As culture wars wane, some GOP candidates demonize Mexicans

header-hoover-institution-fellows1-1by Richard Parker, Dallas Morning News

150630092445-donald-trump-ted-cruz-exlarge-169When it comes to bashing Mexicans, Donald Trump has some pretty interesting company: Texas’ own Ted Cruz.

But these two probably won’t be alone for too long. There is no immigration crisis, and there is no border crisis; what does exist is a need to reconcile immigration law with reality. But it’s a fair guess that we will see more bigotry against people of Mexican origin in the 2016 Republican presidential contest, even as it alienates Latinos in general, rapidly becoming America’s largest ethnic group.

Sadly, Americans have an unfortunate, long history of demonizing the newest immigrants. African-Americans for over two centuries. The Irish (who were even deemed not to be white) in the 19th century. Italians in the 20th century for their purported papism and criminality. (Not all arrived legally, by the way.) Now it’s the Mexicans’ turn as they evolve from small minority to majority in much of the country. Trump helpfully obliged in keeping the tradition alive.

Actually, he has gotten a charitable reading of what he said.

Trump never used the word “illegal” or “undocumented” in condemning Mexicans for bringing crime, drugs and rape. No, he said: “When Mexico sends its people they’re not sending the best.”

In doing so, Trump drew no distinction between legal and illegal immigrants and came awfully close to tarring people of Mexican descent, children and grandchildren of immigrants themselves.

Enter Ted Cruz, stage right. On television Sunday, Cruz clammed up, refusing to criticize his fellow Republican. Yet last week, Cruz flamboyantly called Trump “bold,” “brash” and “colorful.” While other Republicans lashed out, in Georgia Cruz gave the wink and the nod while lavishing more praise: “I salute Donald Trump for focusing on the need to address illegal immigration.”

First, I’m not impugning the entire Republican Party. Jeb Bush, Rick Perry and others all angrily criticized Trump. Second, the Republican Party was not all that long ago the party of practical ideas. Now, though, the party is held hostage by the remnants of social conservatives and the tea party. And their favorite social issues, opposition to Obamacare and gay marriage, were so brittle that they shattered at the Supreme Court.

So, all that’s left is to focus on is those “illegal immigrants.” That really means not only undocumented immigrants from Mexico but all immigrants from Mexico, thanks to Trump. Soon enough, I predict, it will mean those darned Mexicans in general. Many mainstream Republicans are not bigoted against people of Mexican origin or descent. But enough are that it’s a solid, if cynical, political gambit.

Most Republicans know that this gambit spells political disaster in the short and long terms, but they seem helpless to stop it, partly because they have been hoodwinked by this familiar mantra: “We’re not against immigration, just illegal immigration. Immigration from Mexico is out of control. The border is chaos.”

And, yet, not one of these things is true. Trump took care of the first. So, let’s look at the other two.

When it comes to immigration, Mexico has been a primary source of legal immigration not just illegal immigration. About 5 million Mexican citizens live and work in this country legally, according to the Wilson Center. As president, George W. Bush actually encouraged more. Illegal immigration from Mexico soared in the 1990s and early 2000s, as the Mexican economy imploded and the Border Patrol was under strength. Then, up to 2 million people were picked up yearly, half in Texas.

Now, that number in Texas is about 250,000 — down 75 percent, not up. Most are not Mexicans but from Central America, according to the Pew Center. The Mexican immigration crisis already happened — some 15 years ago. That means that the border today is not some dystopian scene of chaos and mayhem. Along most of the border and in such major cities as El Paso and San Diego, crime is actually down, not up.

Today’s undocumented immigrant doesn’t sneak across the desert. He or she lands at the airport, increasingly from Asia and Africa, and just overstays a perfectly valid visa; Mexicans account for just half of the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country.

Yet Trump, Cruz and others aren’t planning to actually do anything that smacks of reality. No, because that wouldn’t help them demonize, well, somebody. In losing the last vestiges of the culture wars, they are running out of people to demonize.

Ah, except those darned Mexicans, right?

Richard Parker’s column appears regularly in The News. He is the author of “Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America.

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