Immigrants Under Fire: The Tea Party’s Newest Target
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.