Anti-immigrant rhetoric can be deadly

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Michael Claros, 5, joined hundreds of faith leaders and immigration activists at a protest in front of the White House on July 31, 2014. RNS photo by Heather Adams

Michael Claros, 5, joined hundreds of faith leaders and immigration activists at a protest in front of the White House on July 31, 2014. RNS photo by Heather Adams

Michael Claros, 5, joined hundreds of faith leaders and immigration activists at a protest in front of the White House on July 31, 2014. RNS photo by Heather Adams

Michael Claros, 5, joined hundreds of faith leaders and immigration activists at a protest in front of the White House on July 31, 2014. RNS photo by Heather Adams

Some of this year’s crop of politicians tell us that illegal or undocumented immigrants pose a deadly threat to our country. I say that anti-immigrant rhetoric is the more dangerous threat. It has been deadly before, here and in other countries. It can easily become deadly again.

You can watch the rhetorical escalation up the ladder — or down the slippery slope, choose your metaphor — toward danger.

Step one: It is perfectly reasonable for those concerned about illegal immigration to express concern about our nation’s ability to secure its borders, especially from those who might pose a real threat. As one who regularly waits in lines to pass through border controls, I get it. In a nation-state world, borders matter. All nations attempt to secure their borders. The United States has a right and a need to secure its borders.

Step two: It is also perfectly reasonable to be concerned about potential economic impacts of illegal immigration. It is reasonable to fear the creation of a job market for undocumented immigrants that can undercut employment for American citizens. It is reasonable to fear a drain on government social service or health care spending. Of course, if research demonstrated that undocumented immigrants do not create more unemployment or cost more than they contribute to tax dollars, this would resolve the concern.

Step three: It is debatable whether it is reasonable to be concerned that undocumented immigrants pose a threat to American culture or the predominant use of the English language. The reasonableness of such concerns relates entirely to our vision of America. What kind of country are we or should we be? A “white” country, or a multi-racial country? A predominantly or exclusively English-speaking country, or a polyglot nation? A European-colonial-descendant nation, or a multi-ethnic nation with people coming from all parts of the world? To opponents of (illegal, and sometimes legal) immigration, I say that if this is your concern, say it loud and plain, and let us debate the matter.

Step four: It is not debatable but abhorrent to express concern that undocumented immigrants as a group are dangerous and morally inferior. This, of course, was assumed in Donald Trump’s infamous comment earlier this year:  “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Notwithstanding the slight caveat at the end, this comment dismisses Mexican (and surely not just Mexican) immigrants, as a group, in a very dangerous way. It invites all “non-Mexicans” to look at all “Mexicans” in a demeaning way and to treat them accordingly. Citizenship status gradually melts away here as the central issue. It is skin color and assumed ethnicity and nationality that is the problem. And some evidence is coming in that brown-skinned, Hispanic, or “Mexican-looking” people face routine and even escalating dehumanization and degrading treatment today. A spirit is abroad in the land that goes far beyond one candidate.

It is a proven pattern: when one group of people in a country is taught to look at another group of people in that country as inferior, immoral, and dangerous, the latter group will eventually pay a huge price. All kinds of indignities, discrimination, and violence can be expected. Need I cite examples?

So we have reason to be concerned about illegal immigration. But right now we ought to be more concerned about campaign rhetoric inflaming racial/ethnic/nationalist fears in some very dangerous ways. All of us need to be on our guard against it.

  • Larry

    The anti-immigrant position is one of the few out there which REQUIRES complete ignorance of the laws one seeks to uphold.

    Hence you arguments about not following the immigration laws by people who gather around to threaten and jeer people who under our laws have a right to stay here. (The Central American refugee situation last year)

    You have people brain-dead enough to call for rewriting the 14th Amendment citizenship clause. An idea so self-destructive that it allows the government to declare any group of people in the country to be stripped of citizenship for any kind of reason. They also try to take cues from Joseph Stalin and stump for internal passports and stopping people for being the wrong skin color.

    It is a position borne of paranoia and bigotry, advocating for turning our country into a police state.

  • Jack

    The problem with this piece is a common one in the series of articles Mr. Gushee has written.

    Gushee divides people into two extreme and broad camps — people on the hard left who are always the enlightened ones, and people on the far right who are knuckle-dragging bigots. What he invariably misses is nuance — the rest of the nation which fits with neither extreme.

    In the context of immigration, nuance equals people who are pro-immigration but anti-illegal-immigration, people who are pro-immigration and pro-assimilation, people who are pro-immigration and want to keep English the dominant language, and people who are pro-pluralism but anti-multiculturalism.

    All of these stances have been the dominant American stances over the past century, at least in mainstream, as opposed to backwoods, America.

    Gushee apparently has limited life experience and has never met nuance in his journeys through life.

  • Jack

    This is often true of evangelical lefties, who lurch from an ultra-fundamentalist youth to attraction to fashionably hard-left causes as they age.

    Their limited life experiences make them blissfully unaware of entire political and cultural positions that fit neither extreme.

    They never read the Wall Street Journal or Commentary, and most of them have never heard of William F. Buckley or CS Lewis or Reinhold Niebuhr or Norman Podhoretz or Richard John Neuhaus or Thomas Sowell They have no idea who Milton Friedman was, or the difference between supply-side and Keynesian views on economics.

    Their entire intellectual life is spent rebelling against the narrow fundamentalism of their younger years…and thus is reactionary more than anything else.

  • Gabor


    I’m an immigrant who’s family arrived legally, obeyed US laws, and learned English. There is a huge difference in the morals of people who arrive legally vs. illegally or overstay VISA’s. We were refugees who’s country was taken over by a foreign power.
    You are talking about people who come here because the pay is higher. When you sell something in a different market for a higher price, it is called arbitrage not immigration.
    No foreign power has taken over Mexico or Latin America, we just pay more.

  • Larry

    The idea that the issue is even framed in terms of morality shows an ignorance of the system and nature of the laws. Immigration laws are not criminal laws nor even an analogy to them. You got yours, why care about others?

    There is an economic aspect to immigration which is largely glossed over when one talks about the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. People of means can always buy their way into this country. Due to perennially poor funding of CIS administrative resources, country of origin also poses unintended advantages/disadvantages for most.

    Our employment immigration system is deeply dysfunctional and its flaws account for about 25-33% of our illegal alien population. Add to that draconian penalties which have no deterrent effect but enable exploitation of illegal aliens.

    Economic immigration is as old as seeking refuge. If there were no market for their labor, there is little impetus for their arrival.

  • Bernardo

    If we would cut our own grass, do our own landscaping, pick our own vegetables/fruit, cook our own food, clean our own laundry, care for own kids and clean our homes and churches/temples, there would be no need for Mexican, Haitian, Irish, Italian and/or Asian “slaves” and therefore there would be no illegal immigration.

  • Larry

    Actually most of those positions are glossed over knuckle dragging with tinges of bigotry and ignorance mixed in.

    “pro-immigration but anti-illegal-immigration”

    Usually means pro-immigration but not of people of dark skin and always evinces an ignorance as the immigration laws they want upheld.

    “people who are pro-immigration and pro-assimilation, people who are pro-immigration and want to keep English the dominant language”

    They want to attack the rights of foreign born citizens and residents to have the world conform to their biases.

    “and people who are pro-pluralism but anti-multiculturalism. ”

    People who don’t want to consider the existence of immigrants besides their ancestors.

  • Larry

    Also if we had an employment visas which did not shackle people to a single company, so they can be hired at less than market wages under coercive conditions. The whole idea that employment visa laws are meant to protect citizen workers is a joke. The effect is actually the opposite. People who came legally but lost their status make up 25-30% of the illegal alien population.

    But few people really want to look at how our legal immigration system actually works.

  • Jack

    Larry, words don’t always contain coded messages. Depending on the person uttering them, sometimes they’re just words and sometimes the person uttering them is speaking plainly and without code.

  • Larry

    But not in this case. So chock full of “dog whistle” phrases it would set a kennel on edge.

  • Greg

    Concerning this article and the comments, I don’t know what to make of it. If I take one view I make a “dog whistle”. If I take another I make a “dog whistle” “whistle”. Does not seem like a big deal but could make a big difference in the lives of others.

  • Jack

    It’s probably the other way around, Larry. The norm is to use words in a pretty straightforward way. The exception is certain individuals deciding to latch onto such words and make them code for something else, in this case, something more sinister.

    So I don’t deny that bigots can use such words and phrases–of course they can. I do deny that most people who use them are or must be bigots.