Monday, March 31, 2008

Ironic Convergence

There’s something amusingly ironic about an anti-immigration group taking root in South Florida.

World War II veteran Enos Schera monitors ”the invasion” from his Miami home in the predominantly Cuban-American suburb of Westchester. Information is the former Marine’s weapon.

Surrounded by stacks of paper, old televisions, VCRs and radios, Florida’s ”grandfather of immigration reform” — as other activists have dubbed him — tracks crimes committed by immigrants, failing public schools and politicians’ positions.

Schera’s Citizens of Dade United is among a growing cohort of anti-illegal immigration groups in Florida trying different tactics to drive out undocumented immigrants. They have turned to legislators in Tallahassee for help in the wake of Washington’s inability to find a solution.

”I feel like a little guy at the bottom of the dam with my finger plugged in the dike,” said Schera, 80, vice-president of the group. ”I know what’s going to happen if I pull my finger out, only instead of a trillion tons of water it will be a trillion tons of people.”

After mounting a somewhat solitary fight for three decades in Miami, the city with the nation’s highest percentage of foreign-born residents, Schera now has company.


”People call us hate-mongers and racists, but this isn’t about racism at all; it’s about the rule of law,” said state Minuteman Civil Defense Corps director Bill Landes, 52, in Haines City.

Immigrant advocates, who call anti-illegal immigration groups ”nativists,” say the anti-immigrant rhetoric can have dangerous results, evidenced by a reported rise in hate crimes against Hispanics. FBI statistics indicate a spike of almost 35 percent from 2003 to 2006.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report saying the number of ”hate groups” grew by 48 percent since 2000, an increase it attributes to growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

”I think what’s happened in many cases is that some of the real vile… propaganda against Latinos and immigrants specifically, really begins in white supremacist hate groups,” said the Center’s Mark Potok. ”But what we’re seeing as a phenomenon is that those allegations make their way out of hate groups and then go into the anti-immigration movement.”

The leaders of the nascent Florida groups are generally older men — several of them veterans — who often feel the country’s soul is threatened by the influx of mostly Hispanic immigrants.

They seethe every time they have to ”press 1 for English” when they call a government office. They reel off figures about overpopulation and immigrants on welfare. Many believe that Mexican immigrants want to reclaim California and the Southwest.

In the first place, if you have to proclaim that you’re not a racist, you’re a racist, especially if you deflect it by saying it isn’t about racism but the rule of law, conveniently making it the law’s fault. (This is the same reasoning homophobic Christianists use to gay-bash: “It’s not us, it’s the bible.”) Second, when you worry that the Mexicans are trying to “reclaim California and the Southwest,” that implies that the land was taken from them; you don’t have to reclaim something unless it belonged to you in the first place. A cursory glance at history will show that California and the Southwest were invaded by the Spanish long before the Anglos showed up with their guns and diseases, so if there are “immigrants” out there, it’s not the people of Spanish ancestry. But what is supremely ironic is seeing this kind of group take hold in South Florida, and hearing a Cuban voice his concerns about illegal immigration. Were it not for their own power in the legislature and Congress as exemplified by the Cuban-American Adjustment Act, Cubans would be on the other side of the issue.

More than just the outright racism and xenophobia, there’s an undercurrent of fear that’s predicated on the fact that people who come to this country — legally or otherwise — show amazing courage and ambition to make the sacrifice to leave their homeland and come to a strange place where the language, customs, and competition present huge obstacles, yet they are willing to do it and succeed. To some people, that kind of ambition is a threat; yet the irony is that that is how this nation was founded, and were it not for a bunch of immigrants, illegal or otherwise, there would be no nation for the Minutemen, with their Elmer Fudd hats and Archie Bunker mentality, to be so selfish about.