A conservative Facebook friend in my native Indiana recently endorsed a meme that features right-wing radio rage-monger Rush Limbaugh saying today’s immigrants want to “erase America.”
When I suggested that what ol’ Rush really means is the erasure of white America, my FB pal lit into me like, well, ol’ Rush. She insisted this has nothing to do with the darker race of today’s immigrants but rather their darker “attitude” compared to her Irish immigrant forebears. The desperate caravans from Central America, she complained, just aren’t as virtuous, hard-working and committed to American values as the huddled masses from the Emerald Isle were.
That is hugely untrue. But it’s instructive – especially for those of us in bailiwicks like South Florida who take the Latinizing of America as a given thing and not a grave threat. The immigration deal President Trump just tariff-leveraged with Mexico may or may not stem the tide of Central American migrants. The real question is why so much of America prefers punitive, short-term immigration policy solutions like Trump’s instead of genuine, long-term reform.
And the real reason is that so much of America does fear if not loathe Latin Americans – the way so much of Britain once loathed the Irish.
When my friend brought up her Irish ancestors, I had just finished weeks of interviews with recently arrived Guatemalan refugees in Palm Beach County. Most are fleeing a climate change-related agricultural apocalypse that’s left large swaths of Guatemala stark and starving.
In other words, it’s a lot like the apocalyptic potato blight that decimated Ireland a century-and-a-half ago and sent more than a million people fleeing that country.
Ireland’s famine was made worse by abusive British rule, which had already helped impoverish the island. Britain's generally unsympathetic response to the Irish blight was summed up by the Illustrated London News, a proto-Rush Limbaugh platform of the time: “Great Britain cannot continue to throw her hard-won millions into the bottomless pit of Celtic pauperism.”
It’s hard to read that and not think of Trump’s remark last year about the U.S. throwing her hard-won millions into “shithole” developing countries like Guatemala. Or his stupefying move this year to slash U.S. aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – Central America’s dystopian northern triangle, which sends most of the undocumented immigrants to our southern border.
Politically, Trump can get away with demonizing Latin Americans for the same reason the Illustrated London News could get away with vilifying the Irish: there is, as there was then, a large enough base of popular support for it.
In a Washington Post op-ed this week, American University sociologist Ernesto Castañeda puts U.S. Latinophobia – which rivals U.S. Afrophobia – under a historical microscope. He quotes Texas' founding father Stephen Austin hailing the U.S.’s 1846-48 war against Mexico as an effort to stop the “extermination” of “the Anglo-American race” by the Latin American horde.
Only the truly naïve would deny that such sentiment, lingering throughout the U.S. even today, was a key factor in the election of a U.S. president whose marquee immigration accomplishment is the spiteful separation of Central American migrant families.
COLD WAR PROXY-PLAYGROUND
Likewise, as Britain’s dominance enfeebled Ireland, only the historically clueless would deny the U.S. helped create the conditions that cause so many Central American families to escape here. America’s use of Central America as a Cold War proxy-playground a generation ago is a glaring exhibit. The wreckage of those bloody conflicts is still evident in the isthmus’ appalling economic inequality, political corruption and most of all gang violence – the latter thanks also to Americans’ insatiable demand for the drugs trafficked there.
And yet millions of Americans unabashedly finger Latin American immigrants for the U.S.’s economic problems. The British did the same thing – scapegoating the Irish, and the so-called burdens they created for their Anglo overlords, for the 19th-century English social ills that kept Victorian authors like Charles Dickens on the bestseller list.
The truth is America’s economy would suffer significantly without undocumented labor from Latin America – just as Britain’s would have taken a hit without the shiploads of Irish grain ferried to England even during the potato calamity.
So while Trumpistas praise Trump for getting Mexico to do his bidding on immigration, I hope they realize it will by no means end the flow of Central American migrants to the U.S. That will require the Yanks to stop reviling Latin Americans as shamelessly as the Brits reviled the Irish ancestors of so many Trumpistas.