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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

May 11, 2009

Written by C.N.

The Degrees of Immigrant Bashing

Issues related to immigration, particularly undocumented immigration, have always been and continue to be some of the most controversial in American history and society. As I’m sure you’ve seen yourself, such issues easily provoke strong emotions from all sides and can be very divisive between and even within racial/ethnic groups. On top of that, the current recession and fears on the part of many Americans about their financial security only add fuel to the fire.

It’s within this context that many Americans and American institutions look to blame all or part of their problems and difficulties on immigrants. But this immigrant bashing can take many forms — it can be very overt and direct in the form of racial slurs and violence, or it can be subtle and indirect, implicitly supported or set in motion by politicians who are otherwise seen as “liberal” or “progressive.” I would like to explore these different degrees of immigrant bashing as they’ve recently been manifested.

On the more blatant and overt side, we see time and time again that racial prejudice and economic instability often lead to violence. However, the second step in this kind of blatant immigrant bashing is when the criminal justice system fails to deliver justice for the immigrant victim. This was evident is the recent acquittal of two White teens on hate crime charges in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant in Pottsville, PA:

The [all White] jury found the teens innocent of all serious charges, a decision that elicited cheers and claps from the defendants’ families and friends – and cries of outrage from the victim’s. . . . Prosecutors cast Ramirez as the victim of a gang of drunken white teens motivated by a dislike of their small coal town’s burgeoning Hispanic population. But the jury evidently sided with defense attorneys, who called Ramirez the aggressor and characterized the brawl as a street fight that ended tragically. . . .

The case exposed ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 that has lured Hispanic residents drawn by cheap housing and jobs in nearby factories and farm fields. Ramirez moved to the town about seven years ago from Iramuco, Mexico, working in a factory and picking strawberries and cherries.

Sadly, violence like this only seems to be more common recently, evidenced by a similar case in New York in which another group of men bludgeoned an Ecuadoran man to death with a baseball bat:

The two men accused of fatally beating an Ecuadorean immigrant with a bat and a bottle after shouting epithets about Hispanics and gays face 78 years to life in prison if convicted on charges handed up by a Brooklyn grand jury and unsealed on Tuesday. The two suspects, Keith Phoenix, 28, and Hakim Scott, 25, are charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and assault, all as hate crimes, for the Dec. 7 attack on the immigrant, Jose O. Sucuzhañay, and his brother Romel, who survived. . . .

The beating, coming soon after the killing of another Ecuadorean immigrant on Long Island, jangled nerves in immigrant and gay and lesbian communities. . . . Witnesses have described part of what happened next, beginning with slurs shouted from the car about Hispanics and gays. “Suddenly, Hakim Scott jumped out armed with a beer bottle,” Mr. Hynes said. “The two brothers tried to flee, but Scott caught up with Jose and slammed him across the head.”

Mr. Phoenix “rushed from the S.U.V. armed with a baseball bat, ran over to Jose, and repeatedly beat him,” Mr. Hynes said, adding that as Mr. Phoenix walked back to the car he noticed that the victim was still moving. “Phoenix immediately went back to where Jose was laying and slammed him several more times on the head with the baseball bat until his victim was motionless,” Mr. Hynes said.

This kind of sentiment is also reflected in the recent swine flu outbreak. Since the swine flu originated in Mexico, inevitably this has led many to engage in blatant stereotyping and racial profiling against anything and anyone linked to Mexico:

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!” And Thursday, Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended after calling Mexican immigrants “criminalians” during a discussion of swine flu and saying that emergency rooms had become “essentially condos for Mexicans.”

That’s tepid compared to some of the xenophobic reactions spreading like an emerging virus across the Internet. “This disgusting blight is because MEXICANS ARE PIGS!” an anonymous poster ranted on the “prison planet” forum, part of radio host and columnist Alex Jones’ Web site. . . . Savage speculated that terrorists are using Mexican immigrants as walking germ warfare weapons. “It would be easy,” he said, “to bring an altered virus into Mexico, put it in the general population, and have them march across the border.”

[T]he growing public health concern has also exposed fear and hate. . . . Fearmongering and blame are almost a natural part of infectious disease epidemics, experts say. “This is a pattern we see again and again,” said Amy Fairchild, chair of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. “It’s ‘the other,’ the group not seen as part of the nation, the one who threatens it in some way that gets blamed for the disease.”

These acts of racial hatred, violence, and blatant stereotyping are undoubtedly tragic. Unfortunately, they are only one example within the range of immigrant bashing. Other examples do not involve physical violence committed onto the immigrant, but nonetheless show the same kind of callous indifference to their histories and experiences. This is exemplified by the case of a Korean Canadian student who stood up to racial taunts and slurs from a bully but was punished for defending himself (tip to AngryAsianMan for covering this story first):

The 15-year-old was suspended for four weeks from Keswick High School over a fight that he says began when another student racially abused him and punched him in the mouth. The boy, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, fought back with a single punch that broke his antagonist’s nose.

He was initially the only person investigated, and police charged him with assault causing bodily harm. But 400 of his fellow students walked out of class this week to denounce the racist bullying that preceded the punch, and the outcry reached newspaper front pages. In response, York police reopened the case, and assigned a special investigator to probe whether a hate crime was committed. . . .

The 15-year-old said he regrets throwing the punch, but felt he had no choice after the other boy called him a “fucking Chinese” and punched him in the face, cutting his mouth. His father said the school doesn’t seem to understand the impact of the racial comment. Afterward, a vice-principal asked his son why a Korean was upset about being called Chinese.

“Probably they don’t realize how much it hurts when someone makes a racist comment,” his father said. “My son said, ‘I felt all the way down, like I am nothing, on the floor. Like they’re the master and I’m the slave.’ “

As an update on this case, the school board has reversed the initial actions of the school’s administrators and have reinstated the student, removed the suspension from his record, and canceled the expulsion proceedings. The Korean Canadian student and the bullying student have met face-to-face and have apologized to each other.

This is a small but significant victory for victims of racial taunting and bullying but in the initial actions of the school’s principals and administrators, we once again see the evil twins of immigrant bashing — the first is the physical act itself, in this case the racial slurs, bullying, and first punch directed at the Korean Canadian student. But the second and equally appalling part are the lack of understanding, indifference, and outright hostility of our social institutions to respond to such immigrant bashing. In this case, the school officials initially blame the Korean Canadian student for the entire incident and wanted to expel him not just from the school but also from the entire school district.

Clearly, these officials just don’t get how racism works, most likely because as a White person, they’ve never experienced being called a racial slur, or had their group’s history or experiences denigrated, or had their distinct physical appearance mocked in public.

Unfortunately, examples of immigrant bashing do not end here. The entire range of such sentiments also includes official acts of government supported by politicians who we normally consider to be friends and allies of the immigrant population. One example is the federal “Troubled Asset Relief Program” (TARP) legislation that was passed in February to help bailout struggling financial institutions. One provision of the TARP act requires banks that receive federal bailout money to hire American workers over immigrants. As many community and business leaders argue, such a broad generalization against immigrant workers leads to some very troubling consequences:

In Sacramento, business leaders are worried about completing projects without the specialized expertise of consultants from foreign countries. . . . In California, foreign nationals helped create more than half of the startup companies in Silicon Valley, according to a Duke University study. In 2007, foreign nationals accounted for nearly two-thirds of all engineering doctorates awarded from the University of California and California State University systems, the study found. . . .

Wadhwa, an engineering professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke and a researcher at the Harvard Law School, said some of his students are getting employment offers withdrawn, while others are frustrated and ready to move back home. He says it’s part of a troubling pattern in the United States: “Whenever there’s a downturn, you start blaming foreigners.”

In this example, I understand the need to make sure that federal money is used to help out Americans first. The problem with this is the assumption that immigrants are not Americans. Instead of seeing immigrants as productive Americans who pay American taxes, who buy American goods and services, and who contribute (many times disproportionately) in so many other ways to the economic health of the country — whether they are citizens, permanent residents, or even undocumented — immigrants are the first scapegoats when our country experienced difficulties.

Rather than looking deeper and more reflectively at the institutional issues that caused the current economic crises, such as high-risk loans and excessive greed on the part of financial institutions, we sadly and instinctively look to those living around us who seem to be different from us and based on this “Us versus Them” mentality, who we perceive to be not real, legitimate, or genuine Americans, and therefore, are somehow benefiting at our expense and therefore need to be vilified, dehumanized, and attacked — through our fists or our laws — as the cause of our problems.


April 20, 2009

Written by C.N.

New Attempt at Immigration Reform

President Obama’s first 100 days in office have certainly been momentous and ambitious. While most of his attention has been focused on the economy and the recession, he and his administration are still planning major initiatives in the near future on other policy issues. As many observers point out, this includes the always controversial issue of immigration reform:

Mr. Obama will frame the new effort — likely to rouse passions on all sides of the highly divisive issue — as “policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system,” said the official, Cecilia Muñoz, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House.

Mr. Obama plans to speak publicly about the issue in May, administration officials said, and over the summer he will convene working groups, including lawmakers from both parties and a range of immigration groups, to begin discussing possible legislation for as early as this fall. Some White House officials said that immigration would not take precedence over the health care and energy proposals that Mr. Obama has identified as priorities. But the timetable is consistent with pledges Mr. Obama made to Hispanic groups in last year’s campaign.

He said then that comprehensive immigration legislation, including a plan to make legal status possible for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, would be a priority in his first year in office. Latino voters turned out strongly for Mr. Obama in the election. . . . But with the economy seriously ailing, advocates on different sides of the debate said that immigration could become a polarizing issue for Mr. Obama in a year when he has many other major battles to fight.

Opponents, mainly Republicans, say they will seek to mobilize popular outrage against any effort to legalize unauthorized immigrant workers while so many Americans are out of jobs. Democratic legislative aides said that opening a full-fledged debate this year on immigration, particularly with health care as a looming priority, could weigh down the president’s domestic agenda.

In preparation for intensifying the national debate about immigration reform and as the New York Times reports later, the policy positions are starting to come together, as illustrated by a major agreement between the country’s two largest labor unions on forming a united position on how to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country:

John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Joe T. Hansen, a leader of the rival Change to Win federation, will present the outlines of their new position on Tuesday in Washington. In 2007, when Congress last considered comprehensive immigration legislation, the two groups could not agree on a common approach. That legislation failed.

The accord endorses legalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the United States and opposes any large new program for employers to bring in temporary immigrant workers, officials of both federations said. . . .

But while the compromise repaired one fissure in the coalition that has favored broad immigration legislation, it appeared to open another. An official from the United States Chamber of Commerce said Monday that the business community remained committed to a significant guest-worker program. . . .

In the new accord, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Change to Win have called for managing future immigration of workers through a national commission. The commission would determine how many permanent and temporary foreign workers should be admitted each year based on demand in American labor markets. Union officials are confident that the result would reduce worker immigration during times of high unemployment like the present.

Also this past week, the well-respected and non-partisan Pew Research Center released a new report entitled “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States.”

Based on March 2008 data collected by the Census Bureau, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that unauthorized immigrants are 4% of the nation’s population and 5.4% of its workforce. Their children, both those who are unauthorized immigrants themselves and those who are U.S. citizens, make up 6.8% of the students enrolled in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.

About three-quarters (76%) of the nation’s unauthorized immigrant population are Hispanics. The majority of undocumented immigrants (59%) are from Mexico, numbering 7 million. Significant regional sources of unauthorized immigrants include Asia (11%), Central America (11%), South America (7%), the Caribbean (4%) and the Middle East (less than 2%). . . .

They are especially likely to hold low-skilled jobs and their share of some of those occupations has grown. In 2008, 17% of construction workers were undocumented, an increase from 10% in 2003. One in four farmworkers is an unauthorized immigrant. . . . The 2007 median household income of unauthorized immigrants was $36,000, well below the $50,000 median household income for U.S.-born residents. In contrast to other immigrants, undocumented immigrants do not attain markedly higher incomes the longer they live in the United States.

The Pew report does not take a political position in regard to undocumented immigration and instead, as good social science should do, provides anyone who is interested with valid, reliable, and objective information and data to more accurately support whatever position they have on the issue.

However, my colleagues at Racism Review make a compelling argument that the data in the Pew report supports the position that legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants benefits us all. As one example, supporters of the DREAM Act that Congress is currently considering argue that legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants and letting them to pursue a college education will allow them to earn more money over their lifetime, which will ultimately result in them paying more taxes at all levels.

As I’ve recently written about, it’s shaping up to be another fierce battle between those who take an “deportation only” approach versus those who see the bigger picture and advocate “comprehensive reform.” I just hope that within this debate that opponents of legalization for undocumented immigrants refrain from demonizing and dehumanizing the people involved and instead, see the issue as an institutional and structural one, more so than an individual-level one.

Presuming that President Obama and his administration follow through on their plans to put the issue of immigration reform on the front burner of American politics, there will be plenty to say about this issue in the coming months.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Update: Shortly after I published this post, the swine flu began making headlines all around the world, particularly here in the U.S. Since it apparently originated in Mexico, unfortunately but predictably, we are now seeing a racist backlash against Mexico and Mexicans, as described by MSNBC:

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!” And Thursday, Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended after calling Mexican immigrants “criminalians” during a discussion of swine flu and saying that emergency rooms had become “essentially condos for Mexicans.”

That’s tepid compared to some of the xenophobic reactions spreading like an emerging virus across the Internet. “This disgusting blight is because MEXICANS ARE PIGS!” an anonymous poster ranted on the “prison planet” forum, part of radio host and columnist Alex Jones’ Web site. There is even talk of conspiracy. Savage speculated that terrorists are using Mexican immigrants as walking germ warfare weapons. “It would be easy,” he said, “to bring an altered virus into Mexico, put it in the general population, and have them march across the border.”