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Nativist Sentiments Explode

History repeats itself as Americans strike out against immigrants with hate speech and even violence, this time creating a schism within the environmentalist Sierra Club.

From the very beginning, America has been a country of contradictory impulses. A strong strain of fair-mindedness, rebellion against the dead hand of the past, and heady idealism runs like a bright thread through our history. But we also have always been afflicted with dark undercurrents of hatred and fear — a tendency to turn on those seen as outsiders when social and political changes strain the body politic.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of immigrants. With each new wave of the foreign-born — Africans, Catholics, Jews, southern Europeans, Chinese, Japanese and other Asians — nativist backlashes have erupted.

Men and women have been murdered, deported, and excluded from jobs and neighborhoods because they weren't "100% Americans." Convents, churches and synagogues have been burned. Those with "alien" ideas have been harassed, imprisoned or forced to flee.

And in each case, the complaints have been basically the same. The outsiders distort "our" culture. They are bringing in political corruption, disease and immoral practices. They have suspicious loyalties to other countries and causes. They don't speak English and they don't belong to the right race. They are not as smart, as good-looking, as democratic or as educated as the rest of us.

It has always been so. Benjamin Franklin, as Washington Post writer Peter Carlson pointed out recently, called German immigrants "generally the most stupid of their nation" and complained that "few of their children know English."

During the 1850s, the peak of the Know-Nothing movement against "papist" Catholics and other foreigners, Massachusetts Gov. Henry Gardner attacked Irish immigrants in his state as a "horde of foreign barbarians."

And so it goes. Time and again, the story is repeated.

"The campaigns against alien people and alien ideologies are found in every period of American history," David Bennett wrote in his 1988 book, The Party of Fear. "These are the movements which constitute the party of fear."

Now it is the turn of the Latin Americans. From the studios of CNN and Fox News to the halls where right-wing extremists meet and eat, denunciations of Latinos are becoming a part of the national dialogue.

In California, Republican State Sen. Rico Oller recently produced ads featuring a picture of Mexicans crossing the border superimposed on a photo of a masked terrorist.

In Illinois, Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) recently campaigned with a Senate candidate, saying that illegal immigrants "are coming here to kill you and to kill me and our families."

Such statements aren't very different from the messages being emitted by bona fide hate groups. And they certainly have encouraged those on the radical right — groups ranging from the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens to the neo-Nazi National Alliance — to join in the immigrant-bashing.

The 9/11 attacks haven't hurt much either — Tancredo's anti-immigration Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus has grown from 10 members before the attacks to 71 today.

Ironically, the vitriol about immigrants has damaged President Bush, who normally is a hero to the right wing of his party. Bush has proposed normalizing the status of millions of undocumented workers in the United States, an idea that has infuriated Tancredo and many other Republican leaders.

While opposition to immigration may help the GOP in many local and state races, it is very possible that it will hurt Bush's reelection chances as angry reductionists stay home.

This winter, the battle over immigration moved into a most unlikely venue — the Sierra Club, a highly influential environmental organization with more than 700,000 members and a budget of almost $90 million a year. As detailed in this issue of the Intelligence Report, immigration opponents inside and outside the Club are attempting to convert the group into an anti-immigration organization.

The attempt has been a long time coming. It was first discussed 18 years ago in a secret memo by anti-immigration maestro John Tanton, and the initial battle occurred in 1998, when reductionists were outvoted by a 3-to-2 margin.

Now, that same faction is trying to elect Club directors sympathetic to their cause.

As this issue goes to press, the election hangs in the balance. It is important that the anti-immigration faction be defeated — to save the Club as an environmental powerhouse, to repudiate the hate groups that have tried to skew the vote, and, in keeping with the very best of our country's traditions, to choose hope over fear.