One of the Sorriest Episodes in Recent Memory

Screen shot 2014-08-04 at 6.27.42 PMIt is clear that there are those among us who are having trouble adjusting to the new reality of race in America. Their old world of white majority domination in political and economic life is slipping away.

The changes started back several decades ago when it became clear through the 1980 U.S. Census that a racial and ethnic transformation was occurring in the population.

I used to have a bit of fun back then going to Rotary Club meetings and talking about this transformation. I would suggest that those who get the yips about such things needed to recognize that there was a better than 50/50 chance that their grandchildren were going to have brown eyes.

Now the transformation that began back then is playing out and it is bringing out the worst in us.

To be sure, the economic decline of the middle class has added an element of desperation to it all. Throughout history whenever people feel that their status is threatened they identify some sordid little source to point to  – the Jews, the Illuminati, Masons, Socialists/Commies, homosexuals. The insecurity caused by the Great Recession, and the development of inexcusable economic inequality, add to the perception of a threat and the passion of the response.

Having a black President has been a focus of most of the xenophobic reaction, but now we have another victim to blame – 57,000 kids from Central America.

The Congressional reaction to surge at the border has led to one of the sorriest episodes in recent memory.

Before getting into the politics of all this, let’s take a quick peek at what actually is going on along the border.

Large numbers of children (5,727) began arriving in 2012 from Central America. Initially they were mostly boys aged 15 to 17, the ages most likely to flee gang recruitment and violence. But the numbers of children and girls have risen steadily adding to a stream of 57,000. More than two-thirds of the children come from poor and violence-riddled towns in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

The largest number, 2,000, come from San Pedro Sula in Honduras, also known as the Murder Capital of the World. Children from Mexico, once the largest group, now compose less that 25 percent of the total.

They mostly are coming in through Arizona and Texas, over 42,000 through the Rio Grande Valley alone.

Pretty much all of them seem to be in custody, causing a crisis for detention and processing systems.

While this crisis was building it looked as though the Congress might actually do something about the immigration mess. Even Speaker  John Boehner brought out a set of reform “principles.” There were backroom negotiations in the House.

Then, as news of the influx of children grew, the racists began to ooze out from under their rocks. First came the claims that the children were drug gangs and were riddled with exotic diseases. (Immunization rates actually are higher in the source countries than they are in the U.S.) Then the inflammatory framing – “invasion,” “gangbangers,” “quarantine them like lepers.” The Minutemen, ever-attuned to a racist undertaking, volunteered its services in defense of the nation against the children. Texas Governor Rick Perry ordered 1,000 National Guardsmen to the Rio Grande Valley where they will provide a para-military response to the mothers and children.

A fading Tea Party found new life in this atmosphere. The Nativists in the Congress began to take over the debate.

The President asked for resources ($3.7 billion) to improve security and to house and process detainees. House Republicans, ever responsive to the meanest and loudest among its base, brought through a bill, with only one Democratic vote, that would allocate $694 million while modifying a 2008 anti-human trafficking law to make it easier to deport unaccompanied minors. The bill includes $35 million for states putting the National Guard on the border, apparently to confront with armed force, the threat of these children.

They also passed a bill intended to stop deferred prosecution for Dreamers.

Those of you who want to explore a little further the intensity of the discussion should take a moment and listen in on the debate on these bills in the House Rules Committee last Friday. Here is a link to the hearing on C-Span:  If you cannot bear to listen through the whole thing, scroll over to 14:50 and later, around 5 1:45, and listen to the telling remarks by Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois).

Gutierrez pleaded with the Rules Committee not to do it. He begged for moderation and consideration for the children. He argued that passage of these bills would doom any hope for compromise on the immigration issue – a compromise that he had worked hard to find.

The Rules Committee listened politely and then promptly authorized the rule needed to bring these measures to the House Floor.  They eventually passed late Friday night.

Of course, the House had managed to wait until the Senate left town for the August recess before passing their plan, so no response to the President’s request has actually been enacted.

Now all these emotions are pointed right at the November elections. We are about to find out just how much the xenophobes, racists and demagogues have influenced our perception of ourselves.

Bill Daley, based in D.C., provides policy analysis and strategy on national issues for the Alliance for a Just Society.