March 14, 2003

Hispanics Fear Anti-Immigrant Backlash After Bush Remarks

By: Marcelo Ballve

Hispanic groups said President Bush set a dangerous example and risked fanning anti-immigrant sentiment by implying there could be a popular backlash against U.S.-based Mexicans if Mexico voted against an Iraq war at the United Nations.

Fears were that Bush’s comments — made in a March 3 interview with the Copley News Service and featured five days later in a column by New York Times writer Paul Krugman — gave an unspoken green light to immigrant bashing and anti-Mexican reprisals in the case of a Mexican government “no” vote at the Security Council, or any further Mexican non-cooperation with the U.S. war effort.

Hispanic groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, said Bush’s statements were especially worrisome since immigrant rights had eroded steadily after the Sept. 11 attacks, with scrutiny increasing on all the 32 million foreign-born in the country, among them at least 9 million Mexicans, according to U.S. Census figures. María Blanco, MALDEF’s Sacramento, Calif.-based national senior counsel, called Bush’s statement “un-presidential” and ”inappropriate.”

“One thing is foreign affairs, another is linking a sector of the population to the actions of another government,” Blanco said. “Even if it’s indirect, or veiled or subtle, (Bush) has no business condoning reprisals based on another country’s foreign policy.”

The 18-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent the White House a letter protesting the veiled threats made by the administration. “Resentment of these tactics will be felt on both sides of the border for years to come,” the members wrote. But on March 11, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the allegations an “invention” and part of a partisan attack, saying the Hispanic Caucus is composed solely of Democrats.

According to both Krugman and the Copley News Service, Bush answered a question regarding possible reprisals against the Mexican government by saying, “I don’t expect there to be significant retribution from the government.” But the president continued, “an interesting phenomena taking place here in America about the French ... a backlash against the French, not stirred up by anybody except the people.”

In the same column, Krugman also noted that The Economist magazine quoted a U.S. diplomat saying a Mexican “no” vote could “stir up feelings” against Mexicans in the United States. The diplomat asked whether Mexico “wants to stir the fires of jingoism during a war.”

Not everyone believed that Bush’s words and administration innuendo would incite bashing of Mexican immigrants. The president’s comments were “thoughtless,” but not likely to spur attacks on immigrants, said Pedro Tuyub, editor of the bilingual El Tecolote newspaper in San Francisco, published by the nonprofit community group Acción Latina.

“I don’t see how it could get any worse than it already has for immigrants after Sept. 11. The truth is that there always has been an anti-Mexican current here, but I don’t think today people will begin to behave differently with respect to Mexicans” simply because of a United Nations vote, he said.

Mexico, which desperately wants an agreement that would give millions of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States an amnesty, has not yet arrived at an official stance regarding a proposed U.S. draft resolution that sets a March 17 deadline for Iraq to prove it is disarming.

But it is not clear if the resolution will be voted on, since the outspoken opposition of veto-bearing France and Russia keeps pushing the deadlines back. Mexico is not a permanent member of the 15-member Security Council and does not have veto power, but it is one of the rotating members being aggressively courted by the United States to gain legitimacy for military action.

Whatever the outcome in the diplomatic arena, immigrant rights groups were angry and felt that the Mexican community was being endangered by Bush’s words. In Southern California and other areas near to the Mexican border, rights activists said Bush’s statements could be interpreted as an encouragement to vigilantes — some of them armed — who since 9/11 have stepped up patrols to spot undocumented immigrants crossing the border.

“This only adds fuel to the fire,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “After Sept. 11, there is already anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner and anti-Mexican sentiment. It is basically just giving them a green light to continue.”

Marcelo Ballve (, a former Associated Press reporter in Brazil and the Caribbean, reports.

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