Skip to content

Fear, the Ultimate Trump Card

Art for Fear, the Ultimate Trump Card.


America has a long legacy of dressing up its xenophobia in the cheap costume jewelry of law and order. Read what Harper’s Weekly wrote about the Irish immigrants in 1860:

They have so behaved themselves that nearly seventy-five per cent of our criminals and paupers are Irish…yet we have never countenanced any invidious legislation against them, have never thought of depriving them of the political rights they abused, have never sought to protect ourselves against their misconduct.

Unfortunately, this should sound very familiar. Even today, anti-immigration rhetoric in America reads like a sort of historical Mad Libs; fill in the blank with the ethnic group of the day, and the fear-mongering tactics remain the same.

For an example that isn’t antebellum, Sen. Marco Rubio magnanimously pointed out during the 2012 GOP primaries that many members of his own party stand guilty of using overly harsh rhetoric when talking about immigrants. But he quickly added the caveat that, “[w]e should be the pro-legal immigration party”(emphasis added). We’re not brutes, we’re just trying to uphold the law and stave off anarchy–sheesh, give us a break.

Today, as American pols prattle on about the threat that refugees escaping Central American violence portends, U.S. human rights abuses along the border have become the norm—which does tend to undermine the whole “law and order” shtick. It’s the worst kind of irony that America’s “pro-family” party is so bent on allowing the continued abuse of the most insecure families.

President Obama, tired of waiting on the GOP to make any kind of attempt to realize its allegedly humane intentions, extended aspects of the DREAM Act by executive order. The A stipulated that immigrants who graduated from high school, came to America as minors, and have lived here for at least five years, might be spared deportation. Obama’s executive order expanded on that by widening the pool of people protected from deportation, modifies detention procedures, and speeding up the process of attaining visas for students perusing STEM degrees. It would affect the lives of something like 4 million immigrants.

Why didn’t the order have bipartisan support? The only things critics could find to complain about was that Obama enacted it by fiat. Congressional Republicans mischaracterized the executive order as “amnesty” and objected to it on the grounds that Obama was doing the job they had themselves refused to do. The phrase “poisoning the well” was thrown around a lot.

And so the question became: how far would Congressional Republicans go to stop this tyrant? The answer came when they threatened to defund the Department of Homeland Security after February. It’s a convoluted plan, since the part of DHS that Republicans are really trying to target is funded through fees, and so would require Congress to make new laws about how that funding is procured—but the sentiment was there. And so were a carefully fabricated threat and a solemn indignation at being forced to de-fund the very agency tasked with protecting us from the freedom-haters.

This tactic sounded like a threat—which wasn’t an accident. Republicans in Congress seemed to say, “This is a nice country you got here, it’d be a shame if terrorists attacked it, all because you made nice with the Mexicans.” For them to take a stand against the political and legal equality of those immigrants tasked with America’s toughest labor, with the appearance of threatening to let the terrorists do their worst—it was the darkest kind of humor.

But the joke didn’t linger in the air for very long. Because soon after, a shocking attack reminded everyone (again) that terrorism is not merely a hypothetical threat. While certainly not the most significant effect, the deadly shootings in the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo did happen to complicate Congress’s obstructionist agenda at home. Republicans now balked at the concept of de-funding DHS.

Representative Peter King (owner of the most underrated eyebrows in Congress) said, “I’m against the executive order, and we should stop it, fine, but we cannot in any way weaken our homeland security funding it when it comes to counterterrorism. You can’t afford to cut back one dollar.” Trey Gowdy, representative from South Carolina, said that the attacks in Paris showed that Homeland Security funding shouldn’t be cut, but that some other “message” on immigration could still be sent to Obama. And so the strategy was put on ice.

Republicans say they are against negotiating with terrorists, but they don’t seem to be above letting terrorism steer their negotiations with Democrats.

Baffler Newsletter

New email subscribers receive a free copy of our current issue.