Immigration: What’s at Stake?

Against the Current No. 213, July/August 2021

Guy Miller

Blood Red Lines:
How Nativism Fuels the Right
By Brendan O’Connor
Haymarket Press, 2021, 350 pages, $26.95 hardcover.

“The borders that separate one country from another are an artifact of politics and history. They were born in violence, and their maintenance demands violence.” —Brendan O’Connor

“They chase us like rustlers, like outlaws, like thieves.” —Woody Guthrie, “Deportees.”

MY WHOLE LIFE I’ve taken pride in seeing myself as not living in a bubble. The slogan “For a World Without Borders,” and solidarity with undocumented workers was about the extent of my understanding of the role of immigration in U.S. politics.

Immigration, and the hostility to it, were, to me, a function of the competition over jobs between immigrants and the native born — no doubt important, but an issue subsumed under the greater heading of the class struggle.

Two events, ten years apart, shook me out of my rote thinking. First came the string of mobilizations in the spring of 2006 in response to H.R. 4437. The infamous “Sensenbrenner Bill,” H.R.4437 would have classified all illegal immigrants, and those who aided them, as felons.

The answer came when millions took to the streets across the country. In Chicago there was the joyous explosion of May First, 2006. Organized by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and others, as many as 400,000 marched from Union Park to the Federal Plaza. At the time it was the largest demonstration in the city’s history.

A sense of collective strength permeated the atmosphere. The march became a festival of life with families and mariachi bands adding color and music. H.R.4437 went down to defeat.

The contribution of immigrant labor is what keeps America fed. This country has approximately three million Latinx farmworkers, at least half of whom are undocumented. Finally, I grasped the extent of the immigrant role in American life.

The second turning point for me was a much darker one that came in August of 2016. In a campaign rally Donald Trump demonized Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers, rapists and criminals.” It was not so much the explicit racism that shocked me — after all it is the kind of thing that can be heard in any barroom in the country — but rather where it came from.

The fact that the remarks came in a nationally covered campaign speech, by a major party candidate, told me that there was something more than just access to jobs involved; this was visceral red meat meant for a large, receptive audience.

Blood Red Lines (BRL) tells the story of how this deep-seated racist hatred has infested the American body politic. Author Brendan O’Connor balances his on-the-ground reporting with a scholarly and well documented narrative. BRL contains nearly 900 endnotes spanning 70 pages, which coupled with a useful bibliography makes the book a valuable resource.

O’Connor begins with a first-hand account of a trip to the desert near the Mexican border. His companion on this trip was Dr. Sara Vasquez, a volunteer with a humanitarian group called No More Deaths.

No More Deaths scours the desert looking to aid the living border crossers and to count the dead ones. Vultures are a helpful guide in this grim pursuit. Over the last 23 years over 7200 are among the dead in the Southwest desert. However, this is most likely a gross underestimate, because as Dr. Vasquez observes, “…what the desert does to dead bodies, is it makes them disappear.”

Behind the Hate Campaign

Many of the changes in how Americans view the world can be traced to a shadowy but well documented world of think tanks, foundations and big money.

No conspiracy here, these puppet-masters hide in plain sight. The names of two of them, John Tanton and Cordelia May, have fallen beneath the radar, but their role in demonizing immigrants has been crucial.

Tanton had his Rosebud moment at the age of 11, when his family joined the mass exodus of “white flight” from Detroit that began shortly after the “race riot” of 1943, which resulted in the death of 25 African Americans.

Trained as an ophthalmologist, Tanton soon developed an obsession with population control. At some point, Tanton recalled, “I became convinced, and I don’t recall exactly how, that increasing number of people were part of the problem.”

Tanton’s involvement began with Planned Parenthood, but by 1970 his interests spiraled downward first to Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, and eventually ending with Tanton becoming an advocate of what he dubbed “passive eugenics.”

By this point Tanton had become a full blown Malthusian. What may have started as “too many babies” had become “too many brown and black babies.” Tanton had talent as an organizer and was determined to build a network of anti-immigration think tanks and foundations.

Two of the many groups he founded were The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS.) Both have been major players in building anti-immigrant sentiment over the next several decades. FAIR has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The thing that Tanton lacked in bringing his projects to fruition was money, and that’s where Cordelia May came into the picture. The focus on Cordelia sharpens once we give her full name: Cordelia Scaife May. She was the sister of the arch-reactionary Richard Scaife; she and her brother were heirs to the Mellon fortune.

Tanton smelled money and was determined to get all he could. O’Connor writes: “His letters to her are filled with groveling and obsequiousness, punctuated by encouragement of the reclusive millionaire’s most outlandish fears.” Tanton played the role of Uriah Heep to perfection, and it paid off in tens of millions of dollars in contributions to his anti-immigrant cause.

In the chapter “Think Boots, Not Books,” BRL shifts to the contemporary nativist right. In her book Bring the War Home, University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew traces the roots of the contemporary far-right to the 1979-81 attacks on Vietnamese immigrants who worked as successful shrimp fishers off the coast of Texas.

Led by disgruntled U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War and the Ku Klux Klan, many of the participants in this anti-immigrant vigilantism went on to become active in the militia movement of the 1980s and ’90s.

Global White Supremacy

O’Connor makes the case that much of the American far right’s thinking on immigration is tied to a world-wide network of white supremacists. A seminal text for many of them is a 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints (Le Camp des Saints).

By 1983 Camp of the Saints was out of print in the United States, but a second edition was paid for by Cordelia Scaife May. Written by French author Jean Raspail, the novel depicts the white Christian West as under siege by mass immigration from dark-skinned people of the Global South. Seen as a call to arms by many on the nativist right, the book rose from the remainder bin to become a best seller in 2011.

The internet has allowed the international white supremacy movement to form an instant feedback loop. The shooting of 11 worshipers in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is referenced by another shooter in Christchurch, New Zeeland, and the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik is seen as carrying on a struggle for “indigenous rights” by members of the National Front in France.

When the racists of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville were chanting “Jews will not replace us,” they were echoing the 2011 book Le Grand Replacement by French author Renaud Camus.

In the chapter “It’s the Birthrates,” BRL tells the story of the 2018 migrant caravan. In October 2018, a caravan of mostly Central American refugees, fleeing persecution and gangs spawned in Los Angeles several decades earlier, began a 1900-mile walk through Mexico toward the U.S. border, where they hoped to find asylum.

Seizing on this as a potential issue in the midterm elections, Donald Trump tweeted without evidence, “Many gang members and some very bad people are mixed into the caravan heading to our southern border.”

Rightwing media were quick to chime in that Islamic terrorists had joined the caravan. Soon Fox Business News host Lou Dobbs speculated that George Soros (the favorite Jewish whipping boy of the far right) was financing the caravan. There you have the whole package: Racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism.

While O’Connor does not see Donald Trump as the cause of the surge of anti-immigrant violence, he does see his election as heralding a new chapter in American politics. O’Connor writes, in a paragraph deserving a long quote:

“The election of Donald Trump (along with Brexit)…posed a shock to the Anglo-American media. Not only had mainstream pundits and analysts failed to predict these events, but they had appeared utterly incapable of imagining that either was even possible. Bourgeois politicians and their media, still warm from the glow of the Obama administration, did not recognize the global rise of the far right in the aftermath of the Great Recession for what it was, the product of a deep crisis of legitimacy and evidence of a fundamental shift in the stakes of political struggle.”

Far Right Out in the Open

The January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol has brought the far-right to the attention of the American media. No longer able to use the “lone wolf’ dodge, they have been forced to cover it in some detail.

The Proud Boys may be the most public relations savvy of all the contenders for hegemony in the far-right menagerie. It was no slip of the tongue when Trump told them to “stand back and stand by” late in his 2020 election campaign.

The Proud Boys seek to veil themselves with an air of legitimacy. They are eager to single out their occasional Black member, and careful to substitute “West” or “Western” for “white.” Using this strategy they were able to gain a speakers’ spot for their leader Gavin McInnis at the prestigious Metropolitan Republican Club in upper Manhattan (this happened in October, 2018).

After reporting on this entrance into the mainstream, O’Connor cautions his readers not to view the Proud Boys as a “gateway drug,” but rather to see them as the violence-prone, racist, antisemitic, misogynist thugs they really are.

For the most part O’Connor is careful in his use of the word fascist, a designation often misapplied by those on the left. However, I found his coinage “border fascist” a distraction. To his credit O’Connor makes a number of germane references to Clara Zetkin’s 1923 speech, included in the collection Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win (Mike Taber and John Riddell, eds., Haymarket Books, 2017), a book I view as essential reading for understanding fascism.

I no longer live in a bubble that underestimates the centrality of the struggle for immigrant rights. I better understand the deep-seated hostility toward these fellow workers, fleeing violence and poverty that is all too often caused by U.S. foreign policy.

Blood Red Lines has moved me to a fuller appreciation of the fight ahead of us. This fight will only be over when we live in a World Without Borders.

July-August 2021, ATC 213

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