Latinos or otherwise, stop scapegoating immigrants


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Yeh Ling-Ling’s most recent attack on immigrants in the pages of the Record isn’t just a rehash of the same assertions and cultural scapegoating that immigrant rights advocates are used to. It’s a rehash of her own past Record articles, and the argument isn’t getting any better, even if she left out some of the most bizarre charges this time.

In 2005, Ling-Ling wrote a Record editorial that demanded an end to birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment and invented the statistic that “well over” 25% of federal prisoners are illegal immigrants (nowhere near true.) In 2006, Ling-Ling’s entry rather explicitly accused Mexico and Mexican-Americans of trying to get the American Southwest to secede from the nation, repeating tired old warnings from Samuel Huntington about the “reconquista” that never seems to actually come.

Now Ling-Ling is back with a disturbing list of anecdotes: disturbing not because they show that immigrants are taking over, as she has been claiming so long, but because they conflate Latinos with illegal immigrants in a way that demonstrates everything wrong with the immigration debate.

I don’t have room to debunk Ling-Ling’s examples one by one, as “proof,” she claims without source or date that some white and black people have been told to go back to their countries of origin by Latinos. She also includes a 9-year old assault on a principal, that while certainly shocking, was related to language policies at the school and implicated nothing about immigration. The obvious questions are: What does any of this have to do with immigration policy? More specifically, what does it say about a writer that she thinks negative anecdotes about U.S. Latinos, more than half of whom are native-born, bear on immigration policy?

And even more obviously: Who among us seriously thinks that Latinos are not also subject to “go home” nativism? Not the federal government: the FBI’s hate crime statistics show an increase in anti-Latino hate crimes for the last five years. Not the family of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant whose November murder not only appeared to be racially motivated, but has prompted a Justice Department investigation of a violent pattern of anti-Latino hate crimes on Long Island.

The immigration debate can never move forward if restrictionists continue to see no distinctions between U.S-born Latinos, naturalized citizens, legal residents and other immigrants with legal status, and immigrants without any status. Recall the outrage of now-ousted GOP Rep. Virgil Goode over Rep. Keith Ellison taking his oath of office on a Koran. Goode insisted Americans had to adopt his views on immigration or such an event would be commonplace – despite the fact that Ellison is a native-born American.

More generally, the debate can never get off its narrow focus on the southern border and unskilled workers if restrictionists fail to talk about any other of the dozens of important issues: immigration from Asia and Africa, visa overstayers, high-skilled workers, asylees and refugees, exploitation of immigrant workers by unscrupulous employers, and the expensive, slow, inconsistent bureaucracies of Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Executive Office of Immigration Review, where our broken immigration courts lie. These are the overburdened courts where immigrants facing deportation that may amount to a death sentence have no right to counsel, even if they are children, disabled, or non-English speakers. Our last president presided over a politicization of judge appointments and the shrinking of appeal rights. I practice in these courts now, and every time I hear how easy it is for immigrants to walk over the border, have children, and stay forever, I am amazed at how little people know about the system. Only recently coming to prominence are the problems in our immigration detention system, where health care failures have caused a number of deaths and detainees who may have no criminal record at all languish in a legal limbo, with fewer civil rights than convicted felons. American’s treatment of undocumented immigrants is far from the welcoming embrace anti-immigrant activists think it is.

And to be clear, I do not claim it should be welcoming; only that our legal and detention systems be humane and comport with due process. Right now, much is lacking.

I was a teacher before law school, and I was proud to help teach the “three Rs” to children who were not born in this country and children who were. The global economy that Ling-Ling cares so much about does not grow by increased nativism and multilingualism. If anything, we should be using programs like dual immersion language instruction and multicultural materials that meet rigorous state standards to help American students be better global citizens and workers, not trying to preserve a homogenous national identity that never truly existed.

But regardless of our education policy, our immigration policy should not be dictated by the same old images of a fictional “brown wave” coming to overtake “real” Americans that we have seen before. Readers who are native Californians, like me, may remember how well this angle worked during California’s 1990s economic troubles; the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 was ruled unconstitutional and the race-baiting tactics of the California GOP backfired so hard that the party has yet to recover the voters they lost.

Immigration numbers have actually dipped in response to the U.S.’s recession. Sam Huntington’s charges about frightening cultural change have been debunked by a number of studies showing the same immigrant acculturation by the 2nd and 3rd generation in Latino immigrants that the U.S. has always produced. Fear-mongering and the conflation of “Latino” with “immigrant” are simply not useful to the policy debate.

I look forward to President Obama and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s fresh approaches to fixing our immigration system. I have great confidence that even if I do not agree with all of their reforms, they will be based on facts and an appreciation of the diversity of nationalities this country has always enjoyed.

And as the U.S. continues to struggle with economic woes, I hope people of conscience from all political leanings will speak out against the scapegoating of immigrants and those who are “not like us” that so often happens in difficult times.

Andrea Saenz ’08 is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation (PAIR) Project. She was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Record. She can be reached at

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