These are strange times to be a conservative Mexican-American.
I do not see myself as a person with one foot in the United States and one foot in Mexico. A large portion of my family are Tejanos, people who lived in Texas when it was a part of Mexico, and those of us who did cross the border have been here for generations.
It is as a Catholic Latina and a student of conservative politics that I am now torn between two worlds.
Since the election of Donald J. Trump, I have seen the indignities endured by my fellow Latinos. My brother and his friend had trash thrown at them on the road by white men who yelled racial slurs and told them to “keep curfew.” My sister was hit with a shopping cart at a grocery store by a white woman who wanted to look at an item on a shelf. When my sister stayed put, the woman mocked her in pidgin English, saying “You don’t speak English?” My cousin, who was born here, was pulled over in his truck, not because he was driving in any suspicious way but because the officer wanted to ask him if he is legal or not—a perfectly legal stop under Texas’s recently passed State Bill 4.
Since the election of Donald J. Trump, I have seen the indignities endured by my fellow Latinos.
The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11 and 12 showed the nation what many minorities have personally attested to, only to be met with disbelief and dismissal: Racism is alive and well, and it is deeply entrenched in conservative politics. At the gathering, the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke said: “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.” The president, who has little trouble denouncing his “enemies” in the media and Congress, struggled to immediately and unequivocally disavow neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Hearing Mr. Duke’s words, I remembered the shudder I felt watching Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign as he articulated his platform, particularly his immigration policy, in terms of “taking our country back” and “making America great again.” Watching the violence in Charlottesville unfold, I recalled my sympathy with the thousands of protesters who took to the streets after Donald Trump’s inauguration with chants of “Not my president.” Though I did not march, I know the fear and despair expressed by many Americans, especially immigrants and people of color, over our country’s inability to take seriously the persistent problems of racism.
I understand the conservative Trump supporter who is not motivated by racial animus.
At the same time, I understand the conservative Trump supporter who is not motivated by racial animus. I understand the frustration of feeling unfairly blamed for the detestable behavior of those who happened to support the same candidate.
But in the face of an emboldened white supremacy movement, I find the defensive posture of some conservatives more and more trying. Having known and seen family members bear the humiliations of racism, it is hard to accept the alliance Republicans made in 2016 with Donald Trump and to watch the way that compromise has poisoned the discourse on immigration policy. As the evidence of some connection between President Trump and racism mounts and reports of hostility to minorities continue, Republican voters who I once considered my political allies remain indifferent or incredulous. Perhaps because they themselves did not vote for racist or anti-immigrant reasons, it is difficult for them to imagine that others have done that.
Still, it is important for conservatives to confront racism in our ranks and to question our unsavory political alliances, rather than to minimize or deny the rise of racism under President Trump. Only then can we engage constructively in debates over immigration policy. Indeed, conservatives, who consider themselves students of the Western tradition of justice, can bring to these discussions compelling questions about what we as a nation owe undocumented immigrants. What constitutes just treatment toward laborers who have built up our communities and contributed to the fabric of the United States? What constitutes fairness toward the labor families, often comprised of citizen children and undocumented parents, who are being torn apart under an immigration policy that has vacillated over the decades between terms of cooperation and paths to citizenship to talk of mass deportations? These are the questions conservatives should be asking about immigration policy, but the American right grows less and less able to express ourselves in these terms.
During his campaign Donald Trump characterized illegal Mexican immigrants as the refuse of Mexican society, claiming that they are “bringing drugs...bringing crime.” They are “rapists,” he infamously said. Mr. Trump later clarified that he was only drawing attention to the portion of illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes—a notably small percentage of the illegal immigrant population. These “bad hombres,” we were told, would be the targets in any deportation roundup under the Trump administration.
The reality on the ground already looks quite different. The deported include many who are guilty of offenses related to their illegal status but not of the violent crimes Mr. Trump warned of. In February, Guadalupe García de Rayos, a 35-year-old mother of two citizen children who has lived in the United States for 20 years, was deported to Nogales, Mexico, for using a false Social Security number and living in the country illegally. Maribel Trujillo Díaz, a mother of four citizen children in Fairfield, Ohio, was deported to Michoacán, Mexico, in April. She has no criminal record and under the Obama administration was able to work and remain in the country so long as she checked in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement once a year. In 2008, Jesús Lara López came to immigration officials’ attention when he was caught driving without a license, but he was permitted to continue living and working in the country. In July, the father of four American children was deported to Mexico.
In the face of an emboldened white supremacy movement, I find the defensive posture of some conservatives more and more trying.
The fact is that while Mr. Trump has promised to deport two to three million people, there are not even two million illegal immigrants with criminal records to be deported.
President Trump’s rhetoric around immigration and enforcement actions have at best underestimated the challenges posed by immigration. At worst, he has contributed to a dangerous climate of racism and xenophobia.
At Texas State University in San Marcos, Tex., where I teach, students were spat upon following President Trump’s election; some had their hair pulled, and others were told to “go back to Mexico.” There have been anti-Semitic and white supremacist fliers distributed on the campus four times since Mr. Trump’s election. Other fliers encouraged students to report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities. At a university where minorities make up 50 percent of the student population, these flyers sent a clear message: You are not welcome here.
The Roots of Racism
Racially driven opposition to immigration among conservatives did not begin with Donald Trump. The late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, though himself a lifelong Democrat, championed views on the dangers of large-scale Latino immigration that have been embraced by many on the right. In his book Who Are We? The Challenges to American National Identity (2004), he drew a firm boundary between the cultural resources of Latinos and the American experiment: “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” For Mr. Huntington and like-minded conservatives, Latinos not only need to learn how to read, write and speak English to succeed in the United States; they must aspire to act like white Protestants. It is a disturbing call for ethnonationalism and a poor interpretation of the Declaration of Independence’s revolutionary (if aspirational) claim that all are created equal.
At a more grass-roots level, the radio host Rush Limbaugh famously characterized the Mexican-American population as underperforming and lazy and warned the Republican Party against assimilating them. “The way the Republicans are looking at it is that they think that Hispanic immigrants are made-to-order conservatives,” he said. “For some reason, culturally, they think that they’re invested in hard work.” The implication, of course, is that they are not.
I have heard similar sentiments expressed by my peers. At an academic conference I once attended, a presenter spoke about how Latinos pose a threat to “American identity” because they have a culture of “handouts” and a love for “authoritarianism.” I had to leave the room in quiet tears.
Racially driven opposition to immigration among conservatives did not begin with Donald Trump.
How widespread are these beliefs among voters? The research paints a complicated picture. A Pew Research study published in August 2016 found that while only one-third of Trump supporters believe undocumented immigrants are “less hardworking and honest than U.S. citizens,” 50 percent thought illegal immigrants are “more likely to commit serious crimes than citizens.” The majority of Republican primary voters did not support the mass deportations of illegal immigrants (though 52 percent of those who initially backed Trump for the nomination did). Another study found that 56 percent of Republicans support a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.
Other studies, however, have shown that there are hidden biases against immigrants from Mexico that complicate the debate about Latino immigration, in particular. In one study, researchers asked U.S. citizens how they felt about specific behaviors among immigrants, like overstaying a visa, accepting under-the-table pay and flying one’s native flag. They found that white Americans found these actions to be more offensive when the person in question was originally from Mexico, as opposed to the United Kingdom or Canada.
There are hidden biases against immigrants from Mexico that complicate the debate about Latino immigration.
In another study, respondents were asked about one of three hypothetical immigrants: a Mexican immigrant named “Juan”; a Chinese immigrant named “Yuan”; and a German immigrant named “Johan.” Fewer respondents believed that “Juan” should be granted a pathway to legalization. The researchers said the results suggest that “in the absence of other information, whites in our sample rely on ethnic cues to ‘fill in the blanks’—assuming undocumented Latinos are uneducated, unassimilated and potential financial problems for U.S. society.”
It is painful for me to read these characterizations of Mexicans by some on the right. After all, I think of my family as a part of what makes America great. When I hear some members of the Republican Party calling Mexicans “lazy,” I think of my grandfather, who used to have to eat in kitchens away from white people at restaurants, even though he and his brothers fought for our country overseas. When I hear about the mythical greatness of an American dream unsullied by Latino immigration, I think of family stories of citizen children who were told to sit in the back of the school bus by the white school bus driver and how they persisted in their efforts to attain their goal of receiving an education.
It was my parents’ insistence on devotion to family and their belief in the opportunity of education that drew me to conservativism. In college, a time when many young people begin to explore the political left, I found myself drawn to conservative ideas. I saw the Western tradition as a transmitter of wisdom from generation to generation, a fertile intellectual soil for Americans confronting important political and philosophical questions. I viewed the conservative account of the family as the fundamental unit of society as an echo of my experience growing up in a multigenerational home, and the conservative account of marriage was the most accurate portrayal of the kind of committed love I longed for.
It was my parents’ insistence on devotion to family and their belief in the opportunity of education that drew me to conservativism.
Years later, during my pregnancy as a female academic, I experienced first-hand the benefits of conservative “family values.” My male colleagues not only encouraged my vocation as a mother but supported me in my decision to continue my work at the university. This positive stance toward pregnancy is the fruit of robust philosophical accounts of human dignity and sexual difference, and evidence to me that conservatism is well situated to answer the hard questions that the left has traditionally posed about racial inequality, gender inequality and sexual ethics.
This is emblematic of what is best in conservative thought. We have great potential to articulate modern problems in a way that draws on the wisdom of the past, without being chained to the past. We seek to conserve rather than to progress beyond or abandon what previous generations have accomplished. We possess the intellectual resources to distinguish between things as they should be and things as they are. Conservative thinkers—heirs of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine—possess the intellectual precision for the careful dance that is required between liberty and equality in a republic.
Many on the right put their heads in the sand rather than confront the United States’ persistent racial sins.
But instead of relying on intellectual riches of the conservative tradition to answer the hard questions about race and privilege brought out in the election of 2016, many on the right put their heads in the sand rather than confront the United States’ persistent racial sins. Some parts of the Republican Party have even openly challenged the connection between racism and American history, buying into a nostalgic and ahistoric view of the Civil War.
What We Owe
The further we get from the election, the more the Republicans’ decision to rally behind President Trump seems like a mistaken last stand, a flight away from what is best and most noble on the right. But I am not without hope. That is because I think conservatives are well situated to deal with some of the more serious questions concerning race and immigration if they turn toward their roots, which emphasize subsidiarity and the common good.
One question I think conservatives can pose well is this: What do we owe, in fairness, to the illegal immigrants who have worked in the United States. Drawing on John Locke’s treatment of labor and property, we might ask what the labor of those who have worked here illegally should merit. The common-law notion of adverse possession or “squatters’ rights”—which recognizes the link between the cultivation of the land and a claim to the ownership of it even in the absence of a legal title—reflects an intuitive understanding that there is some sort of connection between obligation and labor, even when ownership is not involved.
Conservatives are well situated to deal with some of the more serious questions concerning race and immigration if they turn toward their roots.
There is no doubt that the United States has benefitted from the labor of undocumented immigrants, though the just compensation of this work is an appropriate area for policy debate. According to a 2016 Pew Research Centerstudy on unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, 11.1 million illegal immigrants made up 3.5 percent of the U.S. population and 5 percent of the workforce in 2014, with significant representation in farming and construction occupations. Half of that population had lived in the United States for at least 13 years.
The data tell us that many illegal immigrants have become a part of the American community, whether we realize it or not. They have lived in this country for a significant amount of time, building the houses we live in, paving the roads we drive on, cleaning the businesses we work at and growing or preparing the food we eat. On top of that, illegal immigrants pay $6.9 billion in sales and excise taxes, $3.6 billion in property taxes and more than $1 billion in income taxes. They also add $37 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product. One 2007 study from the Congressional Budget Office showed that “the taxes paid by immigrants and their descendants exceed the benefits they receive.”
There is no doubt that the United States has benefitted from the labor of undocumented immigrants.
Historically speaking, we are also in debt to the labor of Mexicans. Beginning in 1942, we relied on Mexican labor that was not fairly compensated until 2008. The Bracero Program contracted temporary workers from Mexico to work on farms and on railroads in the United States in order to keep the country’s economy functioning during World War II. This arrangement was renewed by the federal government in some form until 1964, and the advantages of it redounded more to our national benefit than to the contract workers (as is evident by their delayed compensation). Whether we realize it or not, the labor and contributions of citizen and non-citizen Latinos are woven deeply into the national fabric.
Another question I believe conservatives can ask and resolve fairly is what justice requires for the citizen children of illegal laborers. Unlike their parents, who do not have the status of citizens, these children possess all the rights of citizenship and can claim those rights when we are considering what policies that affect the common good. This situation calls for deftness and nuance to balance the demands of border security with the concerns of the vulnerable parties involved; too often, Republican lawmakers are choosing to take a hammer to the entire system, with devastating results for parents and children.
This is not in the best tradition of conservatism. Conservative thought recognizes the family is the building block of society and that governmental interference in this essential unit is something that should only occur in grave circumstances. The right to a mother or father within the family unit is to be defended from unnatural intervention by federal authority, authority that by the doctrine of subsidiarity is only legitimately exercised in certain spheres. Our current willingness to break up the families of citizen children is a massive display of top-down state overreach that conservatives so often decry.
Immigration is a complex issue, as evidenced by the failure of Republican and Democratic administrations alike to reach a comprehensive solution for the 11 million people living in this country without documentation. But the personhood of those involved should be the starting point of political inquiry. Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush understood this. Though one may disagree on the means, these conservative leaders identified and confronted the most vocally racist among their supporters.Today, instead of a relying on a tradition that focuses on limited national oversight, subsidiarity, the relationship between labor and property, and a sensitivity to the trends of local, historical development, I fear that the right is green-lighting the darkest aspects of conservative engagement with immigration policy. I am tempted to think the reason that citizen children and undocumented laborers are not considered in conservative reflections on the common good is that they somehow matter less. Then I wonder how my fellow Americans think of me and the beautiful culture and family values that have shaped me as a Catholic, a conservative and a citizen.