Immigration

Shocking: Today, Life in the South for Poor Latinos Is Pure Hell!

A new study finds that "legal" and "illegal", "citizen" and "resident," are distinctions without difference for poorer Latinos in today's Deep South.

According to a study released this week by the Southern Poverty Law Center, low-income Latinos in the American South are living in what one participant described as a "war zone."

The report was based on interviews with hundreds of poor Latinos -- U.S. citizens and legal and illegal immigrants alike. It paints a bleak picture of the routine abuses faced by those among a marginalized underclass. According to the authors, poor Latinos in the South "are routinely cheated out of their earnings and denied basic health and safety protections. They are regularly subjected to racial profiling and harassment by law enforcement. They are victimized by criminals who know they are reluctant to report attacks."

Eliseo Medina, Executive Vice President of SEIU, a union that organizes service workers with some of the least political clout in the American workforce, called the results of the study, "a remarkable indictment of the prejudice, racial profiling and outright abuse faced by hardworking Hispanics, some of our country’s most vulnerable workers."

According to the report:

This treatment — which many Latinos liken to the oppressive climate of racial subordination that blacks endured during the Jim Crow era — is encouraged by politicians and media figures who scapegoat immigrants and spread false propaganda. And as a result of relentless vilification in the media, Latinos are targeted for harassment by racist extremist groups, some of which are directly descended from the old guardians of white supremacy.

The authors add, "instead of acting to prohibit and eliminate systematic exploitation and discrimination against Latinos, state and local governments in much of the South have exacerbated the situation" through harsh local policies and over-the-top rhetoric about illegal immigration.

The interviews were conducted in Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama -- all states that have seen a marked increase in new immigrants since the 1990s. And the results are eye-opening. In New Orleans, 4 out of 5 low-income Latinos said they’d been ripped off by employers who hadn’t paid them for work they’d done; 40 percent of Georgia respondents reported being mistreated by police; over half of those interviewed in Alabama reported road blocks or routine traffic stops near their homes that "target Latinos and do not affect people of other ethnicities equally," and in Nashville, 6 in 10 reported housing discrimination and 7 in 10 said that workplace sexual harassment was a "serious problem."

Although this trend is inextricably linked to the immigration debate in this country, it is not about "illegal immigration" -- it’s about ethnicity and class. Latino doesn’t equal "immigrant," and it certainly doesn’t mean "illegal immigrant."

While a majority of new immigrants -- and around three in four illegal immigrants -- come from Latin America and the Caribbean, 60 percent of Latinos are U.S. citizens born in this country, and half of the remainder are migrants who have all their papers in order and every legal right to live and work here.

So while racial profiling is justified in the name of "upholding our laws," unauthorized immigrants make up less than 20 percent of the rapidly growing "Hispanic" population in the U.S. Moreover, while Mexico sends more immigrants to the U.S. than any other country, numbers 2-4 on the list are China, the Philippines and India. Immigrants -- legal and otherwise -- come from all over the globe.

Polls show that a majority of Americans are concerned about illegal immigration, and blanket accusations of racism and xenophobia are hurled around by many immigrant rights activists far too freely. But the kind of offenses detailed in the SPLC study shows that ethnicity plays a huge role in the lives of both Latino immigrants and low-income American workers of Hispanic descent.

In terms of discrimination on the job, that connection is backed by hard data. While anti-immigrant hard-liners go to great pains to portray the issue as a matter of "law and order," a study of legal immigrants conducted by Vanderbilt University economist Joni Hersch found that, among the foreign-born, the level of workplace discrimination increases the further a worker’s physical appearance is from the dominant white Anglo-Saxon ideal.

As Washington Post columnist Richard Morin wrote of the study, "legal immigrants to the United States who had darker complexions or were shorter earned less money than their fair-skinned or taller counterparts with similar jobs, training and backgrounds. Even swarthy whites from abroad earned less than those with lighter skin." In fact, "Hersch estimated that the negative impact of skin tone on earnings was equal to the benefit of education, with a particularly dark complexion virtually wiping out the advantage of education on earnings… Taller immigrants also earned more, she found, with every extra inch worth about 1 percent in earnings."

In other words, that hip, sexy British bartender with the blond hair and blue eyes may be welcomed in American society with open arms, but the little brown guy cleaning the beer taps after closing time gets the shaft, even if he's gone through the exact same legal channels to get here.

Hersch told Morin that she had controlled for "everything that could possibly matter." But there it was: skin-tone and height -- the more different from "us" -- from our ideal phenotype -- legal immigrants are, the less they earn. "I don't think that any explanation other than discrimination is possible," she concluded, "and I am not one to draw such inferences lightly."

An important take-away from the SPLC study is how easily that kind of discrimination spills over from illegal immigrants to a whole community. The foreign-born make up about 10 percent of the population, and unauthorized foreign workers about 5 percent of the labor force. The harsh crack-downs favored by the Bush administration after efforts to reform the system died in the Senate have not only been ripe for horrific abuses, they’ve also failed miserably.

The only way to assure that the issue of illegal immigration doesn’t remain a justification for the kind of routine abuses detailed by the Southern Poverty Law Center is to reform the system, bring the unauthorized out of the shadows and eliminate the unregulated shadow economy in which they -- and millions of others -- live and work.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.