The horrific massacre of 22 people in El Paso – under investigation as a hate crime – took me back more than a quarter of a century. That’s when I first began covering anti-immigrant sentiment aimed primarily at Mexicans in California.
It’s hard to accept, even with all I’ve seen, that we’ve reached a point when the president of the United States would choose to whip up rage at “an invasion” of poor Latin American migrants, and chuckle when one of his supporters at a rally shouted, “Shoot them!”
Trump is the most powerful U.S. political figure in recent times to exploit anxiety over immigration and demographic change. But he isn’t the first. He emerged from a generation’s worth of immigrant-bashing rhetoric frequently targeting Latinos that’s spread resentment nationwide.
The manifesto police believe the El Paso shooter posted last week is laced with hateful comments about a Hispanic “takeover” of Texas, and spiteful attacks on the children of immigrants seeking education and competing for jobs the shooter didn’t think belonged to them.
Back in the early 1990s, as a newspaper reporter, I saw what in many ways ushered in this era of hate and scapegoating.
In California, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson transitioned from a politician who denounced immigration raids in 1982 to one who won a tough re-election campaign 14 years later by attacking undocumented Mexican families.
At the San Francisco Examiner, I reported that in 1993 Wilson sought campaign advice from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, FAIR, a group that lobbies for deep cuts to legal immigration and produces reports consistently alleging negative impacts from immigration.
Wilson unveiled a TV ad in 1994 that was roundly criticized by Mexican-Americans as scapegoating. Footage showed migrants running through a U.S.-Mexico border entry. Narration, which later became a template for other politicians, implied that Californians were forced to financially support them: ““They keep coming,” an ominous voice said. The feds won’t stop them, “but requires us to pay billions to take care of them.”
Ironically, when he was running for the U.S. Senate in the 1980s, Wilson was quite unequivocal about his belief that immigrant workers were vital to Californians’ wellbeing.
“There’s no question our economy depends very heavily on Mexican nationals,” our Examiner story reported Wilson said. When Border Patrol agents raided Southern California fields back then, Wilson defended employers’ use of the workers, telling reporters: “I deplore the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] raids on farms here in the roundup of illegal aliens.”
In the mid-2000s, passionate debate over how to best respond to undocumented immigration exploded again in California. But by this time, the issue had spread nationally. A 2005 proposal in Congress, approved by a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, would have declared undocumented presence a crime, re-entry at the border an aggravated felony, and forced local and state law enforcement to detain suspects.
The Senate didn’t pass the measure. But while the bill was pending, Latino citizens saw themselves at risk. And California employers, not just farmers, also vehemently opposed the proposal. Protesters marched in cities nationwide in 2006, urging Congress to instead legalize undocumented workers. Newspapers again started reporting on anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic rhetoric that was by then flourishing on the Internet and burning up rightwing cable TV and talk radio.
At the Sacramento Bee in California’s capital city — where pro-immigrant feelings are now generally strong — I fielded calls from people like the anonymous man who wanted to see immigrant-rights protestors “mowed down” in the streets. Another frequent caller demanded to know if I’d checked to make sure that Mexican Army troops who arrived on the Gulf Coast to help with post-Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had ever left the United States.
Another called in a rage after I reported that a construction workers’ union was conducting bilingual meetings to beef up ranks. The union wanted Congress to legalize undocumented workers. An American contractor told me that Mexican crews had specialized in installing floors at a subdivision where the woman lived. Other ethnicities specialized in other types of construction.
“They should never be allowed to be in a union!” the woman screamed into the phone.
Another local story morphed into a national story about the spread of false and racist rhetoric accusing Hispanic immigrants of bringing in diseases, and inherently having criminal tendencies.
The 2007 piece started with a Sacramento daycare operator who told me that an anonymous caller had verbally attacked her for offering, among other enrichment programs, Spanish as a second language.
“This is English only!” a man growled into her answering machine. “That’s why we’ve got a problem with illegal aliens — because people like you are trying to change California into Mexico.”
Several more callers complained that she was “catering to Mexicans.” The woman’s neighbor told her she blamed Mexicans for driving up grocery prices.
In that same 2007 story, I reported that the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League had issued a report condemning vitriolic rhetoric targeting immigrants.
The groups pointed to Lou Dobbs, then at CNN, accusing him of spreading false claims about immigration and diseases. A Dobbs guest, for example, had made a wild claim linking immigration with leprosy. The report also criticized far-right TV pundit Pat Buchanan’s book characterizing immigration as a mortal threat to American culture: “The crisis of the West,” he wrote, “is of a collapsing culture and vanishing peoples.”
I also spoke to William Gheen, then and current president of the North Carolina-based Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, or ALIPAC. He told me that he resented the Anti-Defamation League associating him with racism. The group cited a video I watched of Gheen whipping up a crowd in Pennsylvania.
“These people have shown a pattern of disrespect and a pattern of criminal behavior,” Gheen told the crowd, rattling off murder rates in Latin American countries. “And that is what our nation is becoming like, because it’s common sense that when you inject that into a nation, that is what your nation becomes like.”
Gheen also told the gathered crowd that his “rough math” showed “we’re getting four to 10 TB active cases rushing across our southern border every night.” He told me that “the truth is not hate.” I also interviewed one of the country’s leading infectious disease experts, who told me that Gheen’s amateurish calculations were “more than ridiculous.”
“Truth still has to be truth,” the expert said.
But those gathered to hear Gheen that day in Pennsylvania, in an event more than a decade ago, never got to hear from that expert. And as I write this, hundreds of people are looking at entries posted on the still-active ALIPAC website that contain paranoid, fact-challenged claims.
Today the airwaves still crackle at Fox News with the same sort of immigrant-bashing that the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center denounced a dozen years ago. On one of his shows devoted to attacking immigrants, Tucker Carlson spun into a diatribe blaming “mass immigration” for bringing in “rivals” who compete with U.S. men, driving down wages and supposedly rendering American men less financially attractive and therefore less likely to produce children.
Public Integrity investigated exaggerated and false claims about immigration and wages that Trump used to gain hearty applause from crowds at his rallies.
But no one is typically on the Fox Network set to ably counter absurd, inflammatory claims such as Carlson’s, so millions of viewers are left to stew over another reason to blame immigrants.