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Congressman King, Cantaloupe Calves and Drug Mules

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Whatever political points Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King hoped to score this week, let's not give him any for originality. King took his most recent anti-immigrant comments about undocumented youth straight from an old-school xenophobic playbook, and Americans interested in the immigration debate should understand the extent to which the Congressman has plagiarized the past. Speaking last week to the website Newsmax, the Iowa Representative downplayed immigrants' hard work, their honesty, and their courage, declaring them a community of drug dealers peddling pot and promoting criminal behavior:

Some of them are valedictorians -- and their parents brought them in. It wasn't their fault. It's true in some cases, but they aren't all valedictorians. They weren't all brought in by their parents. For every one who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds -- and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they've been hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.

Along with others who oppose comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. Congress, Congressman King no doubt hoped to turn the American public's attention away from the efforts this week of young people like Santa Clara University law student Lizbeth Mateo, Kenyon College graduate Marco Saavedra, or University of Illinois-Chicago student Lulu Martinez, undocumented activists who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to highlight the fatal costs of our unjust immigration system. These DREAMers pale in the shadow of their fellow Mexican DRUGGies, King now insists, and we should all be far more concerned about the spectre of criminals and smugglers, strong ones with cantalouped calves, who threaten us all. They are the real immigrants.

Despite immigrants' efforts to correct such lies, Congressman King's name-calling strikes a deep chord in the contemporary United States. Declarations similar to those made by the Iowa Congressman have been echoed again and again by policymakers over the last century. As historians have shown, politicians from the 1920s forward justified their arguments against Mexican immigrants by likening that population to hardened criminals, and by suggesting that stopping immigrants at the border, or deporting them, would be critical to halting the cross-border trade in alcohol and illicit drugs. Then and now, federal spending encouraged cooperation between officials charged with regulating immigration and those who worked to enforce the nation's drug laws. When the Border Patrol was created in 1924, its annual budget of $1,000,000 paled in comparison to the $11,000,000 appropriation given in that year to the Narcotics Enforcement Division of the Prohibition Unit. Those intent to halt unsanctioned immigration found themselves joining forces with drug and alcohol interdiction campaigns, pitching their own efforts as part of the era's broader, more generously funded program to regulate narcotics.

This foundation provided a powerful recipe for post-World War II politicking, and when anxious elected officials and parents worried about the behavior of America's wild youth during the 1950s -- who listened to jazz or rock and roll -- many were primed to see Mexicans and marijuana as twin threats. And so it happened that Operation Wetback, the postwar period's first major deportation drive, brought a new, militarized campaign of immigrant policing to the U.S. Southwest. With Prohibition long over, General Joseph Swing based his efforts to drive the region's undocumented residents back across the border in no small part on the demonization of agricultural workers and urbanites as drug smugglers, saboteurs, and knife wielders. There could be no mistaking these immigrants for productive citizens-to-be. Their criminality demanded a vigorous and well-funded response from law enforcement officials, and both local and national policymakers cooperated with enthusiasm. Journalists encouraged the deportation of immigrants who threatened the young and old. The Oakland Tribune explained in 1953 that "crimes growing from 'Invasion Wetback' are not confined to narcotics and smuggling alone. There have been murders, burglaries, robberies and much pilferage."

In the aftermath of Operation Wetback, politicians and journalists re-spun the race-based rhetoric linking drug control and Mexican immigration restriction, and immigrants not surprisingly began to pay an even heavier price. Federal spending meant to regulate the U.S.-Mexico border increased dramatically, and immigration control became even more deeply intertwined with efforts to control crime. By the 1990s many U.S. Border Patrol agents assumed that all immigrants who ran from enforcement officials were drug smugglers and not simply terrified border-crossers escaping detention. Immigrants experienced new forms of violence thanks to the cooperation of well-armed immigration officers and drug enforcement agents, as when in 1992 a Border Patrol officer twice shot a suspected drug smuggler in Nogales in the back with a high-powered rifle. Historian Kelly Lytle-Hernández has shown that the escalating war on drugs during the late-20th century "provided a new logic of impunity that justified even the most egregious acts of violence committed by Border Patrol officers."

The ongoing criminalization of immigrants as drug runners has continued to shape some of the 21st century's most consequential policymaking in both the U.S.-Mexico border region and the U.S. South, along with the racialization of Mexicans as a criminal class. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer joined the old chorus when she claimed that "the majority of illegal trespassers" arriving in her state were in fact drug mules. Maricopa County's Joe Arpaio donned his hero's hat as "America's Toughest Sheriff" by waging war, according to the title of his memoir, on "Illegal Immigration, Drugs, and Everything Else that Threatens America." Law enforcement officials in North Carolina and elsewhere in turn have affirmed that "illegal aliens" are responsible for most of the drug trafficking in their states, bringing disproportionate policing down upon criminalized communities, often with violent consequences for immigrants and others.

With all this in mind, how should the public react to Congressman King's latest channeling of our nation's long history of anti-Mexican racism, his outlandish dismissal of undocumented valedictorians and single-minded stereotyping of drug smugglers and criminals? First, pundits and others would do well to see these declarations as neither fair, nor particularly interesting, nor original, following the lead of immigrants and their advocates who have recognized them as such. But perhaps more importantly, we should consider King's criminalization of immigrants alongside another favorite Republican strategy: The drawing of dehumanizing parallels between Latinos and animals. In recent years anti-immigrant policymakers have seemed eager to outdo one another in this regard, disagreeing only about which critter best embodies the negative qualities they associate with recently-arrived immigrants. For Representative King, as for many racists of the 19th century, Mexicans and others should be understood as dogs, a fact for which he refused to apologize in a conversation with Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos this week; for Tennessee state lawmaker Curry Todd, undocumented immigrants seem like unwanted "rats [who] multiply" in the United States; for Kansas state representative Virgil Peck, immigrants are feral pigs running loose on the land, wild and dirty animals whom Peck suggested might be shot down by armed men in helicopters.

Americans who know their history will recognize that these comments, like King's blanket statements about immigrant criminality, remind us of the virulent racism that we more readily associate with the 19th century United States. And those who have their eyes on today's immigration debates know that elected officials who resurrect such old thinking do so to promote increased border militarization and block any pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents. With this in mind, Americans committed to fair treatment, equal opportunity, and family reunification as fundamental American principles should reject Representative King's bleak and deeply ideological visions of our immigrant communities. His comments deserve scrutiny and critique, to be sure, but it seems critical to recognize the more important and instructive stories happening elsewhere: In California, where immigrants protested the appointment of former Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano as president of the University of California system; in Arizona, where DREAMers launched a fast to draw further attention to the need for immigration reform; in other major cities of the United States, where immigrants and others rallied in large numbers; or in Washington, D.C., where young people occupied Congressional offices in the hope of breaking the legislative logjam in the House of Representatives.

And so, rather than paying too much heed to an Iowa Representative who used his time this week to foment divisions, we might now attend more carefully to young immigrants like Lizbeth Mateo, Marco Saavedra, and Lulu Martínez who continue working to broaden our nation's horizons. It has never seemed more clear that Congressman King has much to learn from, and much to learn about, these young Americans.