Some people just don't like Mexicans -- or anyone else from south of the border. They think Latinos are freeloaders and welfare cheats who are too lazy to learn English. They think Latinos have too many babies, and that Latino kids will dumb down our schools. They think Latinos are dirty, diseased, indolent and more prone to criminal behavior. They think Latinos are just too different from us ever to become real Americans.
No amount of hard, empirical evidence to the contrary, and no amount of reasoned argument or appeals to decency and fairness, will convince this small group of Americans -- fewer than 10 percent of the general population, at most -- otherwise. Unfortunately, among this group is a fair number of Republican members of Congress, almost all influential conservative talk radio hosts, some cable news anchors -- most prominently, Lou Dobbs -- and a handful of public policy "experts" at organizations such as the Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA, in addition to fringe groups like the Minuteman Project.
Stripped bare, this is what the current debate on immigration reform is all about. Fear of "the other" -- of those who look or sound different, who come from poor countries with unfamiliar customs -- has been at the heart of every immigration debate this country has ever had, from the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the floor of the U.S. Senate this week.
What is said today of the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and others was once said of Germans, Swedes, the Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews and others. The only difference is that in the past, the xenophobes could speak freely, unconstrained by a veneer of political correctness. Today, they speak more cautiously, so they talk about the rule of law, national security, amnesty, whatever else they think might make their arguments less racially charged.
Where once the xenophobes could advocate forced sterilization and eugenics coupled with virtually shutting off legal immigration from "undesirable" countries, now they must be content with building walls, putting troops on the border, rounding up illegal aliens on the job and deporting them, passing local ordinances to signal their distaste for immigrants' multi-family living arrangements, and doing whatever else they can to drive these people back where they came from.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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