Scott Olson / Getty Images

The danger of GOP’s anti-immigrant rhetoric

Immigrant advocates should be as wary of Ted Cruz’s candidacy as Donald Trump’s

February 6, 2016 2:00AM ET

On Feb. 1, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the Iowa Republican caucuses with a four percent edge over businessman-turned presidential candidate Donald Trump. The loss by the GOP frontrunner may come as a relief for some.

Trump is not the only Republican contender spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric, but he’s been one of the most vocal and vitriolic. The New York billionaire does not even attempt to shroud his racism. For example, announcing his presidential bid in June, Trump said of Mexican immigrants, whom he referred to as “rapists,” that “they bring drugs” and “they bring crime.”

At the time, I promised myself that I wouldn’t write about him. Not only did I want to avoid expending energy on such a pitiful and detestable candidate, as a daughter of formerly undocumented Mexican immigrants, it hurt me to fully examine what his presence signified for us in this country.

My parents immigrated to the United States in 1978. They crossed the Tijuana border through the desert with a coyote, then passed the Border Patrol check points by riding in the trunk of a Cadillac. Like many immigrants, they were escaping the bleak economic realities of their birthplace. They have now lived in the United States much longer than they ever lived in Mexico and are as American as anyone else in this country. I grew up in Chicago, and though I often felt I had two conflicting cultural identities, I too am very much American. In fact, I would argue that this experience is quintessentially American. Except for Native Americans, we are either immigrants or descend from them. That should be obvious, but it seems as if many politicians forget this fact.

My parents, along with 3 million other immigrants, were fortunate to be granted amnesty in 1986, thanks to Ronald Reagan, who — ironically— is the patron saint of many conservatives. Reagan’s immigration reform allowed my parents to work legally, so they no longer had to live in fear of deportation. Although they experienced poverty, exploitation and discrimination, they were, and continue to be, grateful to be here. 

One moment in which I understood our status in this country was when I was at a diner with my mother. I was 15 or so, and as usual, I was in charge of ordering because of my mother’s limited English. The waitress scowled at us and then turned around and gleefully chatted with the white patrons at the next table. I was both enraged and dumbfounded, and left a note that said, “Mexicans are people, too.” Clearly, we were different; we were not welcome. And these kinds of experiences were not infrequent. People in public spaces would glare at us when we spoke Spanish to each other, as if this somehow offended them.

Fast forward nearly three decades and, I would argue that the general sentiment toward immigrants is worse than it was then. Conservatives, looking for the scapegoat for all of America’s ills, from the economy to crime, have pointed their finger at this already vulnerable group of people.

I would like to dismiss the extreme nativism of Trump and other conservative politicians, but their violent rhetoric can no longer be ignored.

In 2013, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) compared immigrants to a litter of puppies. During his run for presidency, Mitt Romney hilariously suggested that immigrants “self-deport.” While I’d like to think of these kinds of politicians as outliers, there are too many of them (with plenty of supporters) who fear or resent immigrants. This swell of immigrant hatred follows President Barack Obama’s record-breaking 2 million deportations. In 2014 alone, the Department of Homeland Security deported 414,481 people. The message is clear: We are not wanted here.

Anti-immigration and anti-Mexican hysteria is nothing new. It is deeply rooted in U.S. history. In the 1930s and 40s, 2 million Mexicans, by some estimates more than half of them citizens, were rounded up and sent back to Mexico. Lynch mobs often attacked Mexicans although it is often carefully omitted from history books. From 1848 to 1928, thousands of Mexicans were killed in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. In November, Trump praised President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1954 Operation Wetback, a military-style deportation program that rounded up more than 1 million people. Mexicans were placed on ships where they endured extreme heat. In one case, 88 migrant workers died of sunstroke.

Conservatives continue to manipulate people’s fears by scapegoating immigrants, refugees and people of color. For example, a swell of Central American immigrants has arrived in the U.S. over the past two years, fleeing horrific gang and gender violence. The Washington Office on Latin America estimates that at least 37,036 unaccompanied Central American minors have crossed the border into the U.S. in 2015. Like Syrians, these refugees, many of them children, are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Yet Central American refugees are often lumped together with economic migrants in most political discourse.

The economic dimension of the immigration debate is often overlooked. U.S. depends on Mexico’s cheap labor and resources. This has caused the migration of many Mexican farmers who lost their livelihood when they could no longer to compete with U.S. corn prices. Most of them enter the U.S. without documents and work low paying jobs that benefit tycoons such as Trump. Yet he has been instrumental in stoking the fires of racists across the country. (In the past few months, Trump supporters have attacked and booted Latino, Sikh and Black Lives Matter protesters from his public rallies.)

I would like to dismiss the extreme nativism of Trump and other conservative politicians, but their violent rhetoric can no longer be ignored. As evidenced by the Planned Parenthood attacker who in November fatally shot two civilians and a police officer proclaiming, “No more baby parts,” words matter and politicians have an incredibly strong influence. Trump may not win the GOP nomination, but the effects of his hate speech have already proved damaging. His verbal attacks can easily manifest as acts of violence.

As for the Iowa victor, Cruz is nearly as extreme as Trump and will undoubtedly continue the conservative crusade against immigrants. He was born in Canada to a Cuban father but the Texas lawmaker is one of the staunchest anti-immigration politicians today. He wants to build a wall on the southern border, end birthright citizenship and halt immigration reform. Immigrant advocates should be equally wary of his nomination as the possibility of Trump’s victory.

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and writer living in Chicago. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Guardian and other publications. She is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and a "Discovery"/Boston Review poetry prize. Find her at www.erikalsanchez.com or on Twitter at @ErikaLSanchez.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter