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Immigration debate’s venom angers Latinos

Citizen Staff Writer
DENOGEAN COLUMN

The vitriolic illegal immigration debate of the last few years has left Latinos feeling hurt and angry, according to a recent poll of both citizen and non-citizen Hispanics.

The finding isn’t too surprising. It’s what happens when one class of people becomes a scapegoat for a nation.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, which polled 2,015 Hispanic adults this past summer and released the results in September:

• Half of those surveyed said the situation for Hispanics is worse than it was a year earlier. Only 13 percent said it was better (the remainder said it was the same).

• Eight percent of native-born U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent said they had been stopped by authorities and questioned about their immigration status.

• One in 7 Hispanics said they had trouble finding or keeping a job because of their ethnicity. One in 10 reported that their ethnicity made it difficult to find or keep housing.

• More than two-thirds of those polled said they worry that they or someone close to them may be deported.

Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said the results reflect “the sad story of our times, where the understandable frustration about the breakdown in immigration policy has really spilled out and over into our communities.”

You can’t tell by looking at someone whether they are an immigrant or native-born. Unfortunately, that reality has put the entire Hispanic population, numbering about 46 million nationwide, “in the cross hairs of ugly vitriol,” Kelley said.

“It’s very tricky to talk about it because there are legitimate questions that need to be debated, discussed and disagreed on related to immigration policy. Absolutely,” Kelley said.

“So, it’s not as if you are a racist because you are raising questions about undocumented workers and whether they affect American wages. Those are legitimate questions.”

But what has happened, she said “is that some folks are taking advantage of the frustration that the public feels and stoking hate and fears.”

Hate groups and hate crimes targeting Hispanics and immigrants are on the rise, she said, an assertion backed up by the research of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and FBI hate crime statistics.

The Immigration Policy Center has taken note of the spread of anti-Hispanic rhetoric from hard-core white supremacists and border state extremists to supposedly mainstream anti-immigration activists, media pundits and politicians.

Among its examples is a North Carolina sheriff who accused illegal immigrants of being “trashy,” “breeding like rabbits” and spreading a culture of drunkenness and violence.

In Arizona, immigrants get blamed for everything from destroying the public school system to causing traffic congestion on the streets.

Some of the ugliest rhetoric I’ve seen anywhere comes straight off the Tucson Citizen’s online comment line.

In January, when a 5-year-old Mexican girl was rescued by the Border Patrol after being abandoned by a smuggler in freezing mountain terrain, a commenter described the girl as a future breeder of “anchor babies.”

I’m not easily shocked but that one caused my jaw to drop.

In Friday’s column, I wrote that I wished the presidential candidates would discuss their plans for immigration reform. Such discussion is necessary, even if it rattles the cages of the extremists.

Kelley is hopeful that a renewed debate on the issue can be held at a civilized level.

What’s been missing, she said, is a president “who’s willing to take the issue on, call it out for what it is, be respectful of the policy components of it . . . but also denounce the heat and the opportunism by these groups that are sowing the seeds of anger.”

There is good news on that front, no matter who wins the election, Kelley said.

“I see in both of these candidates a strong potential for a leader that can teach us all how to talk about this issue, how to think about people who come from diverse backgrounds, of different immigration status, to really begin believing in ourselves as one nation again. . . .

“I think, quite frankly, either John McCain or Barack Obama can do it. Either because of their background in the issue or their own heritage, they’ve shown an understanding of it,” she said.

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.

ANNE T. DENOGEAN

adenogea@tucsoncitizen.com

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