by Robert Koulish (originally appeared 10/31/08)
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-immigrant ordinances and resolutions around the country. These resolutions are a piece in a larger post-9/11 movement to persuade 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-immigrant laws though local boards and commissions. After last year’s May Day demonstrations, FAIR (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 located 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., anti-immigrant ordinance that imposed fines on landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants and suspended the licenses of businesses that hired them. The Valley Park ordinance is the brainchild of Mayor Jeffery Whitteaker, who pushed the ordinance through the local Board of Alderman without any debate or research to support additional claims in the ordinance that “illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools.”
Virtually the same language appeared in the Hazelton, Pa., ordinance, the country’s most famous anti-immigrant ordinance. Hazelton Mayor Louis 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 undocumented children from school because he irrationally concluded that the increasing costs of Spanish language classes in Frederick County were due to illegal aliens. In Anne Arundel County, local business are being forced to enforce immigration laws, and in Prince William County, Virginia, the same misue of logic by County Executive John Leopold is responsible for curbing county services to undocumented families and increasing the workload for local police to enforce federal immigration law along with their normal duties.
As damaging as such fabrications might be, the ordinances and resolutions also have no basis in law. The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that it was unconstitutional to deny undocumented 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. First, the proposals ignore the almost 50 percent of “illegal aliens” who are visa overstays and non-Latino. Second, 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 NGOs and allied local politicians suppress the best evidence about 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-immigrant ordinance campaign.
originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun, 10/31/07 Robert Koulish is a political scientist and France-Merrick professor of service learning at Goucher College. His e-mail is email@example.com.