George Pfromm II

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 increased support.

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 too."

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 explains.

"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.