With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

What's Scary About the Anti-Immigration Debate

When we think of ethnic cleansing we think Darfur, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia.  Maybe its time we started thinking Fortuna, California; Hazleton, Pennsylvania; Cherokee, Georgia; and Whitewater, Wisconsin.

Once, 1.5 million Native American Indians lived here; by 1900 250,000 survived the roundups, slaughter, and wars of extermination. 

Between the Gold Rush and the turn of the 20th century, in town after town, Chinese miners and merchants, lumberjacks and field workers, prostitutes and merchants’ wives, were gathered up at gunpoint in over two hundred towns. The first Chinese Americans were forced onto steam ships, marched out of town, or driven out, sometimes along the railroad tracks they had built.

In Tacoma, Washington, at nine o’clock in the morning of November 3, 1885, the mayor ordered all the steam whistles at the foundries to blow, to notify vigilantes to begin the rout of the town’s Chinatowns.  By mid afternoon Tacoma’s Chinese were forced from town on a nine mile trek in the mud and rain, never to return.  In Eureka, California the rout of 1885 took less than a night, as the Chinese packed whatever belongings they could. The Chinese, many of whom had lived in Eureka for twenty years, were held under gunpoint at a warehouse on the docks, loaded onto two steam ships and sent to San Francisco. 

In the mountain town of Truckee, it took ten weeks to starve out the Chinese, when the editor of the local newspaper shamed merchants, timber barons, and women who ran boardinghouses, ordering the town to neither buy from, rent to, hire, or honor wood cutting contracts with early Chinese Americans.  When most of the Chinese had left, the “anti-Coolie” League and the vigilante committees (like the “601”—six feet under, zero trial, one bullet) circled the white part of town with fire wagons, invited the ladies to watch, and burned Chinatown to the ground.  Two Chinese men died, refusing to leave their homes.

During the Great Depression, two million Mexicans and Mexican Americans were deported under Herbert Hoover’s Mexican Reparation campaign. Sixty percent of the deportees were children, born in America. The rest were mostly US citizens who had lived on this land for generations.

Now, from Fortuna, California, to Trenton, New Jersey, immigration officials are sweeping through towns without warrants,  seizing Latinos from homes and factories, leaving children abandoned at schools and day care centers.

And now too, a simple housing code, traveling the Internet, is purging thousands of Latinos, suddenly homeless and on the run. Over eighty towns have enacted the canned language of “The Illegal Immigration Relief Act” and banned any landlord from renting to an undocumented worker. 

Evicted from their housing, American citizens, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants are in flight from frightened landlords who have become the storm police. 

In Hazelton, PA, landlords face arrest or fines of $250 per day. In Riverside NJ the fines grow to $1,000 per day. In Cherokee, GA, even after an eviction, landlords must prove that their former tenants have left the county before they can again collect rents.

In just one year this housing code has spread from historic Sandwich on Cape Cod, (whose web site invites you to “experience life the way it used to be”), south to Riverside NJ, Landis, NC and Beaufort, SC, to Avon Park, FL, Cherokee, GA, and Valley Park, MO. The code travels to Farmer’s Branch, Texas, up through Carpentersville, IL, Bloomington, MN, and Arcadia WI, where 140 Latinos once lived in a little town of 2,300 people. Then it jumps westward to Escondido, California.  

As civil rights groups try to enjoin the codes, others spring up.  Only the federal government can deport people, but small towns can drive them out of town.

This week, as soft wild dogwoods bloomed along the East Coast, I read a Christmas story, a tale of Christmas just past. It was called the Ordinance 2006-18.

T’was the week before Christmas 2006 when Hazleton banned Santa Claus. Santa was about to climb down the chimney without a green card. Although his biology has always been a bit unclear, Santa was an “alien” of the illegal sort who employed thousands of alien elves—“unfair foreign competition” to American toymakers.

Making a list and checking it twice? For the feds: “identity data provided by the property owner.” Data provided by a landlord? Based on what kind of verification?

And why?

Hazleton’s mayor told Sixty Minutes about a 70% rise in violent crime since Latinos came to town in 2001 (the correct number is 20 of 8,500 crimes). Farmers Branch, Texas said that the code would prevent terrorist attacks by purging its Latinos. One third of towns that passed the code are in unemployed areas of Pennsylvania--railroad towns that once sold anthracite coal, steel tubes, and carpets.  Now they export Latinos. 

These gentlemen prefer blondes. The mayor wants Hazleton to remain 94.7% white. Last week in front of a burning cross the  Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, recently defunct, announced to ABC Evening News that since they began assaulting, torching, and “bleaching” Latinos, membership has risen 40%.

“Pack your bags…It’s over, go home” shouted local Minutemen after Escondido’s city council voted 3-2 for the Hazleton code. With nearly half the town born outside the US, anyone who looked or sounded “foreign” stood to be evicted. In Altoona, which is 99.9 % white, a city councilman declared “We just want to stay ahead of the curve.” 

Neither the local U.S. Attorneys (those that still have their jobs), the Department of Homeland Security, or Attorney General Gonzales is stopping the unconstitutional enforcement of this unconstitutional code.

But immigrant rights groups are trying to stop the spread of this internet virus. They took Hazelton to federal court, arguing that the code violates immigrants’ rights to due process, fair housing codes and legal leases. The judge temporarily stopped the town which still awaits a final ruling. Sixty eight percent of the voters in Farmer’s Branch voted to support its code in May, but in June the Mexican American Legal Defense fun managed to get that vote overturned. Another break may be protections in the Hate Crimes Bill, passed by the House, moving through the Senate but facing a presidential veto.

Still, as Hazelton’s mayor bragged, the code endures, even though his struggling  town faces $2 million in fines and legal costs

Yet across small town America, landlords face empty apartments and vacant trailer parks. Businesses are shutting down. One-third of Riverside’s immigrant population has moved away. Twenty-five percent of our undocumented population has children who are US citizens, but unable to fend for themselves, these kids are losing their constitutional right to live here.  This code, perhaps deliberately, violates what children promise: permanence, stability, and future generations.

Latinos often say, “mi casa es su casa.” By contrast, this code says “leave.”

Related Links

  • HNN Hot Topics: Immigration