UNR sociology professor Jim Richardson worried about how long the immigration issue will stay nonviolent.

Aluino, who usually answers questions quickly, thought for a moment about this one. I had asked if he considered the illegal immigrant “problem” to be a civil rights issue.

“Civil rights is when people are being racist to each other or stuff like that. The term that I use, a sleeping giant, I mean—we’re standing up for what should have been looked at a long time [ago] and should have been solved a long time ago.”

It would surprise many people who know Aluino (not his real name) to learn that he is an illegal alien. He is an indefatigable volunteer worker, putting in long hours helping numerous groups around the valley. He has the time because he can’t work.

Aluino was brought to the United States by his family when he was nine. He’s now in his 20s. He applied for residency in 1998 and, based on the experience of other aliens he knows and official information, he expects the process to take 14 years. He has become college educated and done good works. But he is dependent on his family for financial survival and is anxious for the next eight years to pass so he can have a permit to work and start paying taxes. He craves the thing that most citizens dread.

“Obviously, the IRS loves it because you get to pay taxes again,” he quips.

It’s hard to imagine someone demonizing the friendly and decent Aluino, but he is one of the human faces of the current controversy over illegal aliens.

Earlier, chatting with a Latina over coffee on Wells Avenue, I asked her—a legal resident who started out illegal—what she thought about the new mantra of white resentment—“We don’t mind immigration, it’s when they do it illegally that we object.” I was curious because I had been reading reports of (legal) Latino resentment against illegal aliens, but I’m always suspicious of minority sentiments when they are voiced by white reporters.

A slow smile came over Liana’s face. “Yes,” she said in a voice that has just a wisp of an accent left, “we all know what a stickler the U.S. is for legality.”

She had a point. She is from Guatemala. U.S. society does not know its own history, but if we did, we would know that in Latin America, the United States is known as a notorious lawbreaker.

In Liana’s own nation, the United States trained death squads and engineered the 1954 overthrow of a democratic reform government, consigning Guatemala to one of the true horror stories of the 20th century—a reign of terror that lasted 42 years and resulted in deaths estimated from 140,000 to 250,000. It was all illegal under international law.

Historians seem to have lost track of how many times the United States has invaded Latin America—last week was the 80th anniversary of a U.S. invasion and seven-year occupation of Nicaragua, one of seven U.S. invasions there—but historian James Loewen says President Wilson alone ordered nine invasions of Mexico.

And, of course, there’s the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. The United States attacked in force and took today’s New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, California, and part of Colorado. One scholar, J.D. Furnas, has written that the current group of illegal aliens into the United States is “peacefully redressing the Mexican War.” As late as the 1960s, a U.S. attorney general was apologizing for that invasion. In contrast, the United States has been invaded by a Latin force just once—a Villa raid in 1916.

All of this is part of the lore of growing up south of the border. Little wonder that some Latinos are skeptical about the sudden delicate U.S government sensibilities toward illegality. The invasions have come home to roost for those who say foreign opinion doesn’t matter.

An alien is an alien is an alien
Politicians keep returning to this well. “The Chinese must go,” Nevada Gov. Jewett Adams said in his inaugural address in 1883, echoing the slogan that was heard all over the West until President Arthur signed Chinese exclusion legislation. In 1924, President Coolidge endorsed barring Japanese from the United States, and California passed legislation barring Japanese from owning property. Reno’s Chinatown was burned to the ground at least twice.

Anti-alien campaigns are like crack cocaine to politicians. A lot of groups have rotated through the role of detested aliens—Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Italians, Germans, even native born U.S. citizens themselves. At the end of World War II, people who lived in the eastern United States were subjected to British-baiting (I’m not making this up). The Chicago Tribune in 1946 published a three-part series under headlines like these:

THE ALIEN EAST:

A THING APART

FROM AMERICA

ITS MILLIONS LOYAL TO

LANDS THEY FLED

BRITISH-RED BIFOCAL

VIEW NO HELP

Anyone, it seems, can be an alien.

Nevada civil rights leader Lonnie Feemster says immigration is a civil rights issue.

In the 1950s, U.S. Sen. Patrick McCarran of Nevada won passage of immigration laws that favored white Western Europeans over all other immigrants.

The anti-alien campaigns have some things in common. Leaders usually knew how to talk in code. They knew how to manipulate the media. There was a narrow range of allowable discourse in politics and the media. The public responded to a “reality” created by that media. Those who disagreed fell silent. The target was among the most vulnerable in society. Once politicians turned anti-alien fever loose, it got out of their control. The “facts” claimed did not survive the later scrutiny of historians.

What is so alluring to politicians about anti-alien campaigns? University of Nevada, Reno social scientist James Richardson said hot button issues come in handy to politicians trying to get reelected when their real records are a litany of failure.

“I don’t think it’s any accident that folks are getting excited about illegal immigrants at a time when we’re basically caught up in another Vietnam in Iraq, and everybody around the world hates us, and gasoline prices are $3 a gallon.”

He considers the argument about legality a coded one—”just one more arrow in the quiver to use against people.”

Richardson said many politicians may not realize that they are playing with incendiary political material.

“I just think there’s some misdirection going on, frankly, and it’s serious misdirection. This is the most serious episode I’ve seen of this sort of thing in a long time. … Everyone that speaks Spanish and looks Hispanic is very close to being labeled as undesirable, whether they’re a citizen or not. … It’s an age-old tactic—play one group off against another.”

Richardson cautions that recent protests have been peaceful, but that the strong language used against aliens could trigger sharper reactions.

He said ordinary supporters of anti-alien campaigns often don’t know the motives of the groups or leaders they are assisting.

“When we threw all the Japanese into camps in World War II on the West Coast, we now know the sordid history of that and that it was economic self interest on the part of some powerful white interests in California that really caused that. And somehow we managed to survive in Hawaii without incarcerating all the Japanese Americans.”

He also notes that the alien issue puts Republican leaders into quite a vise. The party had been trying, with some success, to lure Latino voters. So with the sudden rise of the illegal alien issue, they are faced with a repeat of 1994, when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California promoted a state anti-alien ballot measure with language (“they keep coming”) that set back GOP efforts to attract Latinos by years.

The measure won, but Wilson’s party suffered long-term consequences. Wilson, also up for reelection that year, was elected with the smallest Latino vote in memory. And all across the nation, Latino votes for Republican candidates took a dive after the highly publicized California campaign.

“And the Republicans have been going out of their way to attract Hispanic votes, so they’re caught on the horns of a terrible dilemma.” Richardson said. “Karl Rove is back in the back room diligently trying to figure out which voting group is the most important and how high can you run your numbers if you take this tack versus that tack. I’ll bet there are some wonderful focus groups going on right now around the country. I’d love to be a fly on the wall.” (George Mason University public policy professor Mark Rozell says attitudes on aliens could also loosen the GOP hold on Catholic voters, who are sympathetic to mostly Catholic Latinos.)

Civil rights or human rights
This time, though, there has been a new wrinkle—playing part of the alien group itself off against another part. It was here that the media was helpful in spreading the coded words. Suddenly, mysteriously, everyone was singing in unison.

Chicago Minuteman Project founder Rick Biesada: “We have nothing against immigration; it’s illegal immigration that has to stop.”

Steve Wright, interviewed in Naples, Fla.: “It’s the illegal immigrants who poison the well for everyone.”

Latino leader Gilbert Cortez helped organize recent protests against anti-alien legislation.

Roberta Allen, a San Jose small-business owner: “It’s not the immigrants that are the issue. It’s the illegal aliens that are coming in. …We don’t know who they are, what diseases they’re bringing, what gangs they’re affiliated with. Are they terrorists? We don’t know any of these things.”

This last point led me to check something, and I found that an alleged terrorist had once been arrested trying to cross the border—the Canadian border. It was Ahmed Ressam, arrested at Port Angeles, Wash., in 1999. The Canadian connection is interesting because it helps illuminate the question of race. There are reportedly thousands of illegal Canadians in the United States, yet there are no vigilante groups putting up fences along the Canadian border.

Race and civil rights are impossible to separate from this issue, so I decided to contact some old civil rights pros. William Moon is a former local NAACP president.

“And I think as a black person I’m certainly in favor of civil rights for all people, but I certainly don’t agree that we should forget that we have laws and rules and regulations that we try to live by. … I do not consider it a civil rights issue.”

I pointed out that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s broke laws as a civil disobedience tactic.

“They were laws that were illegal laws, and sometimes we had to break the law in order to correct the law,” Moon said.

One veteran civil rights activist, who asked not to be named, said she prefers not to have the civil rights term used because in her mind it applies specifically to the struggles of African Americans in the United States. She prefers a different term—human rights.

She said there is a difference—blacks were brought to the United States against their will, but Latinos are coming in under their own power. That’s not to say that she doesn’t sympathize.

“And I am very sympathetic to the cause, but I do not see it the same in reference to what the blacks went through.”

But Lonnie Feemster, president of the NAACP chapter, said, “I see a lot of parallels to some of the arguments that were brought up during the period of slavery and the move for abolition. Much of the arguments about economic need to have low-cost workers doing jobs that are undesirable—in the case of African Americans it was cotton. Now it’s fruit and service. So I do see it as a civil rights issue. … I think it was [Martin Luther] King who admonished people that there’s a time to break the law. … Dred Scott ran away from the plantation. … Of course, he was breaking the law, and all the slaves that ran away were breaking the law.

“Now, the ancestors of many of the illegal immigrants from Mexico actually lived in some of the same places their descendents are immigrating to. It was part of Mexico until the United States, in a really shameful war, took a good chunk of Mexico. … So, I can see why some people think, ‘Well, look, it’s not that big of a deal. It used to be Mexico anyway.’ I understand that there have to be laws and whatever, but I agree that there are times when the law has to be broken to bring an issue to the forefront of the public debate. … These people didn’t shoot their way into the country. They walked in, and some of them are women and children.”

He said he thinks there is a low level of comprehension of the issue’s details and complexities, and people are reacting to slogans.

“It’s not hard to get agreement that ‘illegal’ means something that’s wrong, but illegal doesn’t always mean that. Illegal sometimes means that the law is wrong.”

To Gilbert Cortez, who helped organize some of the recent protests, debating immigration policies is fine, but a mean-spirited tone is not.

“There has to be immigration reform, but you don’t have to bring shit into the game,” he said, referring to talk show hosts like Bill Manders, Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs. Cortez is a native born U.S. citizen, but said he has had some unpleasant experiences with people who assume he is Mexican, so he feels a bond with aliens. He resents the comments “that we’re an infected people coming in.”

“Even having been born in this country,” Cortez said, “and even having fought for this country and shed blood for this country, throughout my years, I haven’t been treated all that well. And I have felt like a second-class citizen.”

Is there another way?
In Germany, when neo-fascists were using anti-alien issues, a national commission was formed to study the immigration issue. When the commission issued its report in 2001, it transformed the debate. The report called immigrants a national asset at a time when nations were competing for talent. “We need immigrants and not only as an exceptional deviation from normality but as the new normality.” said a commissioner. The recommendations were enacted into law.

There are obviously differences between the situations in Germany and the United States, but the more important lesson to bring away from the German experience is that it is not necessary to treat aliens as a problem. The German commission redefined the situation, and aliens became a solution.

Reno residents last month marched from their neighborhoods to a downtown Reno protest against anti-alien legislation.

This is easier to do if the nation is exposed to ideas outside the mainstream (the German commission had representatives of non-major parties). The Democratic and Republican parties seem not to have had a new idea in this field in years, and bi-partisan politicians who do want to break away from conventional wisdom are rarely willing to speak out. By contrast, U.S. third parties are a hothouse of ideas. Consider, for instance, the U.S. Libertarian Party:

“A policy of open immigration will advance the economic well-being of all Americans. All major recent studies of immigrants indicate that they have a high labor force participation, are entrepreneurial, and tend to have specialized skills that allow them to enter under-served markets. Although it is a common misconception that immigrants ‘take jobs away from native-born Americans,’ this does not appear to be true. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Labor reviewed nearly 100 studies on the relationship between immigration and unemployment and concluded that “neither U.S. workers nor most minority workers appear adversely affected by immigration.

“Indeed, most studies show that immigrants actually lead to an increase in the number of jobs available. Immigrants produce jobs in several ways: 1) They expand the demand for goods and services through their own consumption; 2) They bring savings with them that contribute to overall investment and productivity; 3) They are more highly entrepreneurial than native-born Americans and create jobs through the businesses they start; 4) They fill gaps in the low and high ends of the labor markets, producing subsidiary jobs for American workers; 5) Low-wage immigrants may enable threatened American businesses to survive competition from low-wage businesses abroad; and 6) They contribute to increased economic efficiencies through economies of scale.

“Confirmation can be seen in a study by economists Richard Vedder and Lowell Galloway of Ohio University and Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute. They found that states with the highest rates of immigration during the 1980s also had the highest rates of economic growth and lowest rates of unemployment.”

When was the last time bi-partisanship produced thinking like that?

The Nevada situation
Not long ago, the television program The West Wing depicted the election of a Latino president, Matt Santos, who was put over the top in the election by Nevada’s vote. I received an e-mail message from a friend, a former Nevada official who has lived in another state for the last quarter of a century: “And the West Wing claims the Hispanic guy won the presidency because of Nevada’s vote. Uh huh.”

He’d be surprised. Latino emigration into the state has been phenomenal, their numbers leaping over African Americans and Native Americans. Caucasions may yet become the state’s minority. (Anyone, remember, can be an alien.)

In the 2000 census, the rate of growth of Latinos as a percentage of the state population was highest in Nevada. The state is No.5 on the list of Latinos as a percentage of state populations, surpassed only by New Mexico, Texas, California, and Arizona. More than one-fifth of all Nevadans are now Latino, and in Clark County, which provides most state politicians these days, it was 37 percent in the 2000 census, which probably means it’s over 40 percent by now. It is affecting the state’s politics. Nevada has had two consecutive Latino attorneys general, and one of them is now a federal judge. The growth of Latinos is probably the reason Nevada politicians have been more restrained on immigration issues than those in other states.

In 1987, a proposal was introduced in the Nevada Legislature to make English the official state language. It’s unlikely anyone would propose such a thing now—what politician wants to alienate a fifth of the state’s voting population with one act?

Meanwhile, Latinos are helping the state’s economy boom. Census figures show Nevada with the highest growth of Latino-owned businesses in the nation—far ahead of the national average. Latino businesses in the state employ 13,000 people who earn $333 million annually. And those businesses have revenues of $1.34 billion annually.

Many of these citizens, employees and owners started out as illegals. “I came in under the ‘86 amnesty,” one owner says.

“I think that immigration is an asset to us,” Ahora publisher Steve Sepulveda said. “We always need new blood in this country, and that’s what makes our country great. That’s what’s always made America great, was the immigrants that have come to this country. They’ve brought new ideas, they’ve brought fresh ideas, and they’ve kept our country from becoming stagnant. … To try to stop immigration would be, in my eyes, completely foolish. … Yes, we need to make some changes in how people get here, and maybe we need to look at how many visas we’re offering because from what I understand we’re not offering near enough visas for people to get here legally.”

Some of the problems that have been raised as “issues” are trivial, as though some politicians don’t want a solution—they want the unsolved problem for political use—so they throw up obstacles. Words about “the land of the free and the home of the brave” are surely inspiring in any language. Does it matter who sings them or in what language? Wouldn’t we want people around the world to embrace them in all languages?

“You know what?” said Cortez, who was born in the United States. “I can go to China and become a citizen. I can go to Russia and become a citizen. I can go to Bolivia or any other country and become a citizen. … But I would still be a Mexican to some people because of my skin.”

It helps to remember that before any Latin American set foot legally or illegally in the United States, he or she was born an American. “I don’t know where Anglo folk got the idea that they created America,” Cortez said.

In 1967, Robert Kennedy said, “All of us, from the wealthiest to the young children that I have seen in this country, in this year, bloated by starvation—all share one precious possession, and that is the name American. It is not easy to know what that means. But, in part, to be an American means to have been an outcast and a stranger, to have come from the exiles’ country, and to know that he who denies the outcast and the stranger still amongst us, he also denies America.”

It also helps to remember that this dispute has so far been unfolding without violence.

Aluino, who would be an asset to any nation, contemplates his next eight years of waiting, saying, “I’m ready to contribute to the society. And I’ve been doing that, obviously, but—I mean, I’m ready to do great things in this community, and allow me to work, allow me to pay my taxes and just live a happy life without any worries.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...