Thursday, April 1, 2010

Blaming immigrants during downturns

Blaming immigrants during downturns
Jose Zapata Calderon
Column: Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
Created: 03/29/2010 07:51:28 PM PDT

In regard to a front-page article in the March 22 Daily Bulletin, "Protest opposes amnesty," it is interesting that Don Kurth, the mayor of Rancho Cucamonga, has sided with right-wing, anti-immigrant groups that include Raymond Herrera (former leader in the Minuteman organization) and the We the People California's Crusader.
It is important to know who the mayor is siding with since the latter organization has emerged from a decision by the Minuteman organization to disband (due to internal conflicts) and develop new chapters under new names.
It was not long ago that I, along with other community representatives, met with the mayor in his office to resolve increasing tensions between the police and immigrant workers in Rancho Cucamonga. In that meeting, the mayor stressed that he was sensitive to the plight of these workers because he had once been a day laborer himself. While saying that the issue of immigration was not a local issue, he did propose that a more reasonable solution would be for the federal government to advance immigration reform.
It is interesting to see how the tide changes. In times of economic crisis, historically, there has been a consistency of politicians changing their colors and blaming immigrants for any downturns in the economy.
When the economy went downward during the Great Depression of the 1930s, for example, politicians pressured the U.S. government to give consular offices the charge of deporting anyone who might add to the "public charge" rolls. During this period, at least half a million people of Mexican origin were put on trains and deported. In the early years of the Depression, any Mexican-origin person who applied for welfare, unemployment or any type of social service was forced to leave the country under the U.S. government category of "voluntary repatriation." Approximately half of those deported were U.S. citizens, a clear violation of both their civil and human rights.
Raising concerns over national security issues as a result of World War II, the U.S. government instituted the Smith Act in 1941 to deny visas and deport anyone who "might endanger the public safety."
When the U.S. entered World War II and there was a need to fill labor shortages in agriculture, the federal government established the Bracero Program. The program was extended after the war as Public Law 78 and was justified as a means of meeting labor shortages caused by the Korean War. The program ended in 1964 with 5 million Mexicans used in the peak years between 1954 and 1962. With the establishment of a regulated labor pool, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service began a massive drive known as "Operation Wetback" to deport undocumented immigrants to Mexico.
Again, similar to the roundups of immigrants during the Depression, Operation Wetback grossly violated the civil rights of Mexican immigrants including those who were legally in the United States as citizens and permanent residents. Hundreds of Mexican-origin people were arrested and harassed. They were threatened and forced to produce "proof" of their citizenship. Only a few of the thousands of those deported had formal hearings. When the project ended, more than a million persons had been deported to Mexico.
In addition to the long history of scapegoating immigrants during an economic downturn, this country has had a history of politicians attacking immigrants to get elected or re-elected. The most prominent example is that of California Gov. Pete Wilson who, in 1994, in order to take the blame away from his administration for an ailing economy, created an image that immigrants were taking away jobs, ruining the schools and overtaxing social services. He personally took the reins of Proposition 187 (a ballot initiative to deny social services, health care and public education to undocumented immigrants) and used its momentum to get re-elected.

In this time of high unemployment (and loss of mortgages) in the Inland Empire, it is no coincidence that a politician such as Mayor Kurth, who once proposed sensitivity to the plight of immigrant workers, is now using the rhetoric of the past. It is an attempt to latch onto the genuine suffering of working people and aim their anger, not at the systemic foundations of their problems, but at undocumented immigrant families.
Jose Zapata Calderon is president of the Latino and Latina Roundtable. He is a professor of sociology and Chicano studies at Pitzer College.

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