Backlash against illegal immigration grows

Illegal immigrants cross the U.S./Mexico border.
Illegal immigrants cross the U.S./Mexico border. Kevin G. Hall/MCT

WASHINGTON — Seven weeks after the collapse of legislation in Congress, the outcry against illegal immigration is louder than ever, manifested by proposed clampdowns at the state and local level and an uproar over the arrest of an undocumented immigrant in the execution-style slayings of three New Jersey college students.

Scores of organizations, ranging from mainstream to fringe groups, are marshalling forces in what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calls "a war here at home" against illegal immigration, which he says is as important as America’s conflicts being fought overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While most of the groups register legitimate, widespread concerns about the impact of illegal immigration on jobs, social services and national security, the intense rhetoric is generating fears of an emerging dark side, evident in growing discrimination against Hispanics and a surge of xenophobia unseen since the last big wave of immigration in the early 20th century.

"I don’t think there’s been a time like this in our lifetime," said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Even though immigration is always unsettling and somewhat controversial, we haven’t had this kind of intensity and widespread, deep-seated anger for almost 100 years."

The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, said the number of "nativist extremist" organizations advocating against illegal immigration has grown from virtually zero just over five years ago to 144, including nine classified as hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan supremacists.

Some senators who participated in the mid-summer debate over President Bush’s failed immigration bill said they were barraged with some of the most venomous mail of their congressional careers. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who supported the bill legalizing undocumented immigrants, said he has received death threats because of his position.

"It is unbelievable how this has inflamed the American people," McCain said in an Aug. 16 speech at the Aspen Institute in Colorado.

Eighty-three percent of immigrants from Mexico and 79 percent of immigrants from Central America believe there is growing discrimination against Latin American immigrants in the United States, according to a poll conducted by the Miami-based Bendixen & Associates.

Instead of taking a downturn after the collapse of Bush’s immigration overhaul in June, the debate over illegal immigration has continued and seemingly escalated. As prospects for congressional action appeared increasingly in doubt this year, all 50 states and more than 75 towns and cities considered — and in many cases enacted — immigration restrictions, even though initial court rulings have declared such actions unconstitutional intrusions on federal responsibilities.

Two counties in the populous northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., are among the latest to consider restrictions on immigration. Nationwide, many of the proposed ordinances strike a similar theme, penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants, barring undocumented immigrants from certain municipal services or prohibiting landlords from renting to illegal immigrants.

The murders of three college students in Newark — and the wounding of a fourth — reignited calls for a clampdown on illegal immigration after disclosures that one of the suspects, Jose Lachira Carranza, was an illegal immigrant from Peru who was out on bail awaiting trial on assault and child rape charges. The case revitalized an argument made during the congressional debate that the flow of illegal immigrants, though predominated by job-seekers lured by the prospect of higher wages and better conditions, includes a menacing criminal element.

A coalition of 15 anti-illegal immigration groups denounced Newark's and New Jersey’s governments of "negligent complicity" in the deaths through inadequate law enforcement. The protest was organized by Dallas attorney David Marlett, who founded ProAmerica Cos., composed of more than 400 companies that refuse to knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

The Bush administration, in the absence of the sweeping immigration overhaul sought by the president, moved earlier this month to toughen enforcement of existing laws, threatening steeper penalties against employers and more vigorous worksite inspections. Pro-immigrant groups fear the new rules could result in wholesale firings as over-reactive employers seek to avoid possible violations.

Demographers and immigration experts say the passions over illegal immigration in the opening decade of the 21st century are comparable to those that swept through American cities with the surge of immigrants who descended on U.S. shores from the 1900s to the 1920s.

The latest wave of immigrants — both legal and illegal — is predominated by Mexicans and other Latin Americans who are venturing deep into the U.S. interior to follow the job market, often settling in towns and cities that, just a few years earlier, were unaccustomed to Hispanics.

In South Carolina, for example, nearly 50 percent of the state’s foreign-born population comes from Latin America, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The pattern is similar in Georgia, where Latin Americans make up 55 percent of the foreign-born population.

The resulting demographic impact on local communities can often lead to social tensions that help explain the intensity of feelings over illegal immigration, said Meissner and other experts.

"Immigration is now affecting the entire country," Meissner said. "A larger share of the immigrants are going to these newer areas. The rate of change is dramatic."

The growing presence has resulted in a proliferation of predominately conservative advocacy groups, many of whom weighed into the congressional debate, to demand the government halt the flow of illegal aliens.

Many, bowing to America’s legacy as a land of immigrants, stress that they support legal immigration — though possibly in reduced numbers — but view illegal immigrants as lawbreakers who take jobs that should go to U.S. citizens.

"It’s real important that we keep the word 'illegal’ in front when we talk about what these groups stand for," said Marlett, the ProAmerica Cos. founder. He said groups in his coalition have no tolerance for extremists who "try to glom on" to the immigration issue.

But John Trasvina, president of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), said the backlash over illegal immigrants is clearly generating widening anti-Hispanic sentiments, often exemplified in hate rhetoric on talk shows and over the Internet.

MALDEF has thus far prevailed in legally defeating municipal immigration ordinances, but Trasvina said that "a poisonous atmosphere" remains.

"What these ordinances do is add tension to the communities," he said. "So a woman in the grocery is talking to her daughter in Spanish. It emboldens the person standing in line behind her to say, 'Hey, speak English.'"