Ever wondered when the dehumanizing rhetoric of Latin American immigrants started? No, not President Donald Trump. It started in 1965 when a new immigration control system was introduced. The old system was inherently biased against Catholics and Jews, and the Center for Immigration Studies concluded that “the new system is widely seen as driving a shift in immigration composition from Europe (and) to Latin America.”
I was lucky because I entered the US under the old rules. In addition, the United States ended a legal route for Mexicans to enter the United States, known as the Bracero program, which provided work permits to Mexicans.
Gosh, growing up, I remember the nasty jokes about the Mexicans swimming across the Rio Grande, subjecting them to the “wetback” insult. All they do is “siesta,” the ignorant proclaim. The new rules mean that illegal immigration has increased from almost zero in 1965 to more than 10 million today. “How this happened is a complex set of unintended consequences, political opportunism, bureaucratic entrepreneurship, media shenanigans, and quite possibly a healthy dose of racial and ethnic bias,” the center noted.
OK, politics takes over and common sense is thrown out.
Political opportunism is the stepson of Patrick Buchanan, who ran for president in the 1990s. He recognized that immigration was a good political issue to run on — and, man, he really stuck to it. Before 1965, there were few negative tropes describing Mexican immigrants other than “wetbacks.” We have metaphors for the ocean, such as the “rising tide” or “tide” or “flood” of migration. However, this was quickly replaced by military metaphors such as “alien invaders”, “invasion” and even “Bonds suicide attack”. Former President Trump added, “The Mexicans brought drugs, which is an inhumane statement. They brought crime. They were rapists.”
President Ronald Reagan even said illegal immigration was a national security issue. In 1986, he told Americans, “Terrorists and subversives are only two days’ drive from Harlingen, Texas.”
Patrick Buchanan is a mile taller than Reagan. Illegal immigration, he said, is “part of a plot by the Mexicans to take back the land they lost in 1848. If we don’t control our borders, I’m going to see the disintegration of America (and) the loss of the American Southwest.” Buchanan concluded Said: “More Mexicans mean the end of the sovereign, self-sufficient, independent republic, the demise of the American nation. They are here to conquer us.”
oops! What surprised me the most was the rhetoric used to describe the people who wanted to be here. Describe me in three words: a “refugee” fleeing communism, a “displaced person” who spent five years in an Austrian displacement camp, and an “immigrant” who came to America legally. When I sponsored a Cuban family of five to settle in Minnesota, I won applause for helping Cuban “exiles.”
Some terms apply only to certain groups. For example, you have Cuban exiles, but not Cuban foreigners. Mexicans were never called refugees because the authorities were wary of using that term because it meant we had to let them in and give them asylum. So Ukrainians have no problem being called refugees – but Haitians are not. It’s fitting that some people call Mexicans “illegal immigrants” because it links them to criminal behavior, as Don Flynn of the Immigrant Rights Network puts it.
Do you understand it?
No matter what we call them or how many walls we build, immigrants will keep coming. There is no hope in the country they are leaving, once you get to the US there is hope that people will not stop buying lottery tickets even though the chances of winning the jackpot are slim at best. Undocumented immigrants and lottery players are both looking for the same thing: hope.
John Freivalds of Wayzata, Minnesota is the author of six books, the Honorary Consul of Latvia in Minnesota, and a regular contributor to the Opinion Board of the News Forum. His website is jfapress.com.