Now comes the mid-term elections.
Perhaps what is most astonishing for me, as both an anthropologist and educator, is the level of racist discourse promoted by the current Trump administration against hapless refugees and the so-called threat they pose.
Indeed, Trump and his administration have focused on immigrants as a major threat to the security of nation. Such hyped-up racist rhetoric is completely false.
This vitriol against the caravan of Central Americans and Mexicans on their way to the US border was cruel electioneering, no more. These people are poor and are fleeing horrific violence in their home countries. Some of this violence has been caused by US policies in the region.
Nonetheless, Trump has staged the national guard at the border for photo opportunities of soldiers building coil wire fencing. Trump’s words of racist hatred have also inspired and summoned numerous paramilitary posses of armed militias to the US/Mexican borderlands.
Fear-mongering and racism against immigrants is nothing new in the history of the United States.
Toward the end of the 19th-century and at the turn of the 20th-century, many in the US promoted “Nativism”—an all-white America where good jobs belonged to Whites, not foreigners. This was the historical period known as the “Second-Industrial Revolution,” the “Gilded Age,” and the “Progressive Era”—a time of enormous economic transformation for the country through industrialization and urbanization.
Those on the West Coast blamed the loss of jobs and low wages on Chinese immigrants. This resulted in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act by the US Congress in 1882. In 1907 there was also a “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan to restrict Japanese emigration.
By 1924 the US Congress passed the “Immigration Act,” thereby limiting immigration from Eastern and Southern Europeans such as those with Greek, Italian, Polish, and Jewish origins and banned Asians.
During the mid-nineteenth century, a huge wave of Irish immigrants came to the US because of the “Great Famine” (1845-1849) in Ireland. These Irish worked in the worst jobs possible. They built the railroads connecting the country to the West Coast, constructed canals, and provided cheap labor for much of northern industry. In this period, the Irish were viewed as dogs, drunkards, and non-human apes, barely considered White.
Conditions in manufacturing were generally deplorable for all new immigrants in the Gilded Age. Workers were not protected and required to work 14-16 hour days, six or seven days a week, nearly 365 days a year. Children worked too and were not required to attend school. A typical unskilled laborer at the time earned no more than $8-10 per week.
Upton Sinclair’s historical novel, The Jungle (1904), illustrates these hazardous conditions for immigrants in Chicago’s meatpacking industry—lost limbs and digits, no workman’s compensation, unsanitary conditions, and dangerous work.
In the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886, several German immigrants were unfairly accused of instigating a protest where policemen were killed. The injustice of the following trial was so evident that the governor of Illinois commuted some of the sentences of those accused.
Fear of immigrants, even American citizen descendants of some of them, was also evident during World War II with the racialized internment of Japanese-Americans into concentration camps. Some 100,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned between 1942 and 1945, preventing a non-existent threat.
Mythologies persist. Immigrants are easy scapegoats and targets because they often do not have a voice to protest such falsehoods against them.
Indeed, immigrants are often the hardest working populations under the worst conditions, wanting a better life for their families. We find this in new immigrant populations coming from Mexico and Central America to the United States today. These are people who work in the fields picking our fruits and vegetables, doing domestic work and caring for our children, laboring in meatpacking plants, working in landscaping and mowing our lawns, cleaning motel rooms, and preparing our food in the restaurant industry.
I have been advocating on behalf of the Guatemalan-Maya population in South Florida since 1990. Many of these immigrants arrived here from the genocide and civil war in Guatemala in the early 1980s where the US was indirectly involved, having trained the country’s military leaders in the School of the Americas and supplying the military junta with weapons.
During the 1980s the US intervened more directly in the civil wars in Central American countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua. Such US military interventionism was “justified” as against the spread of communism, yet caused greater instability in the region.
Moreover, US economic trade policies of the 1990s such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) have consistently undermined the economic opportunities of those living in countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Employers in Central America have consistently violated minimum wage agreements and fair labor conditions.
These 5,000 people coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico pose no threat to the security of the United States. It will not be difficult to prevent them from crossing our border.
But the fake news created by the Trump administration will most likely persist in the American imagination:
• Our Pentagon says there is no threat of Middle Eastern terrorists amongst this caravan of mostly poor Central Americans.
• Nor was the Democratic Party responsible for organizing the caravan. Migrant caravans have been coming to the United States-Mexican borders for years under both Republican and Democrat administrations.
• Traveling in numbers makes the journey safer for these migrants. Often migrants are commonly victims of real threats of violence along the way—murder, rape, and robbery.
• Nor is the Honduran government financially supporting the caravan.
• And finally, these people cannot just return to their home countries and apply for political asylum there. They must be in the United States to apply for asylum and citizenship.
The situation in Central America is a humanitarian crisis on a large scale. It is a crisis largely caused by US policies in the region. We have often treated those south of the border as inferior peoples since the beginning of our imperialist aims in the Western Hemisphere with the Monroe Doctrine, then the Roosevelt Corollary, and US military interventionism over the last century throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.
Do not be fooled by Trump’s racist rhetoric. These immigrants are desperate human beings wanting survival for their families. They are not security threats. They should be protected and sheltered and given the same opportunities as our ancestors arriving at Ellis Island.
Rather, Emma Lazarus’ words (1883), should echo with everyone: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” This is the true America and the ideals we all hold dear.
J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. He has a PhD from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice (2015).