Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa recently went on the record to accuse President Obama of “importing millions” of undocumented immigrants in an effort to stack the electorate in favor of the Democratic Party. He lamented that the president’s actions to allow certain immigrants to apply for relief from deportation and work authorization ignored the rule of law. To expand upon his theory, King compared the president’s set of executive actions on immigration to the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Just like that, the congressman revealed the very crux of conservative opposition to immigration policy reform: race.
Immigration – both voluntary and forced – was central to the founding of our nation. Today, Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up 1.2 percent of our national population, despite having once been the exclusive inhabitants of our entire land. That means the vast majority of the United States population descended from immigrants, or immigrated themselves. Efforts to suppress immigration are antithetical to the story of our nation and the promise of its future.
So what’s Steve King’s issue with immigration today? As he revealed in his comments, it’s the race of those who are immigrating.
For the past 20 years, the great majority of immigrants have been people of color. According to 2010 Census data, less than two-percent of unauthorized immigrants come from Europe or Canada, while 87-percent come from Latin America, three-percent from Africa and seven-percent from Asia. Each person who enters our borders comes with a different story, and the hope of a new chapter. In some instances, people come to the United States seeking asylum from violence and uninhabitable conditions in their home countries. All too often, instead of refuge and opportunity, aspiring Americans are placed in detention centers, incarcerated in the “land of the free.”
By creating a parallel between President Obama’s efforts to create more just immigration policies and President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Representative King revealed that his concerns are not about the dignity of the Constitution or protecting the values enshrined therein. Quite the opposite. King barely stopped short of saying that people of color should not get to vote. Look what happened when the most comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation was signed into law 50 years ago, he seems to be saying. African Americans gained access to the ballot – and used it. If aspiring Americans are allowed to earn their citizenship, they may…vote. Not again, not now! Plain and simple,Rep. King doesn’t want people who look different from him to be able to cast a ballot, take care of their families or fulfill their full human potential and live freely in their adopted home.
By claiming that President Obama’s immigration actions create a “massive electorate,” Rep. King misrepresents the facts – perhaps intentionally to stoke his base’s fears. The president’s initiatives, which would allow certain immigrants with long-term ties to the United States to apply for temporary relief from deportation and work authorization, would only allow immigrant parents and those who grew up here to remain united with their families and work – nothing more. These aspiring Americans should be allowed to contribute fully to their communities, as citizens, but we need Congress to make that happen. So far, the task of fixing our broken immigration system seems out of reach for Rep. King and his colleagues. Based on his comments it may be because he does not want more Brown and Black people to obtain and exercise their right to vote.
King’s disregard for the humanity of Latino, Asian and African immigrants, and people who look different from him, stands in stark contradiction to the fundamentals of a just democracy. His comments place in clear light the fact that the struggle for immigrant justice should not, and cannot, be separate from the broader struggle for racial justice.
The injustice that immigrants face is part and parcel of much larger challenges that threaten us all. Among these threats is the political showmanship of elected officials who propagate partisan conspiracies, discarding the values of equality and justice. These threats include using anti-immigrant scare tactics and red herrings to suppress the vote, rather than embrace an inclusive democracy. Justice for all people is a fundamental American priority. The promise of a just democracy requires no less.
Hincapié is National Immigration Law Center executive director and Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project.