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The Year in Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric

Trump was just the tip of the iceberg in 2015.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Michigan. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The ebbs and flows of nativism in the U.S. have long determined which nationalities are allowed into the country, and how they’re treated once they arrive. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for instance, to prohibit the immigration of Chinese laborers in the face of fears that these workers were stealing jobs and depressing wages. The panic was stoked back then by ugly, anti-Chinese propaganda campaigns.

If 2015 taught us anything, it’s that racially-loaded anti-immigrant campaigns are by no means a thing of the past. Many Republican presidential candidates (Donald Trump in particular) have unapologetically fueled public prejudices against new arrivals. During the course of this year, lawmakers from all over the country have joined in, raising the volume to a fever pitch.

Let’s take a look back at some of the more resounding lows of 2015’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Immigrants portrayed as rapists, criminals, and drug dealers

Trump hit the ground running. During the July speech in which he announced his bid for the U.S. presidency, he proclaimed that Mexico was exporting its criminals, rapists, and drug dealers to the U.S.—words he stood by in subsequent interviews. Via The Washington Post:

They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Trump’s declaration followed news that the suspect in the murder of a California woman was an undocumented immigrant who’d been deported several times. But data show that U.S. immigrants “are less likely than the native population to commit violent crimes or be incarcerated,” according to the Wall Street Journal. In The Washington Post, Michelle Ye Hee Lee examined the larger body of research on the link between immigration and crime and reached this conclusion:

Trump’s repeated statements about immigrants and crime underscore a common public perception that crime is correlated with immigration, especially illegal immigration. But that is a misperception; no solid data support it, and the data that do exist negate it. Trump can defend himself all he wants, but the facts just are not there.

Trump wasn’t the only presidential candidate to mention this erroneous link. Ben Carson and Ted Cruz have made similar claims. Carson said in a September speech that the Obama administration was releasing “hardened criminals” it apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, and that many of the released included Iraqis and Somalis. According to Factcheck.org, that’s just not true:

Available statistics show that immigrants from those countries make up less than 1 percent of the people caught entering the U.S. illegally. They also represent less than 1 percent of the total number with criminal convictions who were later released from custody.

The children of immigrants as “anchor babies”

Trump and Jeb Bush refused to abandon the pejorative term “anchor babies” to refer to U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Trump sees “anchor babies” as incentives to illegal immigration and suggested ending birthright citizenship as a solution.

Fellow presidential hopefuls Carson and Rick Santorum also support this position. In August, Santorum told Fox News that Congress could interpret the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constituion in a way that children born in the country to non-citizen parents are not automatically awarded citizenship.

To be fair, constitutional scholars have interpreted the 14th Amendment both in favor of and against birthright citizenship. But Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University, argued in the The Washington Post that “the defenders of birthright citizenship ultimately have the better case.”

Eight-year-old Yesenia Del Carmen carries a sign that reads "No to deportations" at a rally in Los Angeles in April 2015. (AP Photo / Damian Dovarganes)

Jeb Bush, on the other hand, has said that by coming to the U.S. illegally to reunite with family, immigrants commit an act of love.” Still, his policy plans aren’t compassionate toward those who came to America illegally as children. In an April interview, Bush told a radio host that he would overturn President Obama’s executive actions on immigration that allow young undocumented immigrants to legally stay and work in the country.

Closing doors to refugees

A Croatian police officer stops migrants at the railway station in Tovarnik, Croatia, September 28, 2015. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)

Throughout 2015, Europe grappled with a massive influx of refugees from Iraq and Syria, which elicited anti-immigrant responses from the leaders of some countriesparticularly Hungary. Then came the November terrorist attacks in Paris. In the initial chaos, authorities found a Syrian passport, which led them to speculate that one of the attackers might have come to Europe with the wave of migrants. The passport was later declared a fake.

Anti-refugee discourse swelled in France after the attacks, and soon spilled over to America. More than half of U.S. states pledged to turn away Syrian refugees the federal government had promised to take in. Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Virginia, even went so far as to cite Japanese internment camps as an example of good decision-making in the face of a perceived threat to national security:

Historically, refugees have never been much of a threat in the U.S., according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. They also go through an incredibly rigorous and long vetting process as a part of resettlement to the U.S. Still, the House of Representatives introduced a bill last month that essentially closes the doors to migrants fleeing Syria and Iraq. The bill passed by a bipartisan vote, 289–137.

Islamophobia

In the wake of the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino mass shooting, Congress tightened the security of two U.S. visa programs. But Trump, naturally, took things several steps further. He called for the registration of all Muslims in the U.S. in a national database and suggested that they carry special ID’s. He also wanted to close down mosques. Most recently he declared that he’d ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.

While some conservatives have been critical …

… others have piled on. Ben Carson quite literally dehumanized Muslims by calling them “rabid dogs.” Marco Rubio suggested barring immigrants from that part of the world”—referring to the Middle East—from entering the U.S. And instead of speaking out against this anti-Muslim rhetoric, Ted Cruz said that curbing it produced a “chilling effect” in San Bernardino.

Let’s hear from Ishaan Tharoor in The Washington Post:

Ninety-four percent of terrorist acts committed in the United States since 1980 have been carried out by non-Muslims, according to the FBI. In the past five years, fewer than 2 percent of all terrorist attacks in Europe have been "religiously motivated," according to European Union data.

Arabs and Muslims are already the most dehumanized groups in the U.S., a recent study showed. And the recent rhetoric justifies more ill-treatment. In parts of the country, mosques have been vandalized and threatened with violence, Muslim families have been stopped from boarding flights, and innocent individuals have been verbally and physically attacked.

Talk of immigrant surveillance

Trump has suggested that certain U.S. mosques be surveilled. (Cruz, on the other hand, has spoken out against mass surveillance.) But the strangest surveillance proposal came from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who recommended that foreign arrivals to the U.S. be tracked so that they don’t overstay their visa. In the process he likened people to packages; via the The New York Times:

“At any moment, FedEx can tell you where that package is. It’s on the truck. It’s at the station. It’s on the airplane,” Mr. Christie told the crowd in Laconia, N.H. “Yet we let people come to this country with visas, and the minute they come in, we lose track of them.”

Critiques of anti-immigrant policies became “offensive”

In the fourth Republican primary debate, Ted Cruz made the following statement, via TIME:

“I will say for those of us who believe people ought to come to this country legally, and we should enforce the law, we're tired of being told it's anti-immigrant. It's offensive. I am the son of an immigrant who came legally from Cuba to seek the American dream. And, we can embrace legal immigration while believing in the rule of law."

Of course, if Mexico or any of the Central American countries had been the beneficiaries of the same law that allows Cubans who make it ashore to enter the U.S. and easily obtain a green card, there would arguably be no illegal immigration from these countries.

Illegal immigration from Mexico surged because laws were created without properly understanding migration patterns, argued Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. Tapping into the economic and cultural potential of these new arrivals might be more beneficial to America than mass deportation.

It could also be a wiser political move. One result of venomous anti-immigration rhetoric is that activists are already using it to get out the Hispanic vote. That push could make a big difference in future elections. Take the case of California, which saw strong anti-immigrant campaigns in the early 1990s. The state is now only 28 percent registered Republican, writes NPR’s Ina Jaffe.

And here’s political scientist David Damore, who has followed that trend, via NPR:

"The moment when the Latino population is about ready to explode in California and have an impact on politics, the Republicans were pushing a very, very hostile agenda," said Damore. "The end result is, it's no longer a competitive state."

Words all candidates may want to revisit as 2015 comes to an end.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.