Anti-Immigrant Sentiment Is Fear of Legal—Not ‘Illegal’—Immigration
The last few weeks have seen plenty of debate about the potential influence of the Latino vote, as well as the purported disaffection of numerous “voting blocs”— women, youth, and especially Latinos. (Evidently minority inclusion positively correlates with electoral apathy.)
Now a new report by the Immigration Policy Center has some interesting (albeit obvious) data to contribute: New Americans account for a rapidly growing proportion of the electorate. The report proposes that New Americans, newly naturalized citizens and the U.S.-born children of recent immigrants, made up 15 million (10 percent) of registered voters in 2008. The vast majority of these—11.6 million—were Latino voters. Asians, the second largest group, accounted for 4 million of all registered voters.
It’s not news that Latinos make up a sizable proportion of voters and have the potential to shift the outcome of elections. They were, after all, a pivotal demographic in last two elections, when they helped usher in a number of Democrats into public office.
This year, some running for office want to continue the trend and are both banking on Latino votes and taking them as a given. Others, meanwhile, feel threatened by the power of the Latino electorate that they are covertly funding Spanish-language television ads urging Latinos not to vote. Latinos definitely boast some electoral brawn and, with regard to that, the report only confirms the obvious.
But less apparent, the report posits, is the staggering rate at which the so-called New American “voting bloc” has grown in recent years—an increase of 101 percent between 1996 and 2008. The Immigration Policy Center argues that this exponential growth is notable in that it is “consistently overlooked” and “politically underestimated.”
It’s an interesting proposition. I’ll concede that mainstream media—and even some candidates—tend to overlook the growing saliency of immigrant communities of color, I have to contend that the anti-immigrant movement in the United States does not.
Nativists—anti-immigrant extremists who dominate media discourse on immigration—don’t, after all, simply fear mass unauthorized immigration. Rather, they acutely fear mass legalimmigration: Large influxes of non-white immigrants with strong ties to their countries of origin who at the same time wield the political and economic power bequeathed to American citizens. Unauthorized immigration isn’t misperceived as a threat merely because unauthorized immigrants are misperceived as criminals, but because the more economically and culturally embedded undocumented immigrants become, the greater the social incentive to “legalize” them.
Undoubtedly, the mainstream tends to overlook the rate of growth among new citizens—in part, because it seems irrelevant to most of us —but Nativists have never overlooked nor underestimated it. Most of the time, in fact, they’re blowing it totally out of proportion.
Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) founder John Stanton, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “the racist architect of the anti-immigrant movement” epitomizes this, having once said:
To govern is to populate…Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile? As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? [H/T Rachel Maddow]
In Arizona, for example, anti-immigrant sentiment is driven not merely by fear of criminal “aliens” but rather by a fear of the growing power of immigrants—both authorized and not. To many members of the conservative, white elite that fear is palpable.
For all of the talk of beheadings in the Arizona desert, the truth as Arizona state legislators know it is that, both in number and economic power, Arizona's immigrant communities have been growing steadily larger—and therefore more politically threatening—over the years.
Thirty-eight percent of the state’s medical scientists are immigrants, as are 36 percent of its scientists and physicists and 15 percent of economists, according to the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy [PDF]. The number of children born to immigrants in Arizona has increased 205 percent since the 1990s, resulting in a growing number of first generation U.S. citizens whose American privilege is accented by strong ties to immigrant and foreign communities. It’s worthwhile to note that many of the loudest voices still protesting SB 1070 belong to young Latinos who were either born in the U.S. or immigrated at a young age. The nine youth who were arrested last spring after chaining themselves to the Capitol building were all college students—educated and coming of age in a state largely ignorant of their educational and economic aspirations and progress.
All of this speaks to a single community’s potential long-term impact on a state that has, for the last 100 years, been steered and shaped by a much more affluent class of whites. It’s not the first time that a ruling class felt destabilized by the slow-but-surely growing power of an increasingly agitated population, and it won’t be the last. This is what the anti-immigrant movement is organizing against—a growing minority threatening to become an encroaching majority.
The power of immigrants has never been underestimated by Nativists—politically or otherwise—and the rest of us should seriously take note of that.