The Troubling Link Between Attacks on Immigrants and Labor Activists

The Republican pre-election strategy of exploiting “the caravan” was irredeemably ugly.

It’s hard to say what was worse: the shameless and farcical framing of a helpless stream of people as a national security threat, or the president’s off-hand suggestion that these people might actually be funded by the prime villain of most anti-Semitic conspiracy theories: George Soros.

Few commentators have failed to point out the obvious effects of this gutter-politics playbook: the debasement of public discourse on immigration policy; the wink-and-nudge of encouragement offered to the most sinister fringes of the American far-right; or the aggravation of racial animosity against people of color in the United States.

Yet this country’s history also points to other, often overlooked tendencies. Politically, institutionally, and legally, the targeting of immigrants has almost always figured prominently in wider attacks on labor movements and civil liberties. To a large and alarming extent, it’s the same story today.

“Aliens and Dissenters”

The story of American “nativism” is replete with contradictions and ironies.

The Protestants fled from the Catholics — and then oppressed them. The Irish and the Italians fled various forms of privation in Europe — and then fought to keep each other down in New York. West Coast politicians hated the Chinese and respected the Japanese in the late 19th century — and then reversed the equation in the 1930s and ‘40s. Mexicans were defined as “white” by the Census Bureau until 1930 — and now they’re a much-favored punching bag for white supremacists.

Almost everyone, at some point, has fought to keep someone else out. And Donald Trump is far from the first to realize that this impulse can cut across class lines: uniting the honest Midwestern auto worker with the duplicitous New York real estate developer — or, in another time, the…

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