EDITOR’S NOTE: Julianne Hing is reporting on the collision of politics and immigration in the 2016 campaign. But we need your support to get her on the campaign trail—and Beacon Reader will double every dollar you donate! Learn more and donate today at The Nation's page on Beacon Reader.
It was only a matter of time. After weeks of aggressive talk on immigration from GOP presidential candidates, immigrant rights activists and Tea Party demonstrators clashed in a face-to-face confrontation last Wednesday. More than a dozen people affiliated with the youth activist network United We Dream crashed a Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill where Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz were the featured speakers, along with a roster of conservative heroes like Sarah Palin and Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.
“We knew we would be entering into a hostile environment,” Mario Carrillo, United We Dream’s communications manager, told me. “But it was shameful.” Things quickly got physical. There was shoving and pushing, Carrillo said. At one point, according to UWD, a Tea Party rallier yanked UWD member Erica Fuentes’s hair, and another spit on UWD member Astrid Diaz.
“Donald Trump seemed like a sideshow, but it’s gotten to the point that he’s riled up the far right wing. It’s not just about a wall. It’s not just about anchor babies. It’s stirring up fear in people,” Carrillo said. “His rhetoric is leading to real-life consequences.”
It’s easy enough to see Trump as a ringleader of a mad circus, traipsing across airport tarmacs and firing up voters in packed rallies with his signature squint and scowl. But as we ready ourselves for the second round of GOP debates this Wednesday night, it’s clear that the xenophobia at the core of Trump’s campaign is resonating, and his antics are already echoing beyond the campaign trail into both culture and policy.
Last month, a homeless Latino man in Boston was attacked by Scott and Steve Leader, two brothers who later told state troopers that they’d been inspired by Donald Trump, who was right about “all these illegals,” the AP reported. The brothers, who were later arraigned on assault, battery and indecent exposure charges, punched, kicked, and beat the sleeping man with a metal pole. They also urinated on him.
On September 4, 14-year-old Brian Zaragoza was walking home from the grocery store in Indianapolis when he was shot while the assailant, speeding by in a car, shouted anti-Latino slurs. A nearby taco stand was also hit by a similar shooting the same day. Cops have yet to label those incidents hate crimes, or say whether attackers were specifically targeting Latinos, Fox59 reported a few days later.
Whatever the motivations, these attacks on Latinos are too much coincidence for some—and the result of too much unchecked “slander” of immigrant communities, says Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, a Philadelphia-based immigrant rights organization. She’s watched the summer of blustery GOP debate on immigration with a mix of disgust and concern, forced as she’s been into a defensive crouch of constant vigilance.
Trump’s candidacy, which many wrote off as a joke at the start, is still a venture with limited long-term viability. His policy proposals have seemed to confirm the unseriousness of that venture. Trump has proposed completing the border wall between the United States and Mexico, and sending Mexico the bill for its construction. He has called for mass deportations of every last one of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. He’s proposed separating all undocumented immigrants into “the good ones” and “the bad ones” before deciding whom to let back into the country. He considers the task of rounding up and deporting 11 million people a mere managerial puzzle, rather than a political, moral, or even logistical challenge.
“Politicians aren’t going to find them because they have no clue,” Trump told CNN in July. “We will find them, we will get them out. It’s feasible if you know how to manage. Politicians don’t know how to manage.”
But Trump’s absurdist policy ideas aren’t the point. He’s tapped into and intensified a nativist strain that defines today’s right wing. “There seems to be a latent anti-immigrant sentiment that’s always boiling just under the surface,” says Tom K. Wong, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. “It doesn’t need much kindling to revive this visceral-seeming level of anti-immigrant sentiment that many in the country seem to have.”
In July, the shooting death of a 32-year-old white woman named Kate Steinle in San Francisco ignited the imagination of conservative lawmakers across the country when it turned out that an undocumented immigrant and prior deportee named Francisco Sanchez was accused in her death.
Congressional leaders from both parties, including California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, floated bills which would force local law enforcement agencies in so-called “sanctuary cities” to more closely cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Grassley’s version, dubbed Kate’s Law by radio host Bill O’Reilly, would call for mandatory five-year prison sentences for any undocumented person convicted of illegally re-entering the country. The bill would also make sanctuary cities ineligible for certain Department of Justice grants. The House passed a version of Kate’s Law, which included similar financial penalties for cities that resist federal efforts to use local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration violations.
In August, weeks after Trump had already taken to referring to Mexican immigrants as “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” he released his immigration plan, which included a call to “defund sanctuary cities.”
The meme worked its way all the way down to Philadelphia’s ongoing mayoral race, forcing Juntos to resume a battle it had already won. As candidates piped up in support of Kate’s Law, Juntos mobilized its members to defend an April 2014 executive order which severely limited the instances when local police must honor requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold onto people suspected of immigration violations. Juntos soon started referring to the effort to strip sanctuary cities of local control over immigration enforcement as “Donald Trump Laws.”
It’s Trump’s proposal to end birthright citizenship that has arguably stirred up the most controversy, however, and garnered him the most attention. Birthright citizenship, the idea that anyone born in the United States is automatically a citizen of the country, is enshrined in the 14th Amendment, which itself was intended to grant citizenship to freed slaves following the end of the Civil War. “Stories of the emancipation of slaves and how birthright citizenship came about to begin with are so important,” says Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum. “The 14th Amendment was saying to recently freed black slaves that this country brought you here, but here you are. You are a citizen. You have rights. It’s so poignant.”
Yet Trump—and the list of other Republican presidential candidates who’ve expressed openness to repealing the right (among them: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson; score Jeb Bush in favor of closer scrutiny when it’s “related to Asian people”)—is not exactly an original thinker here. In raising the issue of birthright citizenship, today’s GOP merely follows in the tradition. Congressional Republicans have introduced bills to amend the 14th Amendment in every session since 1993, when California Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly authored a bill to limit birthright citizenship to children whose mothers were US citizens or permanent residents, said Yeung.
Chipping away at the nearly 150-year-old right would require persuading the Supreme Court to overturn a 117-year-old ruling, or a constitutional amendment, and “we’ve created a very high, very undemocratic bar to doing that,” said Louis DeSipio, professor of political science at University of California, Irvine. “It’s an easy issue to rally around because the solution is so difficult,” he said. Owing at least in part to the extreme difficulty of amending the Constitution, birthright citizenship legislation has never even made it out of committee.
It’s impossible to know whether Trump is bandying about birthright citizenship as a piece of policy or performance, but, DeSipio said, “Trump has found an issue that very much resonates with voters—at least those in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, and more importantly, with the people who are coming to rallies six months before the primaries.”
Almiron, of Juntos, has no choice but to take all of this seriously. “We’ve had hate crimes occurring against immigrants and Latinos,” Almiron said. “So if you give space for that kind of thinking it excuses that kind of behavior and it puts people’s lives on the line. And it’s not just them. The Democratic Party needs to step up and say that kind of talk is unacceptable.”
United We Dream’s Mario Carrillo, speaking about last week’s confrontation with Tea Partiers, said it was with all of that in mind that he and other activists sought out Trump’s supporters. “The number one thing we went there to accomplish was to let Donald Trump know that his anti-immigrant attacks will not stand. We will continue to fight for our families, and to uplift our dignity and humanity.”
The irony, he added, is that most of the UWD members who took part in the action Wednesday were US citizens. “So it’s not an issue of immigration status. They saw people who didn’t look like them and immediately imagined they didn’t belong here.”
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