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.

Lou Barletta: Burdensome, Illegal, Alien

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post Undocumented Fears author Jamie Longazel’s recent essay from the Huffington Post about Lou Barletta. 

Donald Trump is reportedly considering Congressman Lou Barletta to serve as his Secretary of Labor.

A Trump supporter from the beginning, Barletta made a national name for himself as mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, when he spearheaded the Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IIRA) in 2006. Riding the wave of popularity generated from his hard-line anti-immigrant stance, he went on to unseat longtime Democratic incumbent Paul Kanjorski in the U.S. House of Representatives.

This potential appointment does not surprise me given Barletta’s loyalty to Trump and the political similarities the two share. However, as someone who grew up in Hazleton and spent the last decade studying the politics surrounding the IIRA, I am deeply concerned.

Undocumented Fears_smAs I chronicle in my book, Undocumented Fears, Barletta pushed the IIRA without any evidence to support his anti-immigrant claims. He suggested undocumented immigrants were wreaking havoc on his city – committing crimes, draining resources, and the like. I show how in reality it was economic policies favoring the wealthy that were responsible for Hazleton’s decline.

Like Trump, Barletta has elevated demagoguery over truth. “I don’t need numbers,” he boasted when confronted with the reality that undocumented immigrants did not increase crime in Hazleton. At the same time he has masked how his own political decisions have done more harm than good for his constituents, including some of his most ardent supporters.

Although there was no evidence to support his claim that “illegal aliens in our city create an economic burden that threatens our quality of life,” there is plenty of evidence of Barletta burdening city resources. Back in 2001, as mayor, he gave his blessing to local developers seeking to implement a state-level corporate welfare initiative that provided exploitative multinational companies with massive tax breaks. Some enjoyed a moratorium on all taxes for a dozen years. Hazleton today provides a clear example of how a city cannot provide its residents with adequate services when its largest employers do not pay their fair share.

More directly, Barletta took advantage of the system for his own benefit by dragging his exclusionary law through a years-long appeal process. While increasing his political capital by refusing to “back down,” he ignored clear pronouncements that this would cost the city immensely. Indeed, it has. Hazleton – which operates on an annual budget of less than $10 million – now owes $1.4 million in legal fees. As the Editorial Board of the local newspaper, the Citizen’s Voice so appropriately put it, “[T]he residents of Hazleton will have to consider [this] an involuntary contribution to [Barletta’s] campaign war chest.”

Silencing critics who sought to add complexity to the debate, Barletta regularly uttered the simplistic, faux-populist line “illegal is illegal.” The hypocrisy of this was in full view as he reacted to the court’s determination that the IIRA illegally overstepped federal authority and violated the Equal Protection Clause, unleashing Trump-like criticisms of judges, immigrant rights groups, and musings about a rigged system.

Because he hails from a hardscrabble former coalmining town, Barletta may look the part as potential Secretary of Labor. Hazleton, after all, has one of the richest histories of labor organizing you will find.

But we shouldn’t let that fool us. Lou Barletta’s pro-corporate / anti-immigrant stance is alien to the working class legacy of Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Coal Region. He has more in common with the barons of the mining era than he does with the miners, enabling exploitation more than protecting us from it. What should worry us most is how he has followed in the footsteps of the coal barons, using ethnic stereotyping to pit working people against one another.

It is true Barletta and Trump are both widely popular in Hazleton at the moment. But after sifting through Lou Barletta’s record, I can say with confidence that he does not represent the interests of the working class people living in Hazleton today, despite posturing as though he does. Unfortunately, laborers across the country may soon find out that he does not represent theirs, either.

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