Take a good look at the accompanying photograph. Here we have a middle-aged or possibly older Black man, neatly dressed in a pin-striped suit, holding a violin. This is a photo of my maternal grandfather. He might have been an undocumented immigrant.
All of the U.S. census information lists him as being born in Alabama. But nobody from Alabama spoke like him. The minute he opened his mouth, one would hear that lilt in his voice shared by Black folks from Caribbean countries, or from Latin American countries once colonized by the British.
There are two family stories about how he came to live in the U.S. One says he arrived with his parents on a boat from Portugal. Another says he ran away from his home in Guyana (called “British Guiana” back then) when he was a teenager and went to England. Later he enrolled in a university there, and majored in music.
He came to the U.S. believing there would be more opportunities to play European classical music in a symphony orchestra. But racism prevented him from doing so. It was thought that Black people lacked the intellectual capacity, the capability, to play European classical music.
He met and married his second wife, my grandmother, and they moved from her native Alabama to Cleveland, Ohio. Times were tough during the Great Depression, and he had a wife and five children to support. So he got music gigs (not playing European classical) wherever he could, with my grandmother traveling with him (their children were born in different states), but otherwise worked any kind of job he could find. He would repair household items and appliances for people (I still have his tool kit), and sell vacuum cleaners door to door.
In short, he was not a drug dealer, a thug, a gangster, or a “bad hombre” — terms that the unpresident has used to describe undocumented immigrants, with an eye toward drastically reducing immigration generally, whether legal or undocumented. And he is going to great lengths to achieve his goal.
The easiest way is to stereotype all immigrants as dangerous criminals. The murder of 20-year-old Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts has apparently given him a golden opportunity to do just that.
Tibbetts’ alleged killer is 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who lives in Iowa’s Poweshiek County. On Tuesday, August 21, he took investigators to a corn field where a body lay under some cornstalks.
According to an NPR news story, a spokesperson for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said it’s “reasonably confident” that Rivera is in the U.S. illegally, a comment disputed by Rivera’s lawyer.
The unpresident and other Republican politicians couldn’t wait to use the incident as justification for their anti-immigration policies. “You saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful woman,” the unpresident told a rally in West Virginia Tuesday. “It should have never happened . . . we’ve had a huge impact but the laws are so bad, the immigration laws are such a disgrace.”
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, released a statement Tuesday, which read in part, “We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can to bring justice to Mollie’s killer.” “Time to build the wall,” Joe Gruters, Florida’s co-chair of the unpresident’s re-election campaign, and a Florida state legislator, posted in a tweet.
The midterm elections are less than three months away. Republicans apparently hope that immigrant-bashing will drive their base to the polls to vote for the party they perceive as doing the most to keep those evil immigrants out of the U.S.
In reality, undocumented immigrants commit only a small percentage of crimes in the U.S. Research conducted by the Washington-D.C.-based Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, shows that the incarceration rate for undocumented immigrants is 0.85 percent, and 0.47 for legal immigrants, compared to 1.53 percent for “native born” Americans. Even the percentage of undocumented immigrants imprisoned for immigration law violations is miniscule: 0.5 percent.
Both legal and undocumented immigrants contribute to the U.S.economy by working and paying taxes. UnidosUS, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, says undocumented immigrants pay, on average, $11.64 billion in local and state taxes annually. The income immigrants generate is helping to keep the Social Security Trust Fund afloat. And immigrants don’t “take jobs away” from Americans. Most are in farm work, meat packing plants, janitorial services, and other back breaking, low paid work.
They don’t stay in these jobs. Many eventually start their own small businesses, which in turn create jobs, further aiding the national economy.
Rather than being dangerous and threatening, immigrants of whatever status come to the U.S. for better life for themselves and their families. Just like my maternal grandfather did.