Anti-Immigrant Sentiment Reaches Fever Pitch Over Central American Child Refugees


The headline from the July 20 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette seemed innocuous enough: "Residents express concerns over arrival of child immigrants in Emsworth."

The story described the impending arrival of as many as 30 Central American refugees under the age of 12 at the Holy Family Institute, a Catholic-run orphanage. The children will be just a few of the estimated 60,000 undocumented, unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order signed by President Obama last year.

But the concerns some residents voiced weren't in any way minor, nor were they grounded in either compassion or fact.

"A lot of community members are concerned about the disease and drug-cartel involvement these children could bring. The news was quite a shock," the P-G quoted Emsworth Mayor Dee Quinn as saying. And Quinn wasn't alone. Gov. Tom Corbett also cited the children as a potential public-health worry, telling KDKA: "We cannot be a country that just takes everything that comes here without at least looking into the background of this."

Congress is deciding whether to tackle immigration reform on a large scale, and the country waits to see how strong the executive order that Obama has promised is; many suspect it will grant work rights and deferred deportation to more than 11 million undocumented Latino immigrants. Meanwhile, rhetoric about "illegals" has reached a fever pitch.

While undocumented immigrants in this country come from all over the world, the focus — and a lot of the vitriol — from both the public and elected officials has lately targeted Latinos. The conversation is so heated that it has become commonplace to discuss child refugees from Latin America in the same breath as drug cartels.

"What we're going through right now is just patently ridiculous," says Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, who has long litigated cases of discrimination against immigrants. "There is a long and shameful history in this country of treating immigrants horribly. At one time, the same claims about health and safety issues were made about the Irish, and they are as ridiculous now as they were then.

"Latino immigrants are oftentimes more physically and audibly identifiable, and because of that they have become the new scapegoats of the xenophobic segment of our society. Although I don't believe that it's a large segment of the population. It's just a group that is very loud and vocal about their hate."

That fact isn't lost on Maria Antonio. She spoke at a July 24 rally on the South Side urging President Obama to sign an executive order to give undocumented workers the right to work without fear of deportation. The rally was hosted by the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. Antonio, who lives here with her children and works in the area, is undocumented; her husband, she says, is currently awaiting an immigration hearing after being picked up by authorities simply because of the way he looks.

"We work and pay taxes. We pay our bills, we pay our rent, but we live in fear that the police will stop us and put us in the hands of immigration," Antonio told the crowd through an interpreter. "I do believe firmly because we can be seen and immediately identified as Latino that we are being discriminated against."

Antonio says her children, who were born in the U.S., are fearful that their father will be sent home and they will be separated. But she says she is not going anywhere: "No me voy a ir. Me voy a quedar!" ("I'm not going to go. I am going to stay.")

"I don't have fear," she says. "Even if he goes, I am staying. These kids were born here and I intend to make sure they stay here.

"President Obama, do what you promised and give us a legal pathway to work. ... You said you would do it, and I and 11 million others are waiting."

How much longer they'll wait is uncertain. In Congress and on the streets, the right has pushed back hard against any effort to reform the country's immigration system. And most, if not all, of that pushback has been against Latinos.

"There are undocumented people living in this country from all over the world. In fact, there are tens of thousands of Canadians living illegally in this country, and I have yet to meet a Canadian who has been rounded up," says Guillermo Perez, president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. "But the reality is that the majority of the undocumented are Latin Americans, and they seem to be the ones who bear the brunt of enforcement. Even the bipartisan [immigration-reform] bill passed by the Senate wanted to spend $40 million to further militarize the border of a county with which we are at peace and have great economic relationships with.

"So, yes, there is little doubt in my mind that there are elements of racism that come into play in this issue."

Patricia Documet, a professor of behavioral and community health sciences at the University of Pittsburgh who studies Latino health issues, agrees that the negative attitudes expressed toward Latinos is a cyclical phenomenon.

"We are not the first community in the United States to be treated badly, but it's our turn right now," she says. "How do we get it to end is the question, and unfortunately, I don't have an answer.

"There is a narrative out there that Latinos are a threat; that we're coming here to live on welfare and use social services. That's the narrative and it's just not true, but so many people believe it."

Documet says one way to address the hostility is with better education by the media. Many people, she says, don't fully understand how the immigration system works. She and her husband came to the U.S. on his work visa 25 years ago. It took them nearly 12 years to get through the system and obtain citizenship.

"People don't understand that there aren't a large number of visas granted to Latin Americans looking to immigrate to this country legally," Documet says. "They tell Latinos to go get in line if they want to come here. But there is no line and if there is, no one really knows where it is."

Perez, of the Latin American Labor Council, says the anticipated executive order from Obama could also help ease tensions.

"We need this executive order," Perez says. "If it's bold and broad, it will lead to a better form of immigration reform down the road. We worked like hell to get him elected. We're part of this country and we are staying."