Recall: On the hateful rhetoric of 2011's immigration debate 

click to enlarge Herman Cain
  • Herman Cain

Civil unrest here and abroad, epic natural disasters, political entrenchment, the re-emergence of the McRib: 2011 yielded much at which we can reflect on with consternation. But for me — a first-generation Mexican-American — the anxiety-inducing development that resonated the most was the ever-cresting tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. There was Arizona’s SB 1465 barring state government agencies from accepting consular ID cards issued by foreign countries as valid forms of identification. Inspired by previous anti-immigration Arizona laws came a plethora of “papers please” laws enabling police to demand identification during traffic stops in South Carolina, Georgia, Utah, Indiana, and Alabama. The ugly political rhetoric invoking the implausibility of immigrants birthing progeny dubbed “anchor babies” intent on terrorism once grown left me baffled and queasy. The likening of undocumented immigrants to vermin (see: Michael Savage) or feral hogs (see: Kansas state lawmaker Virgil Peck) both hurt and angered the soul. I was horrified as politicians voiced their visions of an electrified fence along the Texas-Mexico border to, ostensibly, electrocute immigrants (see: Herman Cain). And the specter of Texas gerrymandering to dilute the Hispanic vote confirmed suspicions that brown skin is still seen in some powerful camps as a threat to the status quo.

The counterintuitive nature of such attacks hit me with the force of epiphany during a walk in my neighborhood last summer. Over the din of traffic, I could hear construction workers consulting on the road project that lay ahead of them as I strolled along the sidewalk. Their words were unintelligible given the traffic noise, but the melodic lilt of their conversation alerted me they were speaking in Spanish as they toiled to improve the stretch of Vance Jackson in the grueling heat of a South Texas summer. It’s trite, I suppose, to tick off immigrants’ contributions, but it’s all true. Roads would be in disrepair, restaurants and office buildings would stay messy, landscaping would be neglected, and even your children might be left with unreliable care were it not for immigrants. Plain and simple, immigrants are here to perform the jobs Americans are loath to take on. While I concede a need for immigration reform, I've been horrified at the tone of the debate in a nation built by immigrants. Considering the most hateful rhetoric, my thoughts drift to memories of my father. Born in Mexico, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen while still a child. By the time World War II came around, he volunteered without hesitation to fight for his adopted country, seeing combat in the South Pacific. My dad had a way of coping when faced with discrimination. In his South Texas childhood, bigotry was an accepted way of life, and he was forced to pass by signs in shop windows on the way to school reading, “No Mexicans or dogs allowed.” But he got through it. When he took tacos to school to eat at lunchtime, the kids teased the taco-eating Mexican. But he coaxed them to trade and soon would be enjoying strudel and other exotic treats from some of the other kids. Soon, the little white kids would start coming to him at lunch asking if he had more of those tasty tacos to trade. Friendships were sparked over such exchanges.

My father had a way of coping, adapting to, and sometimes even changing mindsets when faced with discrimination. He died of cancer in ’88 and I miss him every day. But sometimes, I’m relieved he didn’t live to see what’s happened to this country in terms of the immigration dialogue. If my old man had seen what the country he defended had become — even after all he had personally faced down — it would just kill him.




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