Sunday, September 02, 2007

The new 'sundown towns'

-- by Dave

I've been reporting off and on about various local efforts to drive out Latino immigrants, or at least make their presence unwelcome, that have been occurring at various locales around the country, usually accompanied by hateful behavior and demonization targeting Latinos in the community.

It's become self-evident that a trend is taking shape. Nezua at the Unapologetic Mexican the other day pulled up a New York Times piece from earlier this month that laid out the scope and nature of the trend:
It’s in places like Carpentersville where we may be witnessing the opening of a deep and profound fissure in the American landscape. Over the past two years, more than 40 local and state governments have passed ordinances and legislation aimed at making life miserable for illegal immigrants in the hope that they’ll have no choice but to return to their countries of origin. Deportation by attrition, some call it. One of the first ordinances was passed in Hazleton, Pa., and was meant to bar illegal immigrants from living and working there. It served as a model for many local officials across the country, including Sigwalt and Humpfer. On July 26, a federal judge struck down Hazleton’s ordinance, but the town’s mayor, Lou Barletta, plans to appeal the decision. “This battle is far from over,” he declared the day of the ruling. States and towns have looked for other ways to crack down on illegal immigrants. Last month, Prince William County in northern Virginia passed a resolution trying to curb illegal immigrants’ access to public services. Waukegan, another Illinois town, has voted to apply for a federal program that would allow its police to begin deportation charges against those who are here illegally. A week after the Senate failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Arizona’s governor, Janet Napolitano, signed into law an act penalizing businesses that knowingly hire undocumented immigrants. “One of the practical effects of this failure” to enact national immigration reform, Napolitano wrote to the Congressional leadership, “is that Arizona, and states across the nation, must now continue to address this escalating problem on their own.” Admittedly, the constitutionality of many of these new laws is still in question, and some of the state bills and local ordinances simply duplicate what’s already in force nationally. But with Congress’s inability to reach an agreement on an immigration bill, the debate will continue among local officials like those in Carpentersville, where the wrangling often seems less about illegal immigration than it does about whether new immigrants are assimilating quickly enough, if at all. In Carpentersville, the rancor has turned neighbor against neighbor. Once you scrape away the acid rhetoric, though, there’s much people actually agree on — but given the ugliness of the taunts and assertions, it’s unlikely that will ever emerge.

That's especially the case because the anti-immigrant campaign has dredged up the ugliest side of the American psyche:
Many of the Hispanic residents I spoke with achieved citizenship as a result of the national amnesty offered in 1986, but they’d grown up in households where their parents instructed them to be measured and cautious in their activities. That may, in part, have accounted for the low voter turnout in Carpentersville. Indeed, early on, Roeser told me he was “surprised the Hispanic citizens didn’t get more vocal, saying, ‘This is our town too.’ ” But some of that changed when, the day before the election, 2,000 families in town received a flier. It read, in part:

Are you tired of waiting to pay for your groceries while Illegal Aliens pay with food stamps and then go outside and get in a $40,000 car?

Are you tired of paying taxes when Illegal Aliens pay NONE!

Are you tired of reading that another Illegal Alien was arrested for drug dealing?

Are you tired of having to punch 1 for English?

Are you tired of seeing multiple families in our homes?

Are you tired of not being able to use Carpenter Park on the weekend, because it is over run by Illegal Aliens?

Are you tired of seeing the Mexican Flag flown above our Flag?

If you are as tired as me then let’s get out and Vote for the: All American Team ... Finally a team that will help us take back our town!

This tract, which was sent out by a key supporter of Sigwalt and Humpfer, and with the knowledge of Humpfer, became a marker of sorts, a moment when the wedge was driven so deep (one resident told me, “It’s kind of like the Grand Canyon”) that there would be no easy reconciliation. Most Hispanics didn’t learn of the flier until after the election, but it so offended many of them — especially those who were American citizens and had a foothold in the middle class — that even those who’d never been politically active began heading out to the village meetings to gauge firsthand the mood of their neighbors. What so alarmed them is that it felt less like a debate on illegal immigration than it did a condemnation of Hispanic culture.

Much of the recent discussion of immigration has focused on the immigrants' alleged criminality, a claim that is not borne out by the actual research, which shows clearly that Latino immigrants are largely law-abiding and conservative arrivals. That hasn't stopped the nativists, however, who never saw a handy falsehood they could bear to stop using -- even when it's been clearly disproven:
Sigwalt and Humpfer’s main arguments for ridding the town of illegal immigrants come down to this: their presence has led to both rising crime and overcrowded schools. As it turns out, however, the crime rate in Carpentersville has actually been cut in half over the past 10 years; and while the schools were, indeed, overcrowded four to five years ago (when Antonia Garcia moved her family out), class sizes have now been reduced — although it did require the passage of a tax referendum.

This is all too reminiscent of the "sundown town" phenomenon -- the trend throughout much of non-urban America from 1890-1960 to drive out nonwhites by attempting to forbid them to live within their borders, either by excluding them from housing or from having ordinances that forbade them from setting foot in their towns after dark.

And contrary to common conception, the vast majority of these towns were outside the South, in the Northeast and the Midwest and the West particularly. The South used Jim Crow laws to oppress nonwhites; the rest of the nation simply forced them out of their communities.

And, as I've noted previously, it is not be mere coincidence that many of the places where anti-immigrant scapegoating is reaching a fever pitch happen to be the same reaches of the country where there used to be "sundown" signs in abundance. These were defended white communities that saw the arrival of nonwhites as an "invasion" that threatened their well-being; and though most of these communities have effectively erased all memories of their old sundown signs and ordinances, their longtime tradition of being "defended" communities remains very much intact. That's why they find it so easy to propose and pass laws that attempt to keep out Latinos.

However, their efforts may in this day and age prove futile. As the SPLC's Mary Bauer has explained, measures like these have little chance of remaining on the books because they are so clearly unconstitutional and violate numerous state and federal laws, as well as their clearly vicious intent. What uniformly happens to the laws is that they are overturned, and the communities are forced to pay very costly compensation for their efforts.

More importantly, they've effectively erected racial walls within their communities. And they'll be paying for those -- in distrust, disharmony, and a gaping social divide -- for years to come.

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