Resource: A Community Under Siege: The Impact of Anti-Immigrant Hysteria on Latinos

By: Virginia Martinez, Jazmin Garcia, and Jasmine Vasquez

September 1, 2008

DePaul Journal for Social Justice

In April 2006, a 16 year-old Mexican-American boy named David Ritcheson was savagely beaten, sodomized with a patio umbrella pole and burned repeatedly with a cigarette. One of the attackers, a skinhead, attempted to carve a swastika in his chest. This occurred at a party in a private home in a small town in Texas as a result of a disagreement over David kissing the sister of one of his attackers. The story sounds like a modern-day Emmett Till tragedy--and it is. Though David miraculously survived his injuries and bravely testified before Congress in support of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007, he later took his own life by jumping from a cruise ship. In a more recent case, 25 year-old Luis Eduardo Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant, was beaten to death in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Charges have been brought against four teens ranging from ethnic intimidation and aggravated assault to murder. Shenandoah previously tried to pass an ordinance to punish landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants, and, like other communities across the country, has seen an increase in the Latino population over the last decade. David and Luis' stories illustrate the growing anti-Latino environment that is fostered by the current anti-immigrant hysteria. This hysteria is fueled by the increasingly divided, acrimonious and highly charged debate over immigration reform that has occurred in the past ten years, which has been countered by increased activity by immigrant rights advocates.
The current immigrant rights movement began in response to a Congressional proposal that would have both increased penalties for people in the country without authorization and included penalties for anyone assisting, housing or transporting undocumented individuals. These penalties would have applied to social service agencies, advocates and clergy involved in providing services to families regardless of their immigration status. On March 10, 2006, massive marches took place across the country in an effort to organize against this proposal. These marches created both a new immigration rights movement and a backlash that, along with the reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks, revitalized older hate groups and attracted new individuals to the anti-immigrant movement. Some long-standing hate groups, such as the KKK, now have a new target: immigrants and Latinos. In addition to these already existing groups, new groups sprung up that claim to be against only illegal immigrants but use racist imagery and vitriolic language that includes all Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Latinos and people of color. This increased antagonism led to dozens of attempts by local governments to pass ordinances and statutes aimed at denying undocumented immigrants the ability to work, rent homes, travel or drive. While some of these attempts were successfully challenged, similar laws continue to be proffered. The federal government increased its deportation of immigrants in the country without legal status as well as its deportation of lawful permanent residents who have been involved in criminal activity. The increase in deportation rates and the rise of hate groups have led to a climate of hostility that engenders fear throughout the Latino community.
Two familiar refrains of anti-immigrant groups are “illegal is illegal” and the use of the term “illegal aliens.” We prefer, and will use throughout this article, the terms “undocumented worker” or “undocumented immigrants.” We find the term “illegal alien” offensive. It demeans and dehumanizes an entire race. It is reminiscent of the use of “savage” in reference to indigenous people. Illegality is a status that can be corrected. Not only are undocumented workers human beings, but they are our friends, our relatives and our neighbors.
We do not want to forget that immigration is about people. It is about the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. It is also about people like David and Luis, who are victims of the hatred generated by some anti-immigrant groups and fostered in the immigration debate. We recognize that not all groups who advocate sealing the borders, removing undocumented workers or reducing rates of immigration base their positions on racial hatred. Those groups that are motivated by racial hatred, however, negatively impact the discussion of immigration issues and lead to anti-Latino sentiment, discrimination and even violence. Unfortunately, the charged language surrounding immigration has made its way to the forefront of the political process and legislative houses.
Congress had an opportunity last year to comprehensively address immigration at the federal level. However, Congress failed to do so by failing to find a common ground and creating in-party squabbles that handed President Bush a major defeat in his efforts to reform the immigration laws. The result is the continued polarization of the immigration debate, continued misguided efforts at the local level to address immigration, continued suffering in the immigrant community and increased anger on both sides of the issue.
This article briefly addresses the history of immigration in the United States, the rise of hate groups and local and state attempts to regulate immigration. It also describes previous anti-Mexican periods that resulted in Mexican nationals being returned to Mexico and the return of their U.S. citizen children and family members who had the right to be in the United States. Additionally, it looks at a few positive efforts to integrate immigrants into local communities and the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund's (MALDEF) role in protecting the rights of immigrants.