Hovering over the proposed immigration bill is the cloud of ethnic cleansing. As President Bush bemoans the fact that it is impossible to deport twelve million people, small town America is finding ways to do just that, to drive out Latinos-Mexican Americans, Mexicans with visas and "green cards," and undocumented workers alike.
Last week 62% of the voters in Farmer’s Branch, a suburb of Dallas, Texas chose to ban illegal immigrants from living in the town-a vote quickly overturned by a Superior Court judge. When we think of ethnic cleansing we think Darfur, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia. Maybe its time we started thinking Hazleton, Pennsylvania and Whitewater, Wisconsin, and Farmer’s Branch. The U.S. has its own tradition of ethnic cleansing. Once, 1.5 million Native American Indians lived here; by 1900, 250,000 remained after the roundups, slaughter, and wars of extermination.
A long ethnic purge lasted from the Gold Rush of 1849 to the turn of the 20th century when Chinese miners and merchants, lumberjacks and field workers, prostitutes and merchants’ wives, were gathered up at gunpoint and driven out of two hundred towns, sometimes along the railroad tracks they had built.
During the Great Depression, two million Mexicans and Mexican Americans were deported under Hubert Hoover’s Mexican Repatriation campaign. Sixty percent of the children were American citizens, born in the U.S. Most of the adult deportees were also citizens who had lived on this land for generations.
This past year a housing ordinance, "The Illegal Immigration Relief Act," has traveled the Internet, forcing thousands of Latinos into hiding or on the run. This simple code bans a landlord from renting to an undocumented worker. Over eighty towns have enacted its canned language.
In Hazelton, landlords face arrest or fines of $250 per day for renting to illegal immigrants. In Riverside NJ, fines can grow to $1,000 per day. In Cherokee, GA, landlords must prove that their "illegal" tenants have left the county before they can collect rents again.
American citizens, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants are in flight, and frightened landlords have involuntarily become the storm police as the housing code spread from historic Sandwich on Cape Cod, (whose web site invites you to "experience life the way it used to be") to Arcadia WI, a town of 2,300 people where 140 Latinos once lived, and westward to Escondido, California.
As civil rights groups move to overturn the codes, others spring up. Only the federal government can deport people, but small towns can drive them out.Under the code, you also cannot have a guest in your home who is an undocumented worker. Last Christmas Hazleton even banned Santa Claus. Santa was about to climb down the chimney without a green card. Santa and the elves were "aliens" of the illegal sort– "unfair foreign competition" to American toymakers.
Making a list and checking it twice– for Homeland Security: "identity data provided by the property owner." Data verified by a landlord? Verified how?
The code exposes an epidemic of fear. Hazleton’s mayor told Sixty Minutes that the code would solve the town’s 70% rise in violent crime since Latinos came in 2001 (the correct number is 20 of 8,500 crimes). Farmers Branch said that by purging Latinos, the code would prevent terrorist attacks.
One third of these towns are in areas of high unemployment in Pennsylvania–railroad towns that once sold anthracite coal, steel tubes, and carpets. Now they export Latinos.
This is code for race. Hazleton’s mayor wants his town to remain 94.7% white even though his struggling town faces $2 million in fines and legal costs. In front of a burning cross, the American Nazi Party just announced to ABC Evening News that since it 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 of Escondido residents born outside the US, anyone who looked or sounded "foreign" stood to be evicted. In Altoona, PA, which is 99.9 % white, a city councilman declared "We just want to stay ahead of the curve."
Attorney General Gonzales is ignoring this unconstitutional code. Immigrant and civil rights groups, however, are trying to stop the spread of this internet virus. They recently took Hazelton to federal court, arguing that the code violates immigrants’ rights to due process, fair housing ordinances, and existing leases and await a ruling. They forced Escondido to erase it.
Meanwhile, across small town America, landlords face empty apartments and vacant trailer parks. Businesses are shutting down. And one-third of Riverside’s immigrant population has fled. Twenty-five percent of our undocumented population has children who are US citizens. Unable to fend for themselves, these children are losing their constitutional right to live here. But as Hazleton knows, children represent a permanent community and future generations.
Farmer’s Branch says "exit here." Latinos often say the opposite: "mi casa es su casa."
Jean Pfaelzer is professor of English and American Studies at the University of Delaware, and director of the University Honors Writing Fellowship Program. The writer of numerous articles on nineteenth century women’s literature, feminist theory, and cultural theory, she has been appointed to the Washington D.C. Commission for Women. She lives near Washington, DC. Her new book, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans is available at all booksellers.