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Hispanics Bearing the Brunt of Xenophobia

Angry at what some believe is federal inaction in policing borders, states and localities are adopting a slew of laws that deny services to undocumented residents, prompt police to act as Immigration. Customs Enforcement agents, penalize employers who hire them and make English the “official” language. In a creepy Stalinist twist, Arizona actively encourages ordinary citizens to report any businesses that employ suspicious, foreign-looking characters.

Individuals of Hispanic backgrounds bear the brunt of this xenophobia since they are thought to be the biggest violators. Supposedly, some 12 million undocumented immigrants, most presumably Latino, have so far invaded the sanctity of the United States.

In my home state of Virginia, the General Assembly, in its annual winter session, is considering more than 100 bills to somehow address the “illegal” immigrant problem. A slew of counties and cities have bounded together to discuss the issues in ways reminiscent of the White Citizens’ Councils that fought desegregation 50 years ago. One county, Prince William, a largely White bedroom suburb of Washington, D.C., received national media attention last summer when it adopted a number of anti-immigrant laws.

Not long ago, an item in a local newspaper in my home county of Chesterfield caught my attention. The then-Republican Board of Supervisors had ordered the county to come up with an estimate of how much “illegals” were costing the county in services.

County officials estimated the number at about $2.1 million but never said how many undocumented foreigners were actually here. That seemed an odd number since mostly White Chesterfield has a population of about 300,000 and doesn’t have many foreigners.

Being a journalist, I started to make inquiries. My first stop was the county’s public information officer, who said that the estimate was rather loosely based and anecdotal. I also contacted the assistant county administrator who directed the study and asked why they never said how many undocumented immigrants were actually in the county. She said the estimate was from 17,500 to 21,000, but it was flimsy so they didn’t make it public.

She admitted that the study considered only Hispanic immigrants, which seems odd because in Virginia, more immigrants come from Asian countries such as India, China and Vietnam than Latin America. From the start, the study seemed biased against Hispanics.

How did they get the number of exclusively undocumented Hispanics? Researchers went to the 2000 U.S. Census and found that 15,000 county residents had checked the box “Hispanic” beside their names. Mind you, these people could be here legally or illegally. All they did was check a box on a paper. The county then tossed in another 10,000 to 15,000 Hispanics. This “tossed in” number was the brainchild of a “Hispanic cross-functional team” that worked in the county two or three years ago. There were up to 25,000 to 30,000 Hispanics in the county legally or illegally, by the county’s count.

How do we know how many are here illegally? In Chesterfield, they guessed and came up with an unsupported figure of 70 percent of the total. Using this figure, they then estimated county costs.

I called the advocacy group, the Hispanic Committee of Virginia. Their spokesman said that they assume about 11 million undocumented people live in the United States. If so, Chesterfield’s number is probably more like 4,000. He was astonished at Chesterfield’s estimate.

Do the foreigners, here legally or without papers, really sap the economy? Not at all, says a spokesman for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which does studies for the commonwealth’s General Assembly. In a 2004 study of “foreign-born” Virginians, they concluded that Asians outnumbered Hispanics. A JLARC spokesman says their report found that the foreign-born “were not a great demand on services.” Instead, they “contribute immensely to the state economy,” according to the report, the spokesman says.

What seems incredible is that such efforts are underway just when links between the United States and the rest of the world are becoming increasingly intertwined. Universities have wide and growing links with foreign countries. Free trade agreements allow vigorous cross-border commerce. Foreigners are briskly buying up U.S. companies, thanks in part to the weak U.S. dollar.

With growing globalization, it seems especially odd that many localities are throwing out unwelcome signs and stigmatizing immigrants, especially dark-skinned ones. In Chesterfield’s case, elections brought a new board, which shelved anti-immigration measures. But as the Chesterfield example shows, facts supporting the allegations of a wave of undocumented immigrants can be wrong, slanted or made up. The local media, nonetheless, repeat them over and over. So it’s no big surprise there’s an undocumented immigration crisis — real or not. 

— Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist who has worked in Moscow, New York, Washington and Chicago.

—Peter Galuszka

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