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Amid changes, immigrants are targets

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

During a Columbus Day parade in Newark, N.J., Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole praised a group of people that in other contexts he has been inclined to blame for a number of America's problems -- immigrants.

Dole did not laud Mexican or Central American or Asian newcomers who are bearing the brunt of welfare and immigration reform measures recently passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton. Instead, he hailed "generations of Italian families (who) have come to America to live out their dreams ... strengthened America with their values ... values that helped make America what it is today."

Some of those Italians' ancestors might take issue with Dole's rhapsodic recounting of immigrant life in an earlier time. Bashing immigrants is, after all, a thoroughly American enterprise. We have done it regularly throughout history (see accompanying story).

And we are doing it today. Despite what Dole or Clinton might say about the gifts immigrants bring to U.S. society, the president signed the severe reform measures into law and Dole supported proposals to prohibit children of undocumented immigrants from attending public schools.

So Dole's words raise a pressing question: Beyond the use of immigration by both parties as a wedge to sway votes, what is underpinning the movement against the immigrant poor in the 1990s?

Analysts interviewed traced the current anti-immigrant sentiments to an intersection of historical, economic, demographic and race-related factors particularly evident in Southern California. It was the initial backlash in California that fueled the anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the rest of the country.

University of California professor of sociology and communications Sandra Ball-Rokeach said the deeper context of the attacks on immigrants "is the sense, especially among Anglo populations but not exclusively, that the old order is dying and being replaced." Increasingly, she said, sectors of privilege feel they are losing control over what is the definition of American society.

"There's a feeling that if Anglo culture loses it's dominance, the ramification would be the loss of political power and therefore loss of economic advantage." Adding to this are racial undertones brought on by shifts in U.S. demographics that are creating a much more multicultural society, Ball-Rokeach said.

"The bottom line is our political system says the majority rules, and the majority may end up being brown or black or yellow or all of them and not white. The feeling is how do we accept majority rule when the majority is not going to be Anglo and European?" she said. Things like immigration do not inspire a lot of complex analysis, but "fall along in the rather predictable pattern of people targeting scapegoats," Ball-Rokeach said.

Clare Pastore of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a legal organization challenging in court the recent provisions passed by Congress to slash welfare benefits to the immigrant population, said that, although the economy by traditional measures is faring well, an ambience of economic anxiety pervades America. With temporary and involuntary part-time employment on the rise, "many people feel insecure about their own jobs." Pastore said this "leads to scapegoating, whether for immigrants or women or people of color. That's the American tradition."

Within this tradition, said Luis Velásquez, acting director for Hispanic ministry at the Los Angeles archdiocese, Latinos are the modern day "prisoners of a history that repeats itself every 20 years when the need arises to fight against immigrants." Velásquez pointed out that other immigrant groups in history, such as Asians, suffered miserably because of racial discrimination.

Velásquez dates the beginning of the backlash against Latinos in California to the early 1990s and the aftermath of the downsizing of nearly 500,000 military industry jobs statewide and the increase of immigration from Mexico. California, at the time, was undergoing severe financial difficulties.

Sylvia Gonzalez, director of the International Institute, a United Way institution that has been aiding immigrants and refugees for 72 years, said attitudes of the general population toward immigrants went from "the sublime to the ridiculous" in a very short time. "People all of a sudden started saying, 'We have to take care of our own.' I don't know where this came from, but people were somehow not aware of the number of immigrants arriving and suddenly they were aware and decided immigrants were taking over," she said.

Politicians played on the fear to whip up "anti-immigrant hysteria," said Roberto Lovato, an expert on immigration and former director of the Central American Resource Center here. The political rhetoric created a "new category of undesirables -- criminal aliens, criminal welfare alien moms, gangster youth aliens, children as parasites of schools." The creation by media and politicians of these "post-industrial demons" masks deeply seated fears of people in the United States about "the abandonment of the American worker."

Ball-Rokeach said the fear and unease are real. "Everyone's work situation is so dramatically changing. There is this sense that, 'Gee, I don't know what is happening and why.' There is unease about who is doing this to us, why two adults in the family both now work."

The gap between rich and poor, increasing worldwide, has reached new heights, Lovato said. "A multinational rich class is forming," he said. "(The multinational class) is controlling multinational organizations that divide up countries, regions, sectors of labor and the consumer market in new ways for the ultimate enrichment of a few."

These massive transformations and shifts of control are the deeper causes of American fears and anxieties in the 1990s -- not immigration -- the analysts said.

The global trends, Ball-Rokeach said, are prompting a sense that "the very meaningfulness of national identities are under very serious question at this point in time ... that what it means to be American is changing or threatened." In this context, people are feeling that the national government is increasingly ineffectual, "but they don't know why," she said.

National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996