“A lot of people seem to think that Trump is responsible for the hate in this country right now,” said Mark Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS. “Our experience at HIAS is that he’s not responsible, he’s just exploiting it. It was already there.”
What’s more, Hetfield said, “We cannot make this debate about Trump, we cannot make this debate about the Republican Party versus the Democratic Party. We have to make sure we’re talking about this issue outside of a partisan context.”
Another expert, Mayra Salinas-Menjivar, a legal services fellow with the immigration clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said hateful rhetoric is having the greatest impact on Hispanics who have lived in the United States the longest. She said she sees it in how neighbors treat each other, how parents of schoolmates interact.
Salinas-Menjivar, an immigrant from El Salvador, came to the United States 23 years ago. “In all that time, only in the last two years have I ever been told to speak English,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence. It’s guided by the national rhetoric.”
Anti-immigrant rhetoric is “sort of a storage container for racism,” said Michael Kagan, law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Today, Kagan said, it is no longer acceptable to make most overtly bigoted statements. For example, he said, if anyone made a remark that “Jews run the financial system,” it would immediately set off alarm bells, but that’s not true for anti-immigrant talk.
“If someone says, Mexicans are rapists or Salvadorans are all in MS-13, I don’t think the immune system is there for those statements in the same way,” Kagan said. “It’s treated as a debate and becomes part of our mainstream discourse.”
Kagan said he fears what will follow when Trump leaves the presidency: “Someone will come after Donald Trump. Someone else might learn from him, and that’s actually the most terrifying thing. Someone else might be a better Trump.”
Hetfield said he sees hope amid the hateful rhetoric. In the 1920s, he said, there was no counterforce against the rising tide of nativist hate, but now there is.
“There are more people in this country passionately fighting against hate than at any time in our history,” Hetfield said. “People are really standing up against hate, speaking out against hatred. People are not passively accepting this. That gives me cause for hope.”
The program was co-sponsored by the ABA Commission on Immigration, Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, Council on Diversity in the Educational Pipeline and Standing Committee on Public Education.