On the Bicentennial Mall outside the legislative building last week, a dozen immigration activists and conservative lawmakers delivered a series of red-meat tirades against undocumented immigrants, blaming them for drunken driving, gang warfare, crowded emergency rooms—and even, some insinuated, the fall of civilization.
Their rhetoric was designed not only to inflame, but also served as code: In trumping up the social and economic threats allegedly posed by undocumented immigrants, groups such as the Minutemen and Americans for Legal Immigration are tacitly justifying violence among activists—should it erupt—as the cost of defending America.
The latest threat, according to rally organizer and ALI-PAC president William Gheen, is permitting undocumented immigrants to pay their way through college. Gheen called the "emergency" rally June 18 to protest House Bill 2717, which would prohibit the state's community colleges from denying admission to illegal immigrants willing to pay out-of-state tuition—typically five times as much as the cost of in-state tuition.
No such prohibition exists within federal law. Yet last month, N.C. Community College System President R. Scott Ralls imposed a moratorium on degree-seeking students who couldn't prove their legal residency, following the recommendation of N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper. The bill would reverse Ralls' ban, and is waiting to be heard in the House education committee.
However, bill sponsor state Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) said in an interview that, based on its misrepresentation by anti-immigration groups, she doubted the measure would clear the committee this session. (State Reps. Paul Luebke of Durham and Rick Glazier of Cumberland County co-sponsored the bill.)
"From the e-mails that I get in opposition to the bill, it's primarily based on the fact that taxpayers don't want their money going to services provided to illegal immigrants, and they think they're taking the place of North Carolina students. Neither is the case."
During the rally, Gheen asked legislators considering Harrison's bill, "Which one of you is willing to sacrifice your children's, and your grandchildren's, place in college?"
However, of 1 million total students who attend college in North Carolina, only 144 are undocumented, according to Harrison.
"It's sort of a no-brainer to me," Harrison said. "Do you want to create productive members of society, or do you want to create a permanent underclass? From what I hear anecdotally, these kids, seeing that they don't really have a chance at a better life, are dropping out of high school and turning to crime and gangs. We ought to pay now or pay later, and it makes more sense to educate them."
The public relations strategy of ALI-PAC and the Minutemen is to equate illegal immigration with bloodshed, and they couch their language in violent terms. ALI-PAC regularly sends e-mail news alerts associating immigration with violence and ethnic warfare. Incendiary subject lines include: "Immigrants are attacking," "Battlestations: Immigrants in a Lose-Lose situation today" and "Illegals Supporters Riot in WA, marches bomb, five arrested."
Minutemen groups charge themselves with "securing the border" by patrolling for illegal immigrants. Its members focus their homespun crime-stopping on the "human flood breaching our Homeland Defense." The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a national group, clearly identifies the source of that flood on its Web site: It features a close-up photo of a white face with a tear streaming down it, as the Mexican flag is superimposed over an upside-down American flag.
Chris Simcox, co-founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, told the sprinkling of onlookers, "Too many [immigrants] are entering this country, not to take the jobs that so-called Americans won't take, but to do the crimes that we allow them to commit."
Yet the majority of crime in America is still homegrown. A report by the Public Policy Center of California found that adult males born in the United States are two and half times more likely to commit crimes than foreign-born adult men.
While Gheen acknowledged that "Yes, Americans commit crimes and Americans drink and drive," he charged "we have illegal aliens that are drinking and driving, and vicious, very dangerous, gangs in this state that are killing people ... these people are dead because the government is failing in its most basic responsibilities to the citizenry."
Defending the anti-immigration activists were several state legislators, including Republican Reps. John Blust, Dale Folwell, Wil Neumann and Paul Stam (of Wake County) and Republican Sens. Andrew Brock and Neal Hunt (also of Wake)—many of whom used the occasion to ratchet up fears of immigrants.
Folwell reminded attendees that while people with brown skin who spoke a language other than English weren't necessarily illegal, "there's a correlation." He said illegal immigration "hit home" when he walked into hospitals, ostensibly referring to the ethnicity, or language, of patients.
Folwell also offered as evidence of the "cost" of immigration the fact that "every publication" published on the issue "had to be in two languages." He then delivered this doomsday prediction: "As a student of economic history, I can tell you that there's two things that civilizations never survive: devaluation of their currency, or devaluation of their language, and these are two things Americans are facing at the same time."
During tough economic times, anti-immigration activists often use the immigration issue to try to instill fear, particularly among working-class Americans, that foreigners will displace them from their jobs. N.C. Listen Director Ron Woodard cited —wrongly—a UNC-Chapel Hill study that "pointed out that North Carolina workers are losing $1.9 billion a year due to out-of-control immigration."
In fact, UNC professors James Johnson and John Kasarda co-authored a 2006 study that found Hispanics contribute $9 billion a year to the state's economy, while saving the private sector $1.9 billion in wage costs due to labor efficiency.
"Some of these labor-cost savings keep North Carolina's businesses competitive, while others are passed on in the form of lower prices to North Carolina," the report found.
With the exception of two Latinos invited by activists, the rally was predominantly white. Gheen, who has deflected accusations of race-baiting in the past, insisted that the anti-illegal immigration movement is color-blind:
"Radical groups, to the left, are constantly injecting race into this conversation, and we wish they would stop." He added: "It is time—black, white ... Latino—every American, I mean every American, realizes that when you have 80 percent of the American public [who support] the existing [immigration] laws, that say, 'This is what needs to be done in the United States,' then that's what you do. All together."
The poll Gheen referenced was conducted in 2007 by the Civitas Institute—a North Carolina-based conservative think tank—in the midst of heated debate over an immigration reform bill sponsored by U.S. Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy. The Civitas poll framed the bill as providing "amnesty" to illegal immigrants, the same argument conservative talk-radio hosts used in denouncing a portion of the bill that would provide a path to eventual citizenship.
One poll question asked, "Would you be more or less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supported immigration legislation that you believed provided amnesty for illegal aliens?" The question Gheen cited, which occurred in sequence after the "amnesty" question, asked whether the U.S. should "secure the border" and "enforce existing immigration laws"—before new legislation has passed. Presumably, the 81 percent who answered yes included both those who supported and disapproved of McCain and Kennedy's bill. In other words, the overwhelming majority of people Gheen said approve of "what is to be done," may actually want do something else about immigration.
Two speakers, Lee Anthony Nieves and Roan Garcia-Quintana, seemed intent on disassociating their Latino heritage from that of illegal immigrants.
Nieves, a "third-generation American" who represents the Latino anti-immigration organization You Don't Speak for Me, said he wanted to debunk the myth that Latinos are a "monolithic" group—and implied that some Latinos are anti-American.
"Not all Hispanics view the United States with contempt," he said. "We do not want to see a Balkanized America, separated into little ethnic tribes, like we see in today's prisons."
Garcia-Quintana, a Cuban-American who said in an interview that his family's roots are in Spain, characterized Mexican and Central American immigrants as "Indo-Hispanics" who "impose" their culture on him.
As director of Americans Have Had Enough, Garcia-Quintana said he identifies as "Southerner" and insisted he arrived here "the right way, the legal way."
"By the grace of God, I was raised in the South. I went through from Havana to Savannah, Ga. South Carolina's my home. I do speak English, and I do speak Spanish. There's nothing wrong with speaking 20 languages, but English is the language that unites us."
In South Carolina, Garcia-Quintana lobbied to strengthen local immigration laws, and warned of an invasion of undocumented immigrants to North Carolina. "When we get rid of them in South Carolina, they're coming here. So you better get ready for it."
In an interview after the rally, Garcia-Quintana alluded that vigilante justice could break out if immigration laws aren't tightened. "What I'm concerned about is that if we don't do something, people are going to take the law into their own hands," he said. "I hear a lot of people casually mention, 'I've still got my Second Amendment right.' That can only mean one thing."