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Immigrants Under Fire: The Tea Party’s Newest Target

April 18, 2010

What’s bugging the Tea Party these days? Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the English language.

For example, at a Tea Party event in August of last year, Ada Fisher said: “You cannot be one nation under God when everyone’s speaking something different.”

That might come as a surprise to, say, Switzerland, which has four official languages, or South Africa, which has 10. And in fact it’s also surprising in the United States. We are a nation founded on immigration, and many Americans were raised in multi-lingual homes. Even so, the U.S. Census Bureau found in 2000 that 96 percent of all residents speak English “well” or “very well.”

As linguist Geoffrey Pullum said in a 2004 essay, “making English the official language of the United States of America is about as urgently called for as making hot dogs the official food at baseball games.”

But according to the Institute for Southern Studies, “An Official Language of the United States” made a big showing in voting for the Contract From America, an online document created to list the Tea Party planks. It didn’t make the final cut, but English-only got more votes than issues like interstate health insurance and cutting lifetime pay for members of Congress.

So what’s with the Tea Party and this sudden obsession over English? It’s not about the language; it’s about the immigrants.

The Tea Party seems to be run on rage—White rage, a sustainable resource since 88 percent of members are White, according to a Quinnipiac poll. Along with anger over President Obama, health care legislation, and taxes, this rage is somehow suddenly being channeled against immigrants and in favor of “taking America back.”

Former Representative Tom Tancredo said in his Tea Party convention speech on March 4 that America did not need “a cult of multiculturalism.” He added, “…something really odd happened, mostly because we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country. People who could not spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House – his name is Barack Hussein Obama.”

Setting aside Tancredo’s apparent desire to re-institute laws that led to lynchings and mob violence, his speech showed one thing: Immigration, once a back-burner issue for the Tea Party, has suddenly become a burning topic.

Tancredo got a standing ovation with his concluding remarks: “[Our culture] is based on Judeo-Christian principles, whether people like it or they don’t. That’s who we are. That is who we are. And if you don’t like it, don’t come here. And if you’re here and you don’t like it, go home! Go someplace else!”

Alien, go home. It’s become a favorite theme. Last November, there was a rash of Tea Party anti-immigrant rallies held across the country, including one in Phoenix where people held up signs that said, “America Not Amexico.” The rage/hate level was so high at the Phoenix event that NeoNazi observers, some carrying signs nearly identical to the ones that the Tea Partiers had, attempted to join in.

Speakers at the Tea Party convention in Nashville this February drove home these talking points: “President Obama wants to turn the country into a Third World country.” “Make English America’s official language.” “Immigrants are taking over the United States. They must be sent back to where they came from.” “This is our nation and we must take it back.”

William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, is one of the leaders of a new wave of Tea Party anti-immigrant rallies being held this month. Gheen explained, “We are encouraging Americans coast to coast to stand up and speak out against Obama’s push for amnesty for illegal aliens and the President’s refusal to send the National Guard to the border to defend American jobs, wages, property, health and lives,”

The fear of the foreign is nothing new in the Tea Party, as shown in their widespread claims that Barack Obama is Muslim, not Christian; African, not American. At a Tea Party event on April 9 in Escanaba, a man named Ken Schwalbach said, “Obama, to me, is a socialist. He’s a Muslim and all he wants to do is bankrupt us and run us into the ground.”

Now our need for fairer immigration laws or even tolerance for a society that speaks more than one language is enraging the Tea Party. What are these people so afraid of?

A few clues: On one Tea Party blog, a member wrote: “An overflow of poor, uneducated humanity, looking for free health care will start pouring into our nation. Around the world rumors are already flying that if you slip across the sieve of a border, you can get work as low income and get all your taxes back by lying on the tax form.”

And on this site, in response to a GRIID article, a self-identified Tea Partier wrote about not being able to find English labels on store items and hearing other languages spoken in the street. He commented that to be upset about such things “is not being racist or a bigot, it is American. We live in America, they live in America, why do the majority have to cower to the minority?”

In my opinion, you don’t really see a lot of White cowering in America, but you wouldn’t know that to listen to Tea Party speakers. They also seem unaware that laws made even more Draconian over the past decade make it nearly impossible now for undocumented immigrants who have been living here for years to find their way through the system to obtain legal status and citizenship.

But there could be something larger going on here: the manipulation and control of votes.

A standard feature of Tea Party events has become the moment, as in Riverside Park on April 10, when someone earnestly explains why he or she is not a bigot. And that rang a bell with me, as it would with most students of U.S. history. Who was famous for saying, “I am not a bigot” even when he followed it up with statements such as, “Segregation today…segregation tomorrow…segregation forever”?

George Wallace. Wallace’s clever manipulation of Alabamans over the sea change of the Civil Rights movement was nothing short of brilliant. His overt racism was essentially theater, done with political deliberation. When he was asked why he started using hate speech, Wallace admitted, “I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.”

The majority of Tea Party members say there is no need for more than two political parties. So their votes will inevitably go to the existing party they see as more conservative. Add to the equation that the right wing is desperate to get back into power to save tax cuts for the rich, unlimited war profiteering, and the continued deregulation of Wall Street.

Now factor in a new CBS poll that found 63% of Tea Party members get their information exclusively from Fox News.

To manipulate the Tea Party, steering them toward politicians whose voting records prove that Tea Party issues have never been their priorities, would simply be playing out a tried-and-true method…one that’s been used before, particularly when fueling it with the myth of White oppression, the threat of the erosion of White privilege. Immigration issues provide the perfect trigger for that.

Is the Tea Party being played? If they are, it won’t matter how much rage is generated. This tactic is always abandoned after the votes are cast and the patsies have successfully been used for their purpose.

In Wallace’s case, his claims he could put a stop to the essential addition of civil rights laws were lies that got him into power. Civil Rights legislation prevailed anyway.

In the case of immigration reform, there is a great need for changes to make laws fair, to see that people who desire citizenship can achieve it, and to give everyone an equal place and an equal voice. These are changes that can be stalled, but will not be stopped.

Memo to the Tea Party: You all have immigrant roots. There is no “us” and “them.” Es hora de dejar ir.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Carma permalink
    April 18, 2010 9:53 pm

    Thank you for writing! I love that our country has such diversity. It makes life more interesting (not to mention our restaurants). Everyone here is an immigrant or descended from immigrants. Even the Native Americans came from the far East.

  2. Brett permalink
    April 20, 2010 5:14 am

    Kate,
    …… What I commented was ‘Do you get upset when you go into a department store and have to take a product off the shelf to look for the English description? Do you get upset when you are standing in line somewhere or walking down the street and people around you are talking a foreign language?
    Do you get upset when you see someone that is able to work, but won’t get a job because they are getting paid by the government to do nothing.

    That is not being racist or a bigot, it is American. We live in America, they live in America, why do the majority have to cower down to the minority (again not racist, just number based)? If you moved to China or Mexico, would you stand and demand that products be labeled in English? Would you demand that they carry English television channels? (oh, that all subscribers would pay for)’

    I was asking a general question to you.

    And again, you jump to conclusions by indicating I am a Tea Partier, I never indicated that in my post. I did say I was an American, and if that means I am a Tea Partier, I have a lot of company. I also never said ‘White’ was cowering, I said the majority (based on number), as your new post states 96% of Americans can speak English ‘well’ to ‘very well’, that is the ‘majority’ I was referring to. If only 4% can’t speak or read English well, why not educate instead of re-label everything to accommodate? It is frustrating to have to hunt for an English label, I grew up in America, went to American schools where it was not required to learn a foreign language to live here. That has changed and for many, it is frustrating. That was my reason behind the statement I made.

    And I still stand behind the fact that with closed minds, nothing is possible. Politics is one of many facets in America where people have a right to think for themselves and voice their opinions. And the constitution backs us up on that. If we were all to think as one and believe as one, we would not be the free country we are today. Yes, there are extremists in the world that may go to far, every side has them. Do they speak for the system as a whole, probably not, but they do have a right to speak. The open mind will hear all sides unbiased and make the best decision based on the facts given.

    The politicians that we vote in are supposed to listen to the people and make that open minded decision, and not be swayed by what the party member next to him is doing.

    There are a lot of frustrating things in America at this point in time Kathy, and what the people want, is a fair government that will listen to the voters that put them there. An example would be a poll about the health care. Quinnipiac (one you like to use) states 3/23 , 40% for, 49% against. CNN on 3/21, 39% for, 59% against. It would appear that the majority of the people polled are against the health care plan, so I guess that means it gets voted it in?? It’s something the people want…..uh, yeah..

    And yes we all have immigrant roots, I enjoy tracing back the ancestry of my family to find out where they came from and why they came to America. Speaking to a lot of family members, they hold their heritage close. There are Scotch, Irish, German and Dutch in my heritage, but for the past 300 years, they have been Americans. We don’t forget our past, no matter how far back it is or how recent, America has been a great country for many of our ancestors, why would we want it to fail now, in our time? What do we pass on as our heritage?

    This is not a time to stand on one side of the fence and call the other side names because they are on the wrong side. We don’t need the fence, we need to be together as Americans and decide what is right for this country.

  3. Kate Wheeler permalink
    April 20, 2010 6:11 pm

    Brett, I was mistaken–it was another blogger who identified as a member of the Tea Party, not you. I apologize for that.

    As for your comments about language(s) in the United States, I’m sorry, but I cannot agree. I grew up in a bilingual household, and I also spent some time as a child in Europe. So to answer your question, no, it does not upset me at all to see labeling in a foreign language or hear different languages being spoken on the streets. I’m used to it. I also speak several languages myself, as do most people who were raised in Europe.

    I think that in a global community, it is parochial and backward of Americans to expect that everyone speak the same language here and to insist that everyone around the world speak English wherever they go. And I find it ridiculous to feel threatened by a multi-lingual society, as so many Tea Party advocates seem to be.

    It is an inescapable fact that the majority of people in this country are White, and for centuries have enjoyed almost unlimited privileges and even domination because of that fact. I do feel that there is ample evidence on the part of the Tea Party that their fear of a multi-lingual country is tied into the fear that their White privilege is going to be somehow eroded by ongoing immigration–even though we have a history of immigration that, as you point out, goes back beyond the beginning of this country’s establishment. That was the premise of my article.

    There is also well-documented evidence of bigotry and racism on the part of many Tea Party members. In addition to their signs and statements, the keynote speaker at their convention this year gave a speech that was filled with racist statements, such as calling a viewpoint of multiculturalism a “cult.” This was the person that the Tea Party chose to motivate them at their launch convention for this year. It’s not as if Tancredo has been shy about his views, or that his comments could possibly have come as a surprise.

    A couple of other points:

    Your ancestors cannot possibly have been Americans for 300 years. America is not 300 years old. They may have been here, but they were the subjects of whatever mother country they came from.

    You said, “I did say I was an American, and if that means I am a Tea Partier, I have a lot of company.” I myself cannot stand with so-called “Americans” who are advocating violence, come armed to rallies, carry Nazi insignias and signs with racist messages, carry signs with messages threatening future violence if they don’t get their own way, and somehow feel that just because they have been here longer than newer immigrants, they’re somehow better. Yes, their hate speech is protected under the First Amdendment, as you point out. That doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it.

    You seem to keep saying that people have to be open-minded, and you advocate for people to have the right to their opinions. Well, it’s my opinion that much of what goes on at Tea Party rallies is repulsive. Please allow me the right to that opinion, and please stop calling me close-minded just because I don’t happen to agree with you.

    Just as I assumed you were a member of the Tea Party, you seem to assume that I’m a Democrat and an advocate of President Obama and of his policies such as health care reform. If you’d read my posts carefully, you would have seen otherwise. I do believe that Obama was a somewhat better choice than McCain and (God help us) the moronic Sarah Palin, but I believe there is no essential, core difference between the two established parties. I believe in universal health care because I have seen it at work, effectively and efficiently, in other countries. I stated clearly that I think that the health care “reform” that passed was a gift to special interests and the health care/big pharm industries.

    Simply because I hold those views doesn’t mean that I must necessarily ally myself with the Tea Party. Frankly, I’d rather be shot at one of their rallies by one of the arch-conservative candidates who arrive, in an effort to outrageouly pander for votes, armed.

    And if you’d read my posts carefully, you’d know my name is not “Kathy.”

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    April 21, 2010 4:48 am

    A couple of clips of source material on Tea Party activity and commentary on its actions:

    First, part of a report by David Corn on a recent rally; note the description of the signs and actions:

    “On Thursday [April 15], thousands of Tea Partiers marked Tax Day by trekking to Washington to protest. It was the usual stuff. The TPers complained about taxes. They carried signs showing Nancy Pelosi in a toilet. They compared the media — except for Fox News — to Pravda. One placard depicted President Barack Obama as a vampire sucking blood out of the Statue of Liberty. Another made this cogent argument: “Having Gov’t Manage Your Healthcare Is Like Having Michael Vick Watch Your Dog.” One sign was blunt: “Go Back To Kenya.”

    “…And Tea Partiers, while expressing all this outrage and anger, fretted that their rally was being infiltrated by outside provocateurs trying to make them look like a bunch of racist nuts.”

    Second, a Q & A sessison from the Washington Post with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center:

    Q.: Do you think the current atmosphere of “gun” rallies and “tea parties” could create an environment conducive to violence against government and its leaders?

    A: I think the gun rallies, the descriptions of the administration as “fascist” or “socialist,” the extremely harsh political talk, the conspiracy theories pushed even by “mainstream” politicians (U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, e.g., suggesting that Obama is setting up political reeducation camps for all American children) — all of this contributes to an atmosphere of hatred that helps push a few people into criminal violence and even terrorism.

    Q.: What do you think the government or anyone else can do to defuse the situation? Where do you see the current trend heading? How can we reverse that?

    Q: It’s a bad moment. So many politicians and others are using incredibly violent and demonizing language that it’s a little hard to get the genie of incivility back into the bottle. I feel very critical of GOP leaders as a result. Where were they when Palin started telling fairy tales about “death panels”? When then-Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo suggested that Mexico has secret plans to reconquer the Southwest?…

    Q.: What do you think will appease these “patriot” groups? Change in the administration? Change in control of Congress? Anything else? What exactly are they fighting for?

    Mark Potok: It seems to me that much of what bothers them is not really changeable. To the extent that it’s the changing racial demographics of the country, it’s too late — whites will lose their majority here, one way or the other, fairly soon (the Census Bureau says about 2050). Maybe a better economy will help…I think they’re so caught up in conspiracy theories that they can’t really think straight about what they want. They keep saying they want a return to the Constitution, but most of them don’t appear to have read, or at least understand it.

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