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Phantom Menace

The psychology behind America's immigration hysteria.

LIKE MUCH OF the nation, New Hampshire is in a frenzy over illegal immigration. In 2005, a police chief from New Ipswich, a sleepy small town near the Massachusetts border, arrested an illegal immigrant, who had pulled over on the side of the road, on the grounds that he was trespassing in New Hampshire. “We’re applying a state law to illegal aliens, instead of federal law, because the federal government refuses to enforce its own laws. Someone needed to bring it, so I brought it,” the chief told the Concord Monitor. The courts threw out the case, but the police chief became a statewide celebrity.

Last summer, in Merrimack, just north of Nashua, the city council got into an acrimonious—and widely watched—debate over whether to print signs in Spanish in local Wasserman Park. Sitting at his kitchen table in a white turtleneck, town councilor Michael Malzone, the leader of the victorious opposition, explains, “There was Spanish people breaking the law, and [the council] wanted to put out new signs, and they wanted to put them out in Spanish.” Malzone, who is a second-generation Italian-American, saw the signs as a threat to the America he knew and loved. “We must have one flag, we must have one language,” Malzone says. “When you start to press one for English and two for Spanish, you know things were getting very, very bad.”

During the New Hampshire primary, both Democratic and Republican candidates were peppered with questions about illegal immigration. Senator John McCain, who won the state’s January 8 primary, had to modify his support for comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the face of voter complaints. But that didn’t appease some residents. At a town hall meeting in Pelham in December, Bill, a thirty-something white-collar worker at United Health Care (who asked that I not use his last name), said that he liked McCain but that “he lost me on immigration.” After McCain spoke, the first three questions he got were about immigration. Roy Bouchard, a retired worker at Raytheon, asked, “Senator McCain, there are a lot of veterans in this hall, and we all believe that you are a straight-talker and we want to vote for you. However, there is one issue that bothers me and bothers a lot of people in this hall, and that is illegal immigration.” Bill and others in the audience applauded.

There are many places in the country—and along the campaign trail—where immigration is a top issue for a clear reason: It is affecting the livelihoods of longtime residents and has visibly transformed their locales. In Iowa, for example, when campaign buses pulled into small towns like Storm Lake, Denison, and Marshalltown, presidential hopefuls were confronted by voters furious that big meatpacking firms had brought in Hispanic immigrants, some of them illegal, to turn their towns’ reasonably paying blue-collar industry into a low-wage occupation that couldn’t support the average Iowan. In South Carolina, too, candidates have had to face voters angry and bewildered by the swift rise in Latino immigration to their state—the third-highest rate in the nation between 2000 and 2005. “Certain sections of this tri-county area look like little Mexico City,” says John J. Cina, a retiree who, angered over illegal immigration, plans to challenge Senator Lindsey Graham this year in the Republican primary.

But in New Hampshire there is no meatpacking industry, or its equivalent. In fact, there are almost no immigrants, illegal or otherwise. According to the Census, only 2.2 percent of New Hampshire residents are Hispanic. The Pew Hispanic Center rates New Hampshire forty-second of 50 states in the number of unauthorized immigrants. Yet the state’s voters, like those in Iowa or South Carolina, are up in arms over illegal immigration. According to exit polls taken on primary night, almost one-quarter of those Republicans and independents who voted in the GOP primary consider immigration the most important issue facing the country, and 50 percent think that illegal immigrants should be deported rather than given a path to citizenship or temporary visas.

In fact, if you look around the country, there are many places where there are relatively few illegal immigrants, but where Americans are nevertheless apoplectic about illegal immigration. In Kansas’s predominately white and rural second congressional district, for example, Representative Nancy Boyda has been besieged with questions and complaints about illegal immigrants. And, in a special congressional election last month in northwest Ohio—where a small number of Hispanic migrants, whose presence had never before bothered anyone, pick tomatoes in the summer—Republican Bob Latta ran incendiary ads charging Democrat Robin Weirauch with being soft on illegal immigrants. Latta was able to put Weirauch on the defensive and run away with what was supposed to be a close race.

Clearly, the furor over illegal immigration has spread beyond places where jobs have been lost, wages reduced, and public services strained, to places where migrants have not disrupted the local economy. And, even in places like Iowa and South Carolina, the anger was never solely a function of disappearing jobs or overburdened social services; it has been about the use of Spanish on signs and ballots and even grocery lines, and about the spread of little Mexico Cities. Indeed, around the country, the furor is not simply about illegal immigration; it’s more often about Latino immigration, legal and illegal—about what Pat Buchanan calls the creation of “Mexamerica.” Which leaves us with something of a puzzle: How did so many Americans come to feel so vulnerable to what for many of them is merely a phantom menace? How did an economic problem that is concentrated in certain states and regions become a national Kulturkampf?

THE UNITED STATES has long experienced bursts of anti-immigration fervor—in the 1850s (the era of the infamous Know-Nothings), the 1880s and 1890s, the 1910s and 1920s, the early 1980s, and the first half of the 1990s. The spell we are experiencing today is only the latest iteration. It began with the September 11, 2001, attacks, after which a Gallup poll showed a 17-point increase in support for reducing immigration. A June 2002 survey for The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations concluded that “concern about terrorists entering the country ... appears to be contributing to the high level of support for reducing immigration.” But respondents were not concerned about immigration per se—they were worried about terrorists sneaking into the country.

During the 2002 elections, there was no debate over immigration. The issue was entirely overshadowed by the war on terrorism. Immigration barely surfaced in the 2004 elections, either—both George W. Bush and John Kerry, seeking Latino votes, took a conciliatory approach toward illegal immigrants. But widespread concern was simmering at the state level just beneath the surface.

Just as the furor of the early 1990s began in California, this period of anti-immigration activity began in Arizona in response to a huge influx of legal and illegal Mexican immigrants driven to the state by recent improvements to border security in California and Texas. (See John B. Judis, “Border Wars,” January 16, 2006.) By 2004, almost two million people were crossing Arizona’s desert border with Mexico every year, and some of them, attracted by the state’s booming economy, stayed. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of illegal immigrants in Arizona went from 115,000 in 1996 to almost 500, 000 in 2004, straining city and state budgets for police, schools, and hospitals. In 2004, anti-immigration activists put Proposition 200 on the ballot. It denied “public benefits” to illegal immigrants and required public employees to report anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Although almost the entire Arizona political establishment opposed Proposition 200, it still passed, 56 to 44 percent.

The passage of Proposition 200 inspired a spate of legislation across the country aimed at legal and illegal immigrants. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 570 pieces of legislation dealing with legal and illegal immigrants were introduced in 2006 and at least 1,562 in 2007. Many were aimed at denying benefits to illegal immigrants, but others imposed onerous voter-registration requirements for legal immigrants or banned languages other than English from public documents, including ballots. In 2007, immigration bills became law in 46 states, including Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia, which have very few immigrants.

New anti-immigration organizations also emerged, including the American Border Patrol, whose founder warns that “immigration ... is allowing Mexico to colonize the American Southwest,” and the Minutemen, which boast chapters in almost every state. The Minutemen even have two chapters and a state headquarters in Wyoming, where the entire foreign-born population amounts to only 2.5 percent of the state’s citizenry and illegal immigrants less than 1 percent. Overall, there are more than 50 such organizations spread across the country, appealing to anti-Latino sentiments.

As the argument against immigration has fanned out from Arizona to other parts of the country, it has retained its original ideological structure. Anti-immigrant activists—even in states with little illegal immigration—claim that their livelihood and the safety of their homes and family have been affected in some way by illegal immigration. Bill from New Hampshire told me, “I did landscaping while I was in high school. Now they are taking all the landscaping jobs.” Cina, whose county has been less affected by illegal immigration than South Carolina’s coastal and northwestern counties, complains that he wouldn’t be able to get a job stocking shelves in a supermarket because he would have to compete with other native-born workers who, if not for illegal immigrants, would be repairing roofs or cutting grass. But anti-immigration activists are equally insistent on the threat to the American way of life. Says former Myrtle Beach mayor Mark McBride, who also plans to challenge Lindsey Graham’s reelection this year, “It’s absolutely a cultural problem. If you want to come here, I believe you want to come here to be an American.”

Nationally, the chief ideologues of the anti-immigration movement usually give precedence to cultural arguments over economic ones. CNN commentator Lou Dobbs warns that the United States is becoming a “Third World country.” Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo laments that “we are undergoing a radical change in our national character and social structure, not to mention language. “ Pat Buchanan (author of the best-selling State of Emergency) asks, “Will the American Southwest become a giant Kosovo, a part of the nation separated from the rest by language, ethnicity, history and culture, to be reabsorbed in all but name by Mexico from whom we took these lands in the time of Jackson and Polk?” Dobbs, Tancredo, and Buchanan have helped to transform what might have been a regional movement into a national one. Their names invariably come up when talking to local activists. But their advocacy doesn’t entirely explain what happened.

TO UNDERSTAND THAT, you have to examine the movement’s historical antecedents—a strain of political protest that begins in the late Jacksonian era with the Know-Nothings and continues through the Populists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to today’s anti-immigration movement. It is based on the displacement—sometimes with cause, sometimes without—of deep-seated social and economic anxieties onto an “out-group,” and it is voiced most often by the “intermediate strata,” the social and economic classes most threatened by the development of capitalism. In the nineteenth century, the intermediate strata comprised urban artisans and small farmers; in the twentieth century, small businessmen, farmers, and craft workers undermined by industrialization; and, more recently, workers who lack adequate technical training or whose jobs are being sent overseas. These workers have seen themselves as “producers” victimized by “parasites”—by Wall Street and big business from above and by an underclass of African Americans and immigrants from below.

Today’s anti-immigration movement is rooted in these intermediate strata and in this neo-populist ideology. According to an extensive 2003 survey sponsored by Hamilton College, opponents of immigration are particularly concentrated among those who have no more than a high school diploma, make less than $50,000, and live in small towns or rural areas. According to a poll conducted in December by Democracy Corps, those who believe that “immigrants take more from our country than they give” are strongest among men between the ages of 30 and 39 without a college degree. This is a rough approximation of those Americans who work at a lower—but not the lowest—rung of blue-collar or white-collar jobs, who own very small shops or businesses, and who are most susceptible to losing their jobs or income in economic downturns or through outsourcing.

Politically, these Americans are the heirs of the nineteenth-century Populists, but, more immediately, they are the descendants of the working-class Democrats who abandoned their party to vote for George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. They are the voters who were convinced that welfare was a giveaway by pointy-headed bureaucrats to inner-city freeloaders. They were relatively quiet during Bill Clinton’s second term, but, in the last six years, the members of the intermediate strata have taken to the hustings. That’s partly because, after faring well in the late 1990s, they have begun to see their jobs disappear and their income fall, even as the economy ostensibly began to recover from the 2001 downturn. According to the Economic Policy Institute, people in the second income quintile—roughly speaking, the lower middle class—saw their income grow 10.8 percent from 1995 to 2000 but then shrink by 4.4 percent from 2000 to 2004. Surveys show that this group has been the most dissatisfied with their economic lot and the most insecure about their future. In a poll taken in March 2006 by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, three- quarters of Americans with an income between $30,000 and $50,000 said they faced “increasing uncertainty about employment, with stagnant incomes, paying more for health care, taxes, and retirement, while those at the top have booming incomes and lower taxes.”

These intermediate strata have responded by targeting trade agreements and immigration. In focus groups Democracy Corps ran last summer in two competitive congressional districts, the respondents, when talking about illegal immigration, echoed the populist vision of themselves as producers being exploited by parasites:

Concerns about immigration were overwhelmingly driven by public benefits, and it quickly turned into a broader discussion of welfare and the clear line drawn between those who contribute to our society and those who abuse the system for their own selfish gain. ... [T]here was also agreement that too many come to this country to abuse our generosity—taking welfare benefits, using emergency rooms for their routine medical needs, getting a free education for their kids—without contributing to the system that provides such generosity.

Most of the leaders of the anti-immigration effort come from these intermediate strata and voice this neo-populist ideology. Michael Malzone runs a tile-installation business out of his house and does his own labor. He worries that, like someone he knows in California, he will have to hire illegal immigrants in order to compete, and he resents immigrants using public services. When he broke his hand recently, he went to the Southern New Hampshire Medical Center. “I am down there at nine o’clock, and there got to be four or five families down there that can’t speak one word of English,” he says. “I am praying to God that I don’t need surgery so I don’t lose my house, and they are getting everything for free. Where’s the fairness of that?” Malzone blames the “business people” and the “conglomerates” that want “Mexico, Canada and America to be one country.” Echoing the older populism, he rests his hopes on a “middle-class revolution.”

In South Carolina, Malzone’s counterparts are Cina and McBride. Cina is retired military with a community college degree. McBride owned a restaurant in Myrtle Beach but had to close it down in 2003 when his business faltered and is now waiting tables. The same year his restaurant went under, he became an anti-immigration protester. He ran unsuccessfully for Senate in the 2004 Republican primary on a platform of building a fence to keep out new illegal immigrants and deporting those already here. He also wants to reduce legal immigration. “In the restaurant,” he says, “when you seat a hundred people, you can’t take two hundred people for dinner. There is a limit to what we can absorb in our schools, our police departments.”

If you look at the areas where anti-immigration sentiment is rife even though there are few immigrants, they are filled with native-born Americans who find themselves threatened by the new global capitalism. The northwest Ohio district that Bob Latta won was once dotted with factories working overtime, but, over the last decade, the companies have either cut back or closed down. Many of the residents are beleaguered blue collar workers looking for an explanation for their plight. Latta gave them one in illegal immigrants. Similarly, Boyda’s Kansas district is filled with towns that have seen better days. I accompanied her to Burlington, a sad little prairie town of 2,700—only 28 of whom are not American citizens. There, attendees at a town meeting complained vociferously about “illegal aliens” and, in true populist fashion, charged that big business “controls everything.” Afterward, one of them told me jokingly that I should come live in Burlington. “It’d be like getting out of an Indy car and into a Model T that is going backwards,” he said.

THESE PEOPLE in rural Kansas or northwest Ohio, who feel left behind by capitalism, are susceptible to the darker side of populist appeal—to blaming those less well off than themselves for their plight. But why have they singled out immigrants, specifically Latinos moving north? In the past, anti-immigration movements have erupted in part because of an actual increase in immigration and an economic downturn, whether an overall recession or depression or a selective downturn, as happened in the first half of this decade. But, in these periods, there has been an additional factor that has fueled Americans’ cultural concerns about immigration and led the movements to take a nativist turn: Each period of anti-immigration sentiment has coincided with a loss of confidence in the cohesion and resilience of the American nation.

In the 1850s, Americans, increasingly fearful for the breakup of the union over slavery, became alarmed that Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany would undermine republican institutions. The Know-Nothings were determined “to resist the insidious policy of the Church ofRome and all other foreign influence against our republican institutions in all lawful ways.” The anti-immigration movements of the early 1920s took root amid disillusionment over the results of World War I and fear that the United States would be dragged into another European conflagration. And, in the early 1990s, anti-immigration fervor was fed by fears that the United States was becoming a second-rate economic power.

After the September 11 attacks, the fear of foreign terrorism overshadowed, but also fed, the fear of immigration. And anti-immigration forces have continued to charge that the Mexican border is a gateway to terrorists. The Arizona Minutemen have insisted (with little basis in fact) that many illegal immigrants are swarthy Muslims disguised as Mexicans. “We have many apprehensions of Pakistanis and Iraqis on the border,” a Minuteman spokesperson told me in August 2005. “They are coming in disguised as Hispanics and blending in.” Boyda’s constituents were worried that 5,000 illegal aliens who they believed had crossed the border into Kansas could act as a terrorist “fifth column” in the state. (In an equally nutty variation, presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee warned, after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December, that Pakistani terrorists could cross the border. “In light of what’s happening in Pakistan,” Huckabee said, “it ought to give us pause as to why are so many illegals coming across these borders.”)

In recent years, this concern about Latino immigration has been fed by a broader anxiety about America’s place in the world. That has been prompted by the failure of the Bush administration to complete its missions in Iraq and Afghanistan; by the rapid rise of gas prices (making it appear that the United States is at the mercy of foreign oil producers); and by growing doubts about the buoyancy of the U.S. economy. This perception of decline shows up, among other places, in the polls that ask people whether “things in this country are heading in the right direction, or ... off on the wrong track.” According to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll, the percentage of people thinking the United States is on the “wrong track” has risen steadily over the last four years from 46 percent to 68 percent. In surveys by Gallup and World Public Opinion, the percentage of those who were “dissatisfied with the position of the United States in the world today” rose from 30 percent in April 2003 to 51 percent in February 2005 to 68 percent in October 2006.

Legal and illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America is seen as accelerating the country’s decline by undermining its national identity and racial stock. Immigration, Tancredo declares, is “the issue of our culture itself, and whether we will survive.” Buchanan invokes Toynbee and the collapse of civilizations: “We are witnessing how nations perish. We are entered upon the final act of our civilization.” He warns of “an immigrant invasion of the United States from the Third World” and declares that “white America is in flight.” In the introduction to his book The War on the Middle Class, Lou Dobbs writes, “Each night, as I conclude my nightly broadcast on CNN, I have the gut-sick feeling that we have chronicled another twenty-four hours in the decline of our great democratic republic and the bankrupting of our free enterprise economy.”

These fears also crop up among local anti-immigration activists. Malzone sees illegal immigration not just as an unwelcome intrusion, but as a symptom of national decline. A wiry man with graying short hair, a goatee, and a heavy New England accent, he pounds his kitchen table for emphasis as he talks. “I love my country, and I think it is important to keep it going, because I see it failing rapidly,” he says. “I’m only forty-seven years old, but I never thought I would get to the stage where I sounded like my grandparents. Oh my god, things were never this bad. Did you ever think things would be this bad?” At a McCain rally in Conway, New Hampshire, a woman asks McCain about making English the official language. “I’m terribly concerned there’s real danger we’re going to lose our country from within,” she says. This concern about national decline is what sustains the cultural argument against Latino immigration.

THESE BURSTS of anti-immigration fervor are cyclical. They have eventually abated. The anti-immigration movement of the 1920s dissipated soon after Congress passed draconian restrictions on immigration in 1924, although a residue of nativism persisted well into the 1930s. In the 1990s, the anti-immigration movement, which scored a victory with California’s passage of Proposition 187 in 1994 and was embraced by the new Republican majority in Congress, dissipated after the 1996 election largely because of the Clinton economic boom. With income and employment rising, Americans no longer felt as threatened by globalization. Fears of job competition and strained social services persisted in affected states, but they did not give rise to a national furor over illegal immigrants. Immigration disappeared as a national issue.

What are the prospects that the current furor will abate in the near future? Not good. Congress passed, and the Bush administration signed, legislation increasing border security, but it will have no bearing on the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States or on the source of 40 percent of new illegal immigrants—those visitors who overstay their visas. And, with American businesses continuing to demand low-wage workers and with Mexicans and other Latinos eager to escape poverty, pressure to allow immigration will only increase. At the same time, the United States appears headed for a recession that will heighten Americans’ economic anxieties and fear of global decline and spark new protests over immigration.

The clamor over illegal immigration can be expected to grow over this year and to play a large role in this fall’s election debate, as it already has in the congressional by-elections that have taken place since November 2006. Which party will benefit is unclear. Will the Democrats, who have generally favored a liberal immigration policy, make up in Hispanic votes what they might lose in support from Reagan and Bush Democrats? Or will Republican candidates be able to follow Latta’s example and parlay the furor over illegal immigration into political victories? It’ll probably depend on the kind of voters that reside in a particular state or congressional district. What is certain is that the United States, which has grown and prospered as a nation of immigrants, but which must now urgently find ways to regulate their flow, will suffer from this acrimony.

This article appeared in the February 13, 2008 issue of the magazine.