I spoke with U.C. Irvine's Professor Leo R. Chavez author of The Latino Threat,* last week about Arizona's new legislation that delivers unprecedented power into the hands of the police.
Arizona wants to give their police broad powers to curb undocumented immigration by questioning anyone suspected of visiting America illegally. Why has this raised such resistance?
Well, rounding up the usual Latino suspects may sound like a good idea. But no matter how Arizonans protest, in their state "illegal" means "Mexican" since it's hard to visually separate a citizen or legally resident Mexican (or Latino) from an undocumented alien.
Why is this so troubling?
What is most troubling is the growing number of people jumping on the "get tough on illegals" bandwagon. Ethnic studies programs provide us with perspectives that enrich the dominant mono-narrative of white American history. Recently, Arizona's state legislature passed a bill to ban such courses because they 'promote the overthrow of the U.S. government'. Stanley Fish wrote brilliantly about this issue a few days ago in the New York Times. Meanwhile, other states are discussing similar "get tough" laws. In California, Representative Duncan Hunter proposed deporting the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants even though they are U.S. citizens. Increasingly, there is support to roll back the 14th Amendment and deny U.S. citizenship to any whose parents are not Americans.
Do you feel the immigrants' perspective is getting fair treatment in the media?
Not really, no. While such anti-immigrant policies receive media attention, little air-time is given to what I call the Latino Threat. (I use the word 'Latino' instead of 'Mexican' because even though discussions start with a concern for unauthorized Mexican immigration, they spread quickly to include all Latinos, even U.S. citizens who have been here for generations).
What's the reasoning behind the 'Latino threat' as you call it?
It was partly fueled by out-of-control Mexican fertility rates during the Mexican population explosion that followed on the Green Revolution. During the 1970s and 1980s, U. S. magazines carried stories about the "Mexican invasion". In America it was felt that rapidly expanding immigrant families would soon lead to entirely Mexican neighborhoods. Such concentrations would supported immigrants who would learn no English, and generally refuse to integrate. In many of these articles, there was a recurrent use of the Quebec separatist movement as a cautionary example. American popular journalists suggested many Latinos shared a desire to take over, or "re-conquest," the Southwest United States.
Can you give me an example?
They're quite plentiful. But the one I use in my book is from a piece in U.S. News and World Report in 1985 that claimed:
The heirs of Cortés and Coronado are rising again in the land their forebears took from the Indians and lost to the Americans.
Their movement is...both an invasion and a revolt.
At the vanguard are those born here, whose roots are generations deep, who long endured Anglo dominance and rule and who are ascending within the U.S. system to take power they consider their birthright.
Behind them comes an unstoppable mass - their kin from below the border who also claim ancestral homelands in the Southwest.
And this paranoia about the United States being re-conquered was a common theme during the eighties?
It still is. Fear sells, of course, and politicians looking for votes, as well as radio and TV pundits like Lou Dobbs and Pat Buchanan took up this paranoid narrative passing it on to renowned scholars like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Samuel Huntington, and David M. Kennedy. Sensational journalists and respected historians reached complete agreement that Latinos simply did not want to integrate into U.S. society. This belief has been etched in stone for about 40 years now. So the ideology at the bedrock of America's fear of migrating Mexicans and their children did not simply appear in Arizona a few weeks ago. It's been around for a very long time.
Do Mexicans want to emigrate to the United States permanently? Do they integrate into American society as other groups do?
I think so. Let me tell you why. Social scientists look for empirical evidence to support assumptions central to ideologies like the Latino threat. Recently, I participated in a study in Los Angeles of the adult children of immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Common to all these groups is increasing linguistic, economic and social integration into American society. Among the 800 adult children of Mexicans we interviewed, 55 percent of those with Spanish-speaking parents who were born or raised in the United States preferred to speak English at home. By the third generation, almost all (96%) preferred to speak English; while more than half married non-latins and less than half (45%) had remained Catholic. Mexican women show major declines in fertility upon immigration to the United States. Clearly, what I call the Latino Threat narrative exists, but it blinds us to the truth that Mexicans share in a broad statistical acclimatization that that characterizes all American immigrant groups.
What do you make of the continuing paranoia about Latins overwhelming the U.S.?
Unfortunately, what drives social paranoia is often the perception of a problem based on a set of assumptions that may sound "true" because they are said loudly and often. Threatening to deport U.S. citizens, targeting ethnic studies programs, and rounding up the usual Latino suspects does little more than stigmatize an ethnic group and causes more problems than such policies can solve. Even more troubling is that the Latino Threat narrative still has the power to undermine balanced discussions that could include the positive contributions of Latino immigrants to the United States. In such an environment it's hard to remember that many immigrants are fleeing to America in order to protect their families against the same narco-terrorism Arizona is currently fighting.
What do you suggest?
Maybe we could all cooperate like real Americans.
Professor Chavez' fascinating book, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation is available at amazon.com.