The myth of the anti-immigrant majority

Supporters of immigrant rights can make a difference by organizing and activism.

Marching against Arizona's racist law SB 1070 in San Francisco (Josh On | SW)Marching against Arizona's racist law SB 1070 in San Francisco (Josh On | SW)

ALL IT took was one glance at the headline of the Pew Research Center poll released last month--"Broad Approval for New Arizona Immigration Law"--and the mainstream media had a new storyline ever since about the state's latest anti-immigrant attack.

Sure, SB 1070 enshrined racial profiling into state law. Taken together with Arizona's ban on ethnic studies programs, yes, it did seem like a throwback to the era of Jim Crow segregation. But what does that matter as long as SB 1070 is "broadly" popular? The "American people" are okay with racism. End of story.

It's up to opponents of anti-immigrant bigotry to make sure that isn't the end of the story.

The survey results from Pew and other pollsters do reflect broad public sentiment in favor of immigration law enforcement. But there are a lot of contradictions in that sentiment if you examine what people actually tell the pollsters. And more importantly, supporters of immigrant rights have the opportunity to reshape the supposed consensus on this issue--but only if we organize an energetic campaign to counter the anti-immigrant lies and make our case to a wider audience.

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THE PEW Center poll may have surprised supporters of immigrant rights, especially coming in the wake of the immediate activist response to Arizona's racist law.

According to the survey, 59 percent of people nationally approved of SB 1070. Only 32 percent disapproved. Nearly three in four respondents agreed with the core provision of the law--requiring people to have documents verifying their immigration status when asked by a law enforcement official acting on "reasonable suspicion."

These findings are similar to other polls, both specifically about SB 1070 and on the question of enforcement. But a closer look at the results undermines the media conclusion that people in the U.S. "broadly" support the policies pushed by the anti-immigrant right.

For one thing, there's a substantial generation gap in attitudes about the Arizona law and immigration policy generally, with people under 30 opposing SB 1070 in greater numbers. And, of course, Latinos, who have the most experience with the consequences of anti-immigrant criminalization and discrimination, oppose SB 1070 by a strong majority.

The polarization is particularly sharp in Arizona as a result of the interplay of these two factors. According to William Frey of the Brookings Institution, Arizona has the country's largest "cultural generation gap"--between older Americans who are mostly white (83 percent) and children under 18 who are increasingly members of minorities (57 percent).

What's more, among people who say they support SB 1070, the picture is more mixed than the headlines let on.

Numerous surveys show that only a small minority--roughly one in five Americans--agrees with the right wing's preferred "solution" of criminalization and deportation of the 12 million undocumented people in the U.S.

By contrast, an overwhelming majority of people say they would like to see national immigration reform legislation, including a "path to citizenship" for the undocumented--a proposal that the anti-immigrant right rejects outright. For example, in an America's Voice Education Fund poll, five out of six people who said they support SB 1070 also said they back comprehensive reform.

Obviously, there's a contradiction in this. The harsh enforcement mechanisms that many people say they support alongside "reform" are the prelude to the criminalization and deportation policies they say they oppose. Immigration crackdowns are not only a violation of basic human rights, but they undermine the possibility of a genuine "path to legalization."

The reason these contradictory ideas can coexist in many people's heads is because the right wing has been able dominate and disorient the debate on immigration in national politics.

The right's hysteria about a "crisis of illegal immigration" today is opportunistic. In reality, there were more undocumented immigrants coming into the U.S. five years ago and getting low-wage jobs. The debate has sharpened today because the Great Recession opened the way for the right to package its bigotry in a campaign of scapegoating immigrants for the crisis.

The small minority of people opposed to immigrant rights in any form has an influence far beyond its small size because, first of all, it gets outsized access to the media--but also because the right wing makes its case without qualifications or hedging.

On the other hand, genuine champions of immigrant rights--people who would make the case for legalization without punitive enforcement policies--aren't actually represented in the national debate. Instead, the "left" end of the mainstream political spectrum is occupied by the Democrats, who have given ground to the right at every step.

Consider how Barack Obama and his administration responded to the passage of SB 1070. When it was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer at the end of April, Obama criticized the law for undermining "basic notions of fairness." Administration officials promised that the Justice Department would consider taking federal action against it, which could lead to a court injunction before SB 1070 goes into effect at the end of July.

At the same time, however, Obama said he sympathized with what he called "frustrations" with the current immigration system that produced SB 1070. Standing next to Mexico's conservative President Felipe Calderón during a state visit last month, for example, Obama was the more cautious of the two, insisting that the solution to laws like SB 1070 was federal legislation with a "path to citizenship," but also toughened enforcement and punishment for both undocumented workers and businesses that hire them.

Then, just a few days before the May 29 national day of action against SB 1070, Obama took a page out of George W. Bush's playbook and announced he was sending 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest--the lion's share destined for Arizona--for a renewed border crackdown.

That was good enough for Jan Brewer. She declared after a meeting at the White House that she and Obama were working together to tighten border security.

The effect of Obama's qualified criticisms and actions has been to signal opposition to the letter of SB 1070, but to confirm the claims of the law's supporters that there is a "crisis of illegal immigration" about which the federal government can't or won't do anything.

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MAINSTREAM IMMIGRANT rights groups have signaled their disappointment in Obama's ramped-up enforcement and inaction on reform legislation. These groups had greeted Obama's victory as a signal that their voices would finally be heard in Washington.

But immigrant rights advocates, however well connected to the party establishment, aren't foremost in shaping the Democrats' position on immigration. Corporate America is.

Ever since the right wing's Sensenbrenner bill--which would have criminalized all 12 million undocumented immigrants, along with anyone who aided them--was pushed back by the pro-immigrant mega-marches of spring 2006, Democrats leaders have supported a series of pro-corporate immigration proposals masquerading as compassionate compromises.

The latest of these--the bipartisan "framework" for legislation from Sens. Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham--is the worst yet. It proposes a highly restrictive "path to citizenship" that ties the undocumented to employers through a guest worker program and requires them to pay fines and perform "community service," with the threat of deportation for even minor violations of the law still hanging over them.

And that's not to mention the sops to the right wing in the proposal--a national biometric ID card and, inevitably, more money and personnel for border enforcement.

These proposals don't reflect the interests of immigrants--but they do reflect the interests of Corporate America.

U.S. businesses of all kinds depend on being able to employ immigrant workers at low wages, so they don't want to see the anti-immigrant right succeed with its full program. But they also depend, in order to keep those wages low, on immigrants being denied full legal rights, including the right to organize unions.

This two-faced position can be seen throughout U.S. history and the history of other counties. All other things being equal, capitalists support the free movement across borders of every commodity but one--human labor. They seek to use the undocumented twice over--as workers who can be super-exploited because they have no legal rights, and as a group that can be pitted against other workers, whether native-born or immigrants themselves, to push down the wages of everybody.

In other words, Corporate America needs an immigration system that secures its access to cheap labor, but that also continues to consign immigrants to second-class citizenship--just what Schumer-Graham does.

And this is what passes in national politics for the "liberal" position on immigration. As a consequence, the case for legalization without punishing the undocumented and without tighter border controls never gets heard.

The contradictory public sentiment on immigration is the product of a national political debate that is taking place not between left and right, but between the center and a bigoted right-wing fringe.

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THE ANSWER to polls that show public sentiment against equality for immigrants--however shallow and mixed that sentiment may be--can't be to wait for the Democrats to take a stand or do the right thing.

Democratic Party politicians are, by nature, cowards. They hate taking a controversial position that might lose them votes. Compromise and concession are second nature to them--which is why the Democrats are uniquely qualified to serve Corporate America on an issue where it needs to steer between the fanatics of the right and the legitimate demands of immigrants.

It's up to immigrants themselves and everyone who supports social justice to take that stand, loud and proud. We need to apply pressure from below to counter the relentless pressure on politicians from above. Our movement needs to become a pole of attraction on the issue of immigration, so the debate isn't between the center and the right, but our side against theirs.

Such a movement can take heart when Obama and the Democrats feel compelled to criticize SB 1070 and even take legal action against it. That can open space for a genuine immigrant rights position. But we can't depend on the Democrats to follow through.

The New York Times put its finger on an important connection between civil rights struggles past and present in an editorial in support of four immigrant students who were arrested for sitting in at Sen. John McCain's Arizona office:

The fight for reform is stalled. It could be simple acts of protest that ignite a fire. Half a century ago, it was young people, at lunch counters and aboard buses across the South, who helped galvanize the movement for civil rights, and wakened more powerful elders to injustice.

One important lesson of the actions of those young people 50 years ago is that they weren't deterred by majority opinion. As SocialistWorker.org columnist Sharon Smith pointed out, national polls in the late 1950s showed overwhelming support for the most vile elements of Jim Crow segregation. By 1964 and 1965, majority views had turned around 180 degrees. "There is no doubt," Smith concludes, "that the civil rights movement challenged and ultimately changed prevailing opinion."

Supporters of immigrant rights are finding that they, too, can make a difference by organizing and activism.

The 50,000-plus people who turned out in Phoenix for the May 29 demonstration against SB 1070--not to mention other protests around the country--dwarfed the size of anti-immigrant events. The spirit on the demonstrations was defiant--and the actions marked the rejuvenation of a movement that emerged with the mass marches of 2006 that opposed anti-immigrant legislation on the federal level.

Perhaps the racist right thought it could intimidate immigrants in Arizona and beyond with harsh new laws. But rather than cement "broad popularity," the attacks are provoking a vigorous response.

Thus, when a Columbus, Ohio, radio station started promoting a contest to win a trip to Phoenix for "a weekend chasing aliens," it took all of 24 hours and a campaign of phone calls to force an apology out of the station. The next target, as the National Council of La Raza suggested, ought to be Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, to get him to move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Phoenix.

The coming months will be important ones for the movement, whether activism comes in the form of protests and marches, or boycott campaigns, or public forums in every part of the country, where people can hear the stories of immigrants themselves--and the lies of the bigots exposed.

The Alto Arizona Web site that spearheaded the May 29 day of action against SB 1070 is promising a "Day of Non-Compliance" on July 29, when SB 1070 is scheduled to go into effect. And more besides:

We will make this summer a Human Rights summer everywhere. Wherever the Diamondbacks play, protest. Wherever there are new police/ICE collaborations, push back. Wherever Arizona companies do business, boycott. Wherever there is injustice, we must shut it down.

The key to turning the tide against the anti-immigrant bigots is what our side does to counter the lies and stand up for justice.