Esther Cepeda: Anti-immigrant angst is stoked by economic fear

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Esther J. Cepeda
August 29, 2015

CHICAGO -- We never need look very far into the past to see how frequently history repeats itself.

In the news are headlines about xenophobic political statements made to curry favor with the far right—suggestions to end birthright citizenship, baseless accusations about immigrant populations incubating crime and violence, and dehumanizing rhetoric aimed at immigrants, especially Hispanic ones.

Though those who are disgusted by such behavior like to blame it on this moment’s favorite bugbear, racism, it’s probably more about the uneven economy, income inequality, and the associated fear of losing out to a frightening “other.”

I just finished rereading an old favorite, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and was struck by how some things—anxiety and aggression toward perceived invaders—just never change.

Set during the Great Depression on the road between Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and California’s Central Valley, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel takes us onto the Joad family’s rickety truck to witness their descent from hardscrabble farmers to detested migrant workers.

Steinbeck described the degradation that comes with succumbing to severe poverty and didn’t overlook its effect on those who had been spared.

The hostility, Steinbeck wrote, “made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people. … And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. …

“They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights. … And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. … The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them—armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t let these Okies get out of hand.”

Are these not the exact same fears we’re hearing about today? Oh, these thieving, raping immigrants, some say, suggesting mass roundups.

Others have already taken matters into their own hands—two Boston men are accused of having beaten a homeless man with a metal pole and urinated on him because they believed the man was “Hispanic” and “an illegal immigrant.” The victim, however, possessed a valid Social Security number, making him unlikely to be in the country unlawfully.

Steinbeck’s migrants speak up for themselves in response to complaints of their supposed overuse of government benefits—see if this sounds familiar, too—“‘We pay sales tax an’ gas tax an’ tobacco tax,’” and “‘Well … how’d your goddamn crops get picked if it wasn’t for us?’”

William Conlogue, a literature professor and expert on American writers’ depiction of the industrialization of agriculture, noted that “The Grapes of Wrath” broke ground by portraying “whites being treated as if they were nonwhite.”

It goes to show how quickly desperation and discomfort turn into hatred. That’s not racism so much as it is fear, which I’d argue is at play in this most recent spate of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The stock market took a tumble last week, the economic recovery is still leaving too many people behind, the most recent tallies reveal more than 45 million people living at or below the poverty line, and unemployment remains high for those without college degrees.

It’s no wonder that, once again, normally levelheaded people are looking around for scapegoats. Looking around for someone to blame for their economic malaise, looking for someone whose absence they think would make their lives better in some tangible way.

That the hated illegal immigrants could not be eliminated without, in many ways, harming U.S. citizens (the Social Security fund surplus that illegal immigrants help create and their cheap labor, for instance, would be dearly missed if they all went away) matters little.

And their skin tone matters even less. Let’s not forget how Benjamin Franklin despised and feared German immigrants despite their similarly light-colored skin and European ancestry.

Racism and ethnic bigotry as a root cause of some people’s near-hysterical immigration anger are but a drop in a bucket. Anti-immigrant sentiment will ebb, as it always does, when the economy finds itself on more stable ground. Soon, I hope.

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