Seeking to capitalize on the media attention on what has been ground zero in California for the Central American refugee situation, Mayor Alan Long and his allies held a town hall meeting on the issue on July 2, 2014. The town hall came just days after a mob of angry anti-migrant protesters blocked three buses bringing about 140 Central American women and children from Texas for processing at a local Border Patrol station as police watched on. A massive crowd filled the 750-seat auditorium of Murrieta Mesa High school. Outside the auditorium a crowd of 300 pro-migrant protesters were locked outside and demanded to enter the so-called town hall. Unlike a true town hall meeting, where there is serious debate and constructive discussion with a full array of policy proposals to be considered, the event seemed like an anti-migrant rally in which the vast majority of those inside the auditorium were over 60 years old, white, and Republican. This demographic was vastly different from those locked outside and surrounded by police who were predominantly Latino and under the age of 30.
Despite the obvious racial politics of predominantly white anti-migrant protesters turning away a bus of 140 Central American women and children as the police stood by and allowed them to act, the Mayor held a town hall in which the tenor of the entire forum was catered to an elderly, white, and Republican audience packed inside the auditorium. During the “town hall” the Mayor and his aides took great strides to assure the audience and themselves that the bus incident was not about race. For instance, one speaker touted, Murrieta is a “melting pot like anywhere else.”
Moreover, Mayor Long took the opportunity before the cameras to tell the audience that he was himself “half Hispanic,” something that he admittedly said he never felt compelled to declare publically in his political career. The Mayor pointed out that 28% of the City’s residents are “Hispanics” and went as far as to describe his personal relationship with an elderly second generation Mexican-American man, whose family “came legally,” he emphatically assured the predominantly white audience. Most critically the Mayor repeatedly assured the crowd that he had assembled a “diverse” panel to talk about the “crisis” facing his city.
Such gestures are a classic example of how post-civil rights racism functions in the United States today. Unlike the “good old days” of Jim Crow racism, when whites could openly say they did not want to live with minorities because of their race, the new racism conceals racist attitudes behind ostensibly non-racial issues such as merit, legal status, or crime. The town hall was designed to brush away allegations of racism and to create the impression that the mob that turned away the three buses full of Central American women and children were just trying to enforce the law.
Moreover, such gestures made by Mayor Long and other speakers at the town hall were designed to obscure the fact that Murrieta is one of the most conservative cities in Riverside County and that it is a place where Latinos, Arabs and Muslims, and anyone who could not seamlessly assimilate into a cookie-cutter suburban mold is most often met with racial hostility. For instance, in 2010 the City of Murrieta unanimously voted to participate in the federal immigration control program E-verify, which checks the identity of potential employees on federal databases to determine immigration status—often resulting in the firing and intimidation of undocumented workers. Moreover, in 2011 Murrieta and the neighboring city of Temecula were home to right wing organizations vehemently opposing the construction of a mosque in the region.
All of the post-racial posturing about being a compassionate city and pointing out a few token Hispanics could not change the fact that Mayor Long and his nativist supporters wanted to avoid a real debate. The so-called “diverse” panel included the head of the Riverside County Board of Supervisor, Jeff Stone, a nativist xenophobe in his own right who helped pass the 287(g) program in Riverside County, the head of the Border Patrol for the San Diego region, the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Southern California, and the Murrieta Police Department’s Chief of Police along with a reactionary doctor from Riverside County’s Office of Disease Control. Not a single activist or elected official who is representative, let alone accountable to the Latino and migrant communities of Riverside County was on the panel.
There was no serious debate in the forum whatsoever. Instead it was an anti-migrant rally masquerading as a town hall meeting in which a configuration of anti-migrant forces in Riverside County were preaching to an overwhelmingly white Republican audience that at times was more akin to an angry mob than a group of concerned community members. The subtext for the town hall meeting was one where the panelists assured the angry audience that they were doing their best to protect the good white people of Murrieta, California from the criminal and disease ridden invaders sent by the Obama administration. In fact, a flier promoting the event exclaimed that the citizens of Murrieta, California should be concerned because their “health will be affected” as it listed a series of diseases that the migrants were suspected of having such as “malaria, dengue,” and other “tropical diseases.” The audience was promised that the police was ready to handle any threat to their safety and that all of the refugees would be “processed and fingerprinted” as well as “screened for diseases.”
Despite efforts to calm nativist nerves, the crowd erupted into anger when the head of the Border Patrol said that the buses would continue to come to Murrieta and that they would be given a court date and would be out on bail until their case is heard by a judge. He was met with boos and heckles from an audience that was more right wing than some of the law enforcement personnel on the panel.
The angry anti-migrant audience inside the auditorium showed a complete disdain for the difference between a migrant and refugee, the United States Constitution, and for understanding the complexity of the problem at hand. Both the speakers and audience in the forum repeatedly referred to the migrants as “illegals” and a few of the more politically savvy speakers called them undocumented immigrants (even as members of the crowd shouted “call them illegals!”).
Yet the reality is that the 140 Central American women and children that were turned away on three buses are not undocumented migrants, rather they are refugees. They are people who are seeking entrance into another country because they are being persecuted by either government actors or groups in civil society that their government could not control based on at least one of five protected grounds that are widely and thoroughly acknowledged in international law. In any case, they are legally in the United States waiting to see a judge as called upon by due process domestically and through international law. Moreover, while in the United States, these Central American women and children are supposed to have the right to a free, fair, and speedy trial of their peers, protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, and equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The nativist audience that dominated the auditorium was not interested in learning why this problem has unfolded. There was no discussion as to why people were leaving Central America. None of the official speakers on the “diverse” panel mentioned the history of U.S. intervention in Central America, the million dollars per day spent by the Reagan administration to fund the Salvadoran military during the civil war (1980 to 1992), the military bases that the United States created in Honduras, the CIA intervention, support, and training of death squads in Guatemala and the exportation of failed anti-gang policies in Central America.
There was no discussion of these policies, let alone about today’s failed Merida Initiative and the Central American Regional Security Initiative. There was absolutely no discussion on the neoliberal policies that have turned the region into export-led economies that depend on migrant remittances to sustain the consumption of goods in a global capitalist economy that the United States was in the vanguard of creating though its free trade policies during the 1980s and 1990s. This would require too much thought and it wouldn’t fit into the narrow ideological discourse of the anti-migrant forces in Riverside County—and the country for that matter—which continuously frame the issue of migration into simplistic legal binaries between legal vs. illegal, good immigrants vs. bad immigrants, and us vs. them.
During the town hall several people shouted slogans about the Constitution, and made references to America (“USA”) being the “greatest country in the world.” These messages imply that immigration threatens to destroy democracy itself. Such arguments are not new, nor are they limited to places like Murrieta, California. The late (in)famous Harvard-based political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote a controversial article entitled, The Hispanic Challenge, which appeared in Foreign Affairs. In the article, Huntington warned that Latinos were a threat to America’s identity, political institutions, and democracy. At one point in his essay which equates full cultural assimilation with civic duty, Huntington also argued that if Latinos want to be part of the American Dream they will have to dream in English. Nativist groups such as the Minutemen and others have used Huntingtonistic arguments to demand assimilation and to build a more omnipresent and omnipotent police state that ignores civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution and in international law. Ironically, Huntington’s dream of an American democracy constructed on an Anglo-Saxon cultural mold is being destroyed in a zealous craze to create a powerful police state that is strong enough to “secure the borders,” and turn back refugees by the very people whom he erroneously credited for founding an American democracy.
The ironic thing about Huntington’s thesis is that democracy in the United States is being saved not by nativists trying to cleanse the nation of what they view as “parasitic and racially inferior races.” Rather it is Latino youth, such as those that comprised the vast majority of the 300 people locked outside of the town hall, who are on the front lines of saving the United States from its own authoritarian ghosts, which have haunted it since its founding. The protesters were comprised of mostly of Latino youth in their teens, twenties, and thirties, and joined by regional Mexican music singer Lupillo Rivera, who became a hero to fans and migrant rights activists alike when he confronted the nativists who turned away the buses on July 1.
As the nation prepared to celebrate the 4th of July, these young Latinos were giving the City of Murrieta and the United States a lesson in civic democracy. Lupillo Rivera was spit on by an anti-migrant activist yet, like civil rights activists of the 1960s before him, he humbled himself and remained calm and continued to exercise his constitutional rights in the name of a greater good. Moreover, even as the Latino migrant activists were locked out of the auditorium, they eventually were able to pressure the police to let Lupillo Rivera inside the building where he provided the only Latino voice in favor of the Central American refugee mothers and children.
This came about, not because the English-speaking, Church-going defenders of democracy wanted to hear from a diverse audience. It happened because Latino youth demanded that the City of Murrieta and America at large live up to its professed ideals. These Latino youth activists and their allies, such as Lupillo Rivera, used non-violent civil action to remind us that the actions of the nativist mob that stopped the bus full of women and children is on the wrong side of history. A history in which a group of whites historically driven by racial intolerance try to run out non-whites from “their backyard.” Indeed, these Latino youth activists are democratizing the United States and they are doing it en español. Samuel Huntington should be turning in his grave.
Alfonso Gonzales is an Assistant Professor at The Center for Mexican American Studies, UT Austin, and the author of Reform Without Justice: Latino Migrant Politics and the Homeland Security State (Oxford University Press, 2013).