The Mexicans Are Coming! The Mexicans Are Coming!

Hyping the immigration crisis in America's whitest states


Missouri Governor Matt Blunt is damn tired of this "unnatural influx" of people "who openly flout the laws." Last year he expressed his displeasure by sending the Missouri national guard to patrol the Mexican border. Now he is at work transforming the state's police officers into immigration enforcers, directing them to send the undocumented to detention centers.

Missouri, geographically adept Americans will have noted, is not a border state. Nor is it a gateway state, or a state known for it's profusion of Hispanic culture. In 2005, 2.7 percent of Missourians were of Hispanic or Latino origin, less than a fifth of the national average. The state grew more slowly than the rest of the country between April 2000 and July 2006, and little of that sluggish growth was attributable to immigration. Relatively few Mexicans looking for a new life are looking in Jefferson City.

Gov. Blunt is determined to hype mass immigration as a state issue, and he is not alone in his desire to preempt the migrant menace. Forty-one states enacted 171 immigration bills between January and June, and over 1,000 were proposed. As of mid-March, 104 cities and counties had considered or adopted ordinances concerning undocumented workers. But the number of bills seeking to address demographic change is less interesting than where they are coming from. And where they are coming from seems to have little to do with where the vast majority of immigrants are going.

San Diego State University Sociologist Jill Esbenshade has studied the glut of local anti-illegal immigrant ordinances in detail. In a report to be published by the Immigration Policy Center in September, Esbenshade finds that almost 80 percent of the localities where ordinances have been discussed had below the national average of Latino population share in 2000.

Take Oologah, Oklahoma, birthplace of Will Rogers and a town fearful enough to ban employers from hiring undocumented workers last year. In 2000, when the last census taken, Oologah was a town of 883 residents. One percent of those residents were of Latino or Hispanic origin—9 people. The population has since grown, but no one is claiming Oologah has an immigration problem. Talking to The Oklahoman, Oologah Mayor Jerry Holland complained about "unlawful workers taking jobs away from us," though, the paper noted, those workers don't seem to be showing much interest in transplanting to Oologah.

Oologah's ordinance, which invites residents to file complaints against businesses that employ undocumented workers, is one of three types of local ordinances aped from county to county. English-only laws are also popular, as are laws prohibiting landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants. Many of these laws are probably unconstitutional, not all have passed, some have been struck down, and most are unenforceable. Efficacy aside, they have much to say about the distribution of anti-immigration momentum, and how little that momentum correlates with actual immigration.

"It's not the number of Latino and foreign born that are creating the public perception of crisis," says Esbenshade, "it's the increase." Ordinances, she finds, are correlated with rapid recent increase in relatively small Latino and foreign born populations. As immigrants move beyond traditional gateway cities, like Los Angeles and New York, they're pushing into whiter climes. Big city dwellers may have an expectation of demographic dynamism, an expectation not shared in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Hazelton, Pennsylvania. Esbenshade's study didn't include state laws, but her findings may help explain why West Virginia, whose population is less than 1 percent Hispanic/Latino, is cracking down at the same time California, at 35 percent, is extending public benefits to migrant workers.

The Califonia/ West Virginia split may seem a livable compromise, as isolated communities ban immigrants not exactly jonesing to locate in backwaters anyway. The reality is more complicated. Ordinances like those banning landlords from renting to illegal immigrants have the potential to victimize entire Hispanic populations, since it's difficult to know whether documentation is fraudulent, and thus difficult to know whether you are breaking the law any time you rent a basement to someone not obviously American. In the towns where these ordinances are taking effect, these populations tend to be small and thus vulnerable. An English-only policy going into effect in Virginia's Culpeper County, notes the Immigration Policy Center's Walter Ewing, seems to be targeted at a Latino population of 3,000.

Meanwhile, Missouri's newly deputized immigration enforcers have claimed the right to detain even immigrants who would not otherwise be arrested. As Gov. Blunt fills the state's detention centers, he might ponder the last time the state experienced an "unnatural influx" of migrants. In the first half of the 20th century, another politically unpopular group—Southern blacks—flooded into Missouri, bringing culture and identity, barbeque and blues. School kids learn to call that the "Great Migration"; politicians refer to today's "immigration crisis."

As towns hundreds of miles from any international border continue to impose unconstitutional restrictions on foreigners who haven't arrived, it's worth asking whose definition of crisis we're going to accept. Let's hope it's not Oologah's.