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Anti-Immigrant Debate Sets the Tone for Anti-Immigrant Behavior

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villagairosaWhether on the campaign trail or in the state house, the heated rhetoric used by opponents of common sense immigration reform is setting a troubling tone that some Americans are beginning to follow.

At a GOP debate in January, Mitt Romney suggested that best way to deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country was to force them to “self-deport.”  And while campaigning in Tennessee last year, then-GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain took a page from Rep. Steve King‘s book and joked about using an “electrified” border fence to keep immigrants out.

This type of rhetoric is not solely employed by GOP presidential candidates.  Early last year, Alabama state lawmaker Scott Beason told a crowd at the Cullman County Republican Party breakfast that he thinks we should “empty the clip, and do what has to be done” on immigration. 

This divisive rhetoric is tied to equally divisive policies.  Beason’s signature legislative “accomplishment” was passing Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, HB 56.  In Mississippi, the House of Representatives yesterday passed its own version of the Alabama law.  The stated goal behind the these laws (modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070) is “attrition through enforcement,” or making life so difficult and desperate for undocumented immigrants that they pick up and leave on their own. 

So, how is this all playing out on the ground?  How are anti-immigrant laws and rhetoric influencing the way ordinary Americans treat each other?  Consider just a few recent examples:

  • This week in Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was accosted by a man as he was leaving the state capitol who told him to “Go back to Mexico.”  Dan Morain, a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, was following Villaraigosa at the time.  In a follow-up column, Morain wrote, “Here is the twice-elected mayor of the nation’s second largest city, a former Assembly speaker, and a man who will stand on a national stage this September in North Carolina.  And a guy who had never met nor spoken with Villaraigosa told him to go back to Mexico, as if this proud graduate of Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles and UCLA ever lived south of the border.”

  • Immigration taunts have also made their way into high-profile sports, namely the NCAA basketball tournament.  As ThinkProgress highlighted: “During their school’s NCAA Tournament game against Kansas State University today, members of the Southern Mississippi University band chanted, ‘Where’s your green card?’ at a Puerto Rican Kansas State player. Kansas State guard Angel Rodriguez, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and played high school basketball in Miami, Florida, was fouled while shooting during the first half of today’s game in Pittsburgh. As Rodriguez stepped to the foul line, the chants, reportedly started by Southern Miss band members, began.” 

  • In a report titled, “No Way to Live: Alabama’s Immigrant Law,” Human Rights Watch documents the myriad ways that Alabama’s anti-immigrant law has impacted families, businesses, and schoolchildren in the state—including the way the law is turning neighbors against neighbors and dividing society.  In one case, the report profiles Katherine Guzman, a native Alabamian whose family has lived in Alabama for generations and is married to a U.S. permanent resident from Mexico.  After her eight year old daughter was told by a fellow classmate that she “was going to have to go back to Mexico, and that they were going to send her whole family back,” Katherine had to assume the painful task of explaining such a horrific nightmare to her child: “I explained to her that she’s not from Mexico; she’s not a Mexican. She was born in America, that makes her an American, and that we were staying here, and it was just a misinformed kid.  But she was also called a ‘dirty Mexican’ from another girl at the bus….She was born here, she’s been raised here. It’s the only life she knows. It’s not going back to Mexico–she hasn’t been to Mexico.”

As Frank Sharry, Executive Director here at America’s Voice said:

By proposing mean-spirited policies and making intolerant statements, politicians give permission to others to be mean-spirited and intolerant in their words and actions.  It’s time for our leaders to realize that how we treat immigrants reflects our commitment to the values that define us as Americans, starting with the self-evident truth that all people have rights, no matter what they look like or where they come from.