America Won't Solve Immigration By Loathing Latin Americans. Ask The Irish.

Jun 12, 2019

COMMENTARY

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 America once loathed the Irish.

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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.

No sooner had those Irish walked off the boats in America than they were maligned as undesirable immigrants – a bad-attitude Catholic swarm that wasn't as virtuous, hard-working or committed to American values as the Protestant Anglos who'd come over on the Mayflower. One Harper's Weekly cartoon depicted the Irish as brutish, drunken beasts witht the caption: "The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things."

It’s hard to look at that, of course, and not recall Trump branding Mexicans as rapists, murderers and drug traffickers at his 2016 presidential campaign launch. Or his complaint last year about immigrants from "shithole" developing countries. Trump can get away with demonizing Latin Americans for the same reason Harper's Weekly 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

Trump also wants to slash aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, aka Central America's Northern Triangle. That's stupefying when you consider that dystopian region sends most of the undocumented immigrants to the U.S.'s southern border – and shameless given how 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.

A Guatemalan farmer walks through a corn crop ruined by climate change-related drought.
Credit Phil Laubner / Catholic Relief Services

Yet millions of Americans unabashedly finger Latin American immigrants for the U.S.’s economic problems – just as they scapegoated the Irish in the 19th century. The truth is America’s economy would suffer significantly without undocumented labor from Latin America – just as Irish labor helped make possible 19th-century American achievements like the transcontinental railroad.

So while Trumpistas praise Trump for getting Mexico to do his bidding on immigration, I hope they realize there's no guarantee it will end the flow of Central American migrants to the U.S. That will require 21st-century Americans to stop reviling Latin Americans the way 19th-century Americans reviled the Irish ancestors of so many Trumpistas.