in the early 19th century when we experienced the most significant movement of immigrants to this nation from Europe.
Up to now, immigration advocates and Latino elected have responded in kind, defensively and with emotion. The liberal groups funding immigrant rights groups seem more interested in media coverage than creating a strategy that can overcome the political extremism that has evolved in the nation.
The false narrative around the causes and consequences of immigration has a clear intent: repeat it enough times that the public comes to believe that undocumented immigrants are criminals involved in trafficking drugs, who threaten the national security of this nation, advocate for open borders, do not reflect the “best” of their countries of origin, and live in sanctuary cities that are “breeding grounds” for criminals. This must change. It dictates and corrupts the substance and policy path for solutions.
Those advancing this image select anecdotal examples to bolster their mean, racist and xenophobic values. This president does this virtually every time he speaks to his base. Despite his demagoguery comments in Michigan and his threat to close down the federal government if he does not get funding for his border wall, even substantial numbers of evangelicals continue to support an agnostic, at best, in the name of the Lord!
Latinos, immigrant advocates, and liberal foundations spend most of their time responding and reacting, not initiating. This has always placed us in a defensive position while allowing false narratives to be circulated and take hold in the public’s mind and with policymakers.
Many who support these claims fail to come to terms with the facts that immigrants—legal, undocumented and refugees—at the turn of the century were engaged in organized crime in Jewish, Italian, Irish, and English immigrant communities. Many immigrants that came to the Island of Hope came from countries that fought against the U.S. in World War I and II.
In response to the constant hateful words, bully tactics and persecuting policies on immigration, we have allowed this behavior to infect our judgment. We have failed to recognize that all immigrants are not Jesus-like—we are human! We have imperfections, and many will do bad things that cause intended and unintended consequences to others. When these things have happened, we have not condemned such actions, we have, at best, ignored them for fear that we are giving into this narrative. In failing to denounce such acts we have contributed and strengthened this narrative.
Similarities of Yesterday and Today’s Immigrants
We must remind this nation that today’s immigrants and refugees have much in common with those at the turn of the century. Some efforts have been made to emphasize these points, but they are primarily secondary arguments in the national media.
Latino voices on this issue spend most of their time defending their concerns and aspirations for legalization by engaging in campaigns of embarrassing Republican and some Democrat elected officials. While many deserve it, this is a losing tactic which in most situations has merely served to satisfy the expectations and stereotypes applied to Latinos.
Immigrants yesterday and today have experienced many of the same “push factors” that caused them to make this most difficult journey. They arrive today for the same reasons some 12 million entered between 1892 and 1954. As an Italian immigrant is credited with saying, “If America did not exist, we would have had to invent it for the sake of our survival.” We share the same experiences of living in countries of origin that serve as a police state, suppress economic opportunities, deny education, and ignore the concepts of a democratic society. Contrary to the statements of immigration nationalists, people do not decide to journey to this nation because they want to be Democrats or Republicans. Freedom is what all seek!
Yesterday’s immigrants primarily came via boats in steerage class that government reports described as, “The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of the not-too-clean bodies, the reek of food, the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere in steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it.”
Today’s immigrants must walk through deserts, hostile countries, risk life and limb on trains, pay thousands of dollars up-front and after they enter—if they enter—the U.S. They are profit centers for organized smuggling rings and transportation for illegal drugs. Many perish on this path because they are easily exploited and manipulated.
The descendants of past immigrants sit in harsh judgment of those fleeing the same situations their forefathers were fortunate to leave. They argue that their ancestors are different from today’s immigrants which is an ignorance ripe for the type of exploitation that has been growing since the 1980s and only getting worse with time. There is no better example of this ignorance and hovering xenophobic nationalism than the comment made by White House Chief of Staff and former General John Kelly, who stated that the majority of immigrants are “… not people that would easily assimilate into the U.S. … They don’t speak English … They don’t integrate well, they don’t have skills.” This is almost precisely the very words used to describe the immigrants that came from Ireland, and all of Europe.
There are NO immigrant groups in this nation that have a perfect profile and behavior regardless of when they entered!