Over the past decade, millions of Hispanic immigrants have bypassed traditional urban destinations and put down roots in the American heartland. With large groups of newcomers moving to some of the most homogeneous, tradition-steeped places in the country, a backlash was predictable. But no one could have foreseen the breadth and fury of the new nativism that has risen up from Middle America with an ominous roar.
The prairie-fire spread of anti-Hispanic “Americanism” makes it incumbent upon Congress to pass an enlightened immigration bill that is both sensible and humane. But as the stories in this special issue of The Nation so vividly demonstrate, this new American nativism will not be tamped down simply by making legal and bureaucratic improvements to our immigration system. The roots of this xenophobic upsurge–fueled by economic frustrations and national-security phobias, and inflamed by voices of hatred–run far too deep for that.
The loudest voices of xenophobia have been elevated to the status of national heroes and soothsayers. Anti-immigration hardliners like Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo and inflammatory pundits like CNN anchor Lou Dobbs (see Daphne Eviatar in this issue), along with a massive echo chamber of right-wing radio gladiators and small-town newspaper columnists, have become the main sources of information for millions of Americans about the causes and effects of Hispanic immigration. States and municipalities are scrambling to fill the void left by Congressional inaction with a mishmash of “reforms” designed to crack down on undocumented immigrants and the companies that hire them. Already this year, more than 500 bills have been introduced in state legislatures. And in this year’s midterm elections, politicians all across Middle America–Democrats and Republicans alike–are one-upping one another with draconian proposals and demagogic rhetoric.
A militant grassroots nativism is gaining momentum, inspired by the idea that, as Minuteman co-founder Chris Simcox (see Susy Buchanan and David Holthouse’s “Locked and Loaded“) often says, private citizens must do “what the federal government refuses to do.” For the first time since the backlash against civil rights, white-supremacists are flourishing. So are the far more popular “mainstream” anti-immigration groups, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has attracted roughly 200,000 dues-paying members and supporters with a coded message that often differs from hate-group rhetoric only in its more polite tone and style.
Meanwhile, barely a whisper can be heard in the heartland about the economic benefits of the new immigration. Or about the decreased rates of violent crime in areas where immigration is the heaviest. Or about the strikingly similar values–family, religion, hard work–that Hispanic immigrants share with the most “traditional” of Middle Americans.
The anti-immigration drumbeat also drowns out a much-needed discussion about the working-class anxieties that have led so many Americans into the nativist camp: Why is the middle class shrinking? Whatever happened to upward mobility? Is there any end in sight to stagnating wages, disappearing benefits, corporate outsourcing?
The racist demagogues in this movement’s leadership must be exposed and driven back to the margins of far-right extremism. But as you can hear in the voices of Tennesseans (see Bob Moser’s “White Heat“), the new American nativism has spread so widely because it offers an explanation–a tragically false one–for the woes of the working class. What this outburst ultimately makes clear, above all, is the pressing need for an honest and fearless national conversation about the deep-seated anxieties that rapid immigration has pushed to the surface.