Released 31 December 2005  By SCOTT MOORE - Portland Mercury
BY SCOTT MOORE
Dec 22, 2005
With the Threat of a Homosexual Takeover Averted, Conservatives Take
Aim at Their Next Target--Immigrants
On an excruciatingly cold Saturday morning in December, dozens of
immigrants lined up outside the Woodburn office of PCUN--Northwest
Treeplanters and Farmworkers United (Pineros y Campesinos Unitos
Noroeste). They were there to meet with the Mexican consulate for
Oregon and to sign up for a matricula card--essentially an ID card for
Mexican nationals issued by the Mexican government.
Around the building marched hundreds of supporters of immigrant rights
from at least a dozen organizations, carrying signs with messages like
"We put food on your table" and "No human is illegal." But across the
street (and two police cars and a small army of cops away), stood a
group of 30 to 50 people, invariably white and middle age or older,
fervently screaming for the undocumented workers to be deported.
The group, Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR), had been
following the Mexican consulate around the state during his mobile
operations to rural areas, protesting the fact that state officials
were allowing, and participating in, services for illegal immigrants.
Until the protest in Woodburn, however, OFIR had only managed to
mobilize a handful of demonstrators in each area. By all accounts, the
PCUN protest was the largest outpouring of anti-immigrant sentiment
Oregon has seen in years.
A HISTORY OF RACISM
That Oregon has a fringe of virulently anti-immigrant
archconservatives should come as a surprise to nobody. In the 1920s,
the Ku Klux Klan held enormous power statewide, even in Portland, and
things didn't get much better for decades. And historically,
anti-immigrant--or nativist--sentiments tend to flow in waves, tied to
faltering economies and high unemployment rates, in times when workers
start feeling insecure about their jobs. With Oregon's unemployment
rate hovering about a percentage point higher than the national
average, it should also come as no surprise that OFIR is finding
The same trend can be seen nationwide, with politicians in places like
Arizona, California, and Colorado pushing for harsh restrictions on
undocumented immigrants. The Bush Administration recently unveiled an
attempt to silence anti-immigrant critics--a proposal to tighten
enforcement on the US-Mexico border, coupled with a guest worker
program--which ended up appeasing no one.
In Arizona, the Minutemen--a private vigilante group--have begun running
armed patrols along the Mexico border. Chillingly, Jim Gilchrist, one
of the co-founders of the group, won 25 percent of the Orange County,
California, vote in his bid for Congress. His campaign was based
solely on his nativist platform. Political consultants across the
nation are scrambling to announce immigration as the issue for the
2006 mid-term elections. This year's gay marriage, so to speak.
TERRORISTS AND CRIMINALS
The traditional "they're taking our jobs!" argument has been
overshadowed by even more insidious fear mongering: homeland security.
At the Woodburn protest, one OFIR supporter held a sign that was a
giant reproduction of Mohammad Atta's driver's license. Above the
photo of the 9/11 hijacker was scrawled, "He was an illegal immigrant
Coupled with sketchy connections to terrorism, the rhetoric now being
employed by nativists in Oregon and nationwide centers largely on law
enforcement, and cries for government to enforce immigration laws by
deporting the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living--and
more importantly, working here.
One doesn't have to look too deep into history to find instances of
angry majorities becoming singularly obsessed with law and order,
while at the same time blaming a vulnerable minority for society's
problems. In retrospect, these periods of history are not typically
viewed as humanity's proudest moments.
In fact, the rhetorical switch may have become necessary due to the
solid debunking of traditional nativist myths that immigrants take
American jobs and suck up welfare services. A November study by the
Congressional Budget Office (CBO) shows that there is a very weak
correlation, if any, between immigration and local job markets;
immigrant workers tend to be in labor pools that run parallel to the
American job market. The only people they compete with are Americans
with similar educations and experiences--that is, high-school dropouts.
The CBO study even suggests that this may be good for the American job
market in that it encourages native workers to stay in school.
Another recent study, by the Pew Hispanic Center, shows that
unemployment and low wages aren't what bring immigrants to this
country--only a tiny percentage of immigrants say they were unemployed
before migrating here. Instead, what draws immigrant workers to
America is an American demand for their labor.
According to Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, who teaches immigration and
Chicano/Latino studies at Oregon State University, businesses have
long sought to exploit loopholes in immigration law in order to retain
their cheap pool of labor. And the government has tended to draft laws
that allow enough of these loopholes to appease businesses--and keep
the rest of us from having to pay $10 for an apple.
"There seems to be a triangle between nativists, the government, and
business," she explained. "The government stands between nativists and
economic interests in the country."
So why the rise in the volume of nativist arguments? Randy Blazak, who
heads the Portland-based Hate Crimes Research Network, says that at
least part of it is media appeal. For instance, armed vigilantes
patrolling the Arizona desert make great news fodder--even if there's
only a handful of them. Or when OFIR brings the Minutemen to Salem to
march against immigration (as they did in October). The voices get
louder, but the number of nativists has probably stayed level, Blazak
"There's a persistent anti-immigrant sentiment in this nation of
immigrants," he said. "There's a constant tension, but it pops up
whenever there's attention."
THE NEXT MESSAGE
For now, at least, Oregon has been spared from some of the more
egregious anti-immigrant activities that have surfaced around the
country, like the random beatings of Mexican day laborers in Georgia,
or the vigilante roundups and confrontations that have gone down in
Arizona. Blazak's organization has logged only anti-immigrant
vandalism--and that's mostly just graffiti.
Whether nativist groups are growing in number, calls for immigration
reform will undoubtedly shape the 2006 elections--if for no other
reason than because everyone, including Howard Dean, says it will.
With a shaky economy and widespread perception that the nation is in
constant danger, conservatives will look to pin the blame on someone.
We usually call that someone a scapegoat.