As the immigration debate rages on in Washington and North Carolina with an eye toward the 2008 elections, the rhetoric grows more disturbing, especially from the virulent anti-immigrant groups and the candidates pandering to them, even ones who had reasonably open minds on the issue just a few months ago.
Many political leaders who used to talk about the need for a comprehensive federal solution that includes both stricter border controls and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants mention that approach far less these days. That was the centerpiece of plan presented by Senators McCain and Kennedy in the last Congress and supported in principle by President George Bush.
Talk about immigration policy now comes more often in attacks on political opponents or as part of cynical legislation introduced to galvanize a political base instead of contribute to a thoughtful debate.
That is especially true in North Carolina, where legislators have introduced all sorts of bills aimed at punishing undocumented immigrants, even in areas where the state has no authority and must obey federal law.
The most zealous advocates claim that their fierce opposition to provisions like last session’s proposal to grant in-state tuition at state universities to children of undocumented workers was based on the rule of law, concern for American workers and North Carolina taxpayers, and that racism plays no part in their philosophical stands.
That claim continues despite a barrage of thinly veiled racist statements and mailings about immigrants that hearken back to the days of the civil rights movement, when opponents of desegregation claimed it wasn’t African-Americans they disliked, it was busing, or the role of the federal government, or the infringement on private property rights. That was why we needed two bathrooms and segregated schools and whites-only restaurants.
The current anti-immigrant forces have their code words and thinly veiled racist references too, but lately the veil has come off and revealed attitudes that ought to disgust us all, regardless of your views on pathways to citizenship or better border security.
And the racism is coming from public officials, not just overheated activists trying to raise money with their appeals to our worst instincts.
Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson has garnered a lot of media attention for his fight against illegal immigration, arresting folks at the DMV offices and questioning the credentials of Latino voters. This Sunday’s News and Observer reported that Johnson’s Department is one of the three in the state signed up to focus on enforcing immigration laws and receiving federal money to do it, helping pay for a new county jail.
The policy raises all sorts of questions, but Johnson’s rationale for participating is pretty clear.
He tells the N&O that not only are immigrants here illegally sponging off the taxpayer and committing more crimes than legal residents, but that “their values are a lot different—their morals—than what we have here,” and that “in Mexico, there’s nothing wrong with having sex with a 12,13-year-old girl. They do a lot drinking down in Mexico.”
The elected Sheriff believes one group of people in his county is immoral, alcoholic, pedophiles. It comes the same week that the Gaston County Commissioners ended a contract with Bank of America in nearby Charlotte because the bank offers a credit card that does not require a social security number and can be used by undocumented immigrants.
That is the same county commission that passed a resolution last fall directing county officials to stop providing services to illegal immigrants, who the resolution said caused increased crime, “havoc and death” on the highways, and were a drain on county resources. The resolution also said that the immigrants have a “lack of social and personal health care standards.”
The Alamance County Sheriff thinks undocumented immigrants are immoral, the Gaston County Commission thinks they are dirty and passed an official resolution to proclaim it.
We have been down this road before, when some prominent leaders denied basic human rights to a race of people, referred to them as subhuman and urged them to return to Africa. Now the calls are to send them back to Mexico because they are flawed human beings.
History is repeating itself, begging an important question. Who will be the civil rights leaders of today that stand up against this intolerable bigotry?