The winners write the history. And now that border restrictionists have won the battle to scuttle immigration reform, the history that many are desperate to write is that the debate was colorblind.
Really. The restrictionists and those pundits who have taken up their cause claim that race and ethnicity aren't even part of the discussion and that those who oppose giving illegal immigrants a shot at legal status would feel the same way if the immigrants were coming from Canada instead of Mexico. They say their concerns are limited to border security and the rule of law, and have nothing to do with nativism or xenophobia. And they reject any suggestion that the debate was hostile to Hispanics.
This is the fable being spun by CNN's Lou Dobbs, a commentator labeled by New York Times columnist David Leonhardt as "the heir to the nativist tradition that has long used fiction and conspiracy theories as a weapon against the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Jews and, now, the Mexicans." In recent days, Dobbs has argued that the Senate compromise died because Americans of all colors dispassionately concluded that it was bad for the country. Racism played no role, he insists.
Most Hispanics feel differently. I've seen three different surveys, including one by the Pew Hispanic Center, where majorities of Hispanics say that the immigration debate has led to an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment. And, as I travel the country speaking to Hispanic groups, one thing I hear is that "anti-immigrant" rapidly morphed into "anti-Hispanic" and specifically "anti-Mexican."
I get evidence of that every day in my e-mail. Just last week, after I defended the prosecution of two Border Patrol agents, a reader called me a "dirty Latino" who needs to get "back to Mexico." Another writer called me an "anchor baby" - the term used by nativists to describe the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States. Never mind that I was born in the United States and my parents were born in the United States. What I see here is racism.
That's also the view of the National Council of La Raza, which recently wrapped up its annual conference in Miami Beach. Speakers included Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton said the immigration debate has become "venomous." Obama, quoting from a 1968 telegram that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent to farm worker leader Cesar Chavez, said that Hispanics and African-Americans were "brothers in the fight for equality" and decried the "racism" that crept into the immigration debate.
For some reason, Dobbs took those remarks personally. He responded by poking at Clinton and Obama on his show, insisting that they were insulting the American people.
And he really went ballistic when NCLR Vice President Cecilia Munoz said that much of the immigration debate was driven by a "discomfort with Latinos" and the Senate had caved into "what was largely a wave of hate."
That prompted Dobbs to blast the NCLR as a "socio-ethnic centric group."
I'd quibble with Munoz. I don't think it was just hate that drove the immigration debate, although according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes against Latinos and immigrants are on the rise while hate groups use the immigration issue as a recruitment tool. Just last week, the SPLC filed a lawsuit against the Imperial Klans of America - an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan - and five Klansmen, claiming that two members were recruiting for the group at a county fair in Kentucky when they beat up and kicked a 16-year-old Hispanic boy and called him a racial epithet. The boy, who suffered cracked ribs and other injuries, is a U.S. citizen of Panamanian descent.
But this isn't really about hate as much as it is fear and ignorance. And ironically, one of the things fueling it is people like Dobbs.
"America has a long history of men like Lou Dobbs," Morris Dees, co-founder of the SPLC, said during a recent conference call with journalists. "Men like Sen. Joseph McCarthy who prey on the public fears. Often, they're xenophobic demagogues."
The people who buy into this demagoguery say the country is being colonized. That harkens back to what Benjamin Franklin said in the 1700s about German immigrants making up "a colony of aliens."
A lot of what Franklin said about the Germans was rank bigotry. The same goes for what other generations of Americans would later say about Italians, Irish, Jews and other immigrants - even if they came legally.
What poison. Thank goodness we got that out of our system.