Immigration rhetoric sparks worries

Immigrant rights march in San Francisco on April 10. ( Francisco Cendejas )

Immigrant rights march in San Francisco on April 10. ( Francisco Cendejas )

NEW YORK (JTA) – Though it lies nearly 500 miles from the nearest international border, the tiny town of Postville, whose kosher meatpacking plant has drawn a melting pot of Hasidic Jews and Hispanic immigrants to the Iowa heartland, presents a case study of the tensions that have made immigration a top concern for voters there heading into primary season.

Last summer, the backlash against Postville’s new arrivals spilled over onto the Town Council, one member of which made derogatory remarks about Hispanic residents; he accused them of not respecting the town’s law and culture and importing drugs and crime. Seven local clergy, including a rabbi, shot back, denouncing the council member, who also had unkind words for Postville’s insular ultra-Orthodox community.

Yet with all its tensions, Postville, which in the 1990s was the fastest-growing community in Iowa, remains economically viable in large part because of the businesses that have taken advantage of the town’s strong labor market.

“It’s one of the few communities you can go up and down main street,” Mark Zieman, a Postville Republican in the state senate, told JTA. “They ain’t the same storefronts that were there 25 years ago, but they’re still storefronts.”

Though Zieman says last summer’s conflict seems to have cooled, overheated rhetoric against illegal immigration has dominated talk radio and some television news programs, and spilled into the presidential campaign. As GOP candidates race to paint each other as being soft on the issue, the maneuvering is increasingly arousing concern from national Jewish groups.

Earlier this month, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement urging presidential candidates to refrain from polarizing rhetoric that demonizes minority group, but particularly Hispanics. The statement follows a lengthy ADL report showing how inflammatory rhetoric has seeped into the national discourse on immigration.

“While there are many legitimate and sincere perspectives in the national conversation about illegal immigration and immigration in general, we are deeply troubled by some of the rhetoric accompanying this debate,” the ADL said in its recent statement. “In our view, demonizing illegal immigrants has the effect of demonizing many minorities, particularly Hispanics, regardless of their citizenship status. It is contrary to the high ideals upon which our nation – a nation of immigrants – was founded.”

In its report, the ADL objected to rhetoric that portrays immigrants as invaders seeking to colonize the United States, while importing disease and crime and eroding the American way of life. The report also shows how portrayals of immigrants as disease-carriers has spread to mainstream discourse, employed by media personalities like CNN’s Lou Dobbs and MSNBC’s Patrick Buchanan.

The only presidential candidate named in the ADL report, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), has made illegal immigration a pet issue. One Tancredo ad features photos of bloody corpses, as a voice-over warns of “vicious Central American gangs” in America “pushing drugs, raping kids, destroying lives.” Another ad says immigrants “invaded our land” and promises to build a fence and never give “amnesty” to illegals.

Though Tancredo has recently dropped out of the race, his relentlessness on immigration has helped make it a key issue in the Republican primary. Recently, during one debate, Tancredo gloated over what he described as fellow Republican candidates trying to “out-Tancredo Tancredo” by staking out increasingly hard-line positions on immigration.

“This is as true a statement as has ever been made on the campaign trail,” said Gideon Aronoff, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, who referred to Tancredo as an anti-immigrant “demagogue.”

Owing at least in part to Tancredo’s hammering away on the issue, leading contenders in the Republican field have been moved to adopt more conservative positions on immigration than they supported in the past.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, slammed by opponents for turning New York into a “sanctuary city,” has labored to present himself as firm on fighting illegal immigration. “If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you’re one of the people who we want in this city,” Giuliani said in 1994. “You’re somebody that we want to protect.”

Seeking to upend his image as mayor of a city teeming with illegal workers, in October Giuliani dropped in at a controversial Philadelphia restaurant whose owner had drawn fire for posting a sign telling all customers to order in English. And in a recent Republican debate, Giuliani turned the tables on former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, accusing him of having presided over not one, but six sanctuary cities in his state, as well as a “sanctuary mansion” at his home, where a landscaping company Romney employed reportedly used illegal immigrant labor.

Both Giuliani and Romney emphasize bolstering border security and introducing biometric identification cards to identify non-citizens in the country. Even Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor seen as moderate on immigration, recently introduced a get-tough policy plan, which includes a call for a crackdown on dual citizens – a move that might make it a crime for Americans who hold Israeli citizenship to use Israeli passports to enter the Jewish state or vote in its elections.

“We see the immigration issue poisoning the discussion in the early caucus and primary states, where Republican presidential candidates are seeking to outmaneuver each other on how harsh they can be about undocumented immigrants and immigrants in general,” Aronoff said.

The Republican Jewish Coalition rejected the notion that the leading candidates in the GOP field have crossed any sort of line in the immigration debate.

“We understand and appreciate that some Jewish organizations have issued statements regarding the rhetoric related to the issue of immigration on the 2008 presidential campaign,” said the RJC’s executive director, Matt Brooks. “Fortunately, we have yet to see this as a legitimate concern among the top Republican presidential candidates. The candidates have struck a commendable balance with their public comments while trying to find much needed workable solutions for our country’s broken immigration policies. We strongly condemn the use of any hateful or divisive rhetoric in the campaign and we encourage all candidates to be mindful of such.”

Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies and a former American Jewish Committee official, says the mounting concern over immigration rhetoric is a signal that the broad institutional Jewish support for generous immigration policies is being successfully undermined. In fear and desperation, he says, the ADL has fallen back on name-calling.

“What they are doing is taking a small, unrepresentative sample and putting it out there as though this is what the cause of those of us who don’t support comprehensive immigration reform are all about,” Steinlight told JTA. “It is what you call demagoguery, trying to get Jews fired up by quoting a few organizations who have made xenophobic comments to suggest that xenophobia is the heart of things.”

Steinlight has done considerable outreach efforts to try and change longstanding liberal Jewish attitudes on immigration. He argues that Jews are undermining their own interests by advocating for a path to citizenship for illegal Hispanic immigrants, a group he claims to be the most anti-Semitic in the world after Muslims. A 2002 ADL poll found that 44 percent of foreign-born Hispanics hold strongly anti-Semitic views.

He argued that Jews mistakenly conflate their own history of finding refuge in the United States with today’s immigrants, who he said are motivated mainly by economic interests and would happily return to their own countries if better opportunities presented themselves.

“This is not the Jewish story,” Steinlight says. “This ain’t what Emma Lazarus was writing about.”

Steinlight’s concern is principally with illegal immigrants, whom he would like to incentivize to leave the country on their own accord by making their lives as difficult as possible. But even legal immigration, he believes, should be severely curtailed, noting that the country no longer has the same need for unskilled labor as it did a century ago.

That might be news in Postville, where Hispanic immigrants have snatched up the low-paying, low-skilled jobs in the meatpacking industry. Though some have accused the immigrants of taking jobs from locals by accepting lower wages, Zieman says a labor “vacuum” draws immigrant workers to the area.

“I don’t know that immigration’s the issue,” Zieman says. “I don’t hear much complaint about immigrants per se, but the illegal part really rankles people.”

NEXT STORY