Is It McCarthyism Yet?

This week in North Philly Notes, Rachel Ida Buff, author of Against the Deportation Terrorwrites about immigrant rights in this xenophobic era.

Travel bans based on nations of origin; local law enforcement officials compelled to perform federal surveillance work; lists of suspected subversives; prohibition of solidarity or sanctuary work; massive deportation; and the disappearance of the names of the deported from mass media. These recent trends are part of a renewed xenophobic turn in U.S. politics. They also have historical precedent in the infamous era of McCarthyism.

Often filtered through middle school readings of The Crucible, memories of McCarthyism tend to feature an honest person confronting the inquisitorial voices of Joe McCarthy and his notorious House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). But the McCarthyist Red Scare featured assaults against foreign-born activists as well as a massive and well-publicized roundup of Mexican Americans in the Southwest and California: Operation Wetback.

Buff approved 032017.inddWell before the heyday of HUAC, anti-communist legislators succeeded in passing laws aimed at curtailing the allegedly subversive activities of “foreign-born radicals.” The 1940 Smith, or Alien Registration, Act made advocating governmental overthrow, or belonging to any group believed to advance such an agenda, deportable offenses. Subsequent laws extended deportability to include guilt by association, as well as targeting particular areas of the globe as undesirable nations of origin for immigrants attempting to enter the United States.

These anti-subversive laws were frequently used against immigrant labor and community leaders accused of “UnAmerican activities,” like organizing for wages and rights.  These foreign-born Americans were vulnerable to McCarthyism, much as contemporary Muslim and Arab American leaders are subject to enhanced scrutiny and the possibility of detention and deportation.

Under the Smith Act and subsequent McCarthy era laws, local law enforcement agents often provided evidence in the trials of immigrants accused of subversive activities.  The push for 287(g) and “secure communities” policies today has clear antecedent in this use of municipal forces. As many police unions point out, however, this use of local policing for surveillance and repression alienates immigrants, making all communities more dangerous.

Billed as “cleaning up the border” of “illegal aliens” suspected of political subversion, Operation Wetback commenced in 1954. This Immigration and Naturalization Service campaign eventually resulted in the deportation of a quarter million Mexican Americans, some of them legal residents and American citizens. (Estimates vary; in 2015 then-candidate Donald Trump claimed that this program resulted in 1.5 million deportations.)

While unsuccessful in stopping the flow of migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, Operation Wetback institutionalized the kind of deportation sweeps of immigrant communities currently taking place. And it was during this campaign that the names of those in deportation proceedings vanished from popular media accounts, being replaced by the ominous science fiction of the “illegal alien.” How many people who do not interact regularly with immigrant communities can name just one of the over two hundred thousand deported in 2017?

Campaigns of repression, like McCarthyism or the wave of xenophobia prevalent today, portray foreign-born people as dangerous, subversive, and UnAmerican. Their power is to rob vulnerable non-citizens of their power and livelihoods. For example, the announcement of the cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was timed to coincide with the first day of school, forcing thousands of young DACA recipients to experience this traditional time of excitement with dread.

Brave individuals stood before HUAC and refused to name names, eventually exposing the grim machinations of repression as the real UnAmerican activities. Similarly, immigrant rights advocates labor to defend the rights of those targeted by the forces of xenophobia and hate. Their efforts are part of the struggle to defeat McCarthyism, then and now.

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