sgelf in Latino market Monticello, NY

Shelf in a Latino grocery
Main St., Monticello, NY
Photo: Julie Ardery

The Washington Post reports this morning in a front-page headline that: “Small-Town Resistance Helped to Seal Defeat.” Defeated was the immigration reform bill that failed to attract enough votes in the U.S. Senate yesterday, as Republican senators mostly, but a few Democrats, too, voted against the compromise bill backed by President Bush and Democratic leaders.

The Post story is about Georgia, where the state’s two Republican senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, first helped draft the bill and then, yesterday, voted against it. Both senators reported that a grassroots movement against the bill led to its defeat ““ opposition that grew out of “small towns.” The theory is that the sudden and quite large influx of immigrants to regions of the U.S. unaccustomed to this kind of demographic change drove the politics of the Senate’s debate.

“I think this new pattern of immigration is what's really pushing the politics of this,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “Before, people outside the (six) gateway states didn't care much one way or the other about immigration. Now, you suddenly have all these people across Middle America seeing immigrants in their neighborhoods.” (The “gateway states” would be the traditional ports of entry for immigrants — California, Illinois, Texas, New York, Florida, New Jersey.)

The Post’s notion of a “small town” is typically myopic. Gainesville is a metropolitan area with over 100,000 people. It’s urban all the way. But Gainesville is smaller than many cities and we here at the Yonder can see the immigration issue driving the presidential debate in truly small-town Iowa. The pages of the Iowa Independent tell us daily that the biggest applause lines come when candidates talk about defending borders — and defeating the Senate bill. (Read here to see how one New York county is dealing with immigration in the Catskills.)

Social psychiatrists have found in experiments over the last fifty years that when people are placed into groups they begin to discriminate. People naturally favor members of their own tribe. The feelings are visceral and wholly human, as the Post reporter found, as one resident of Gainesville described being the only non-Latino shopping at a neighborhood Wal-Mart:

“That was the first time I looked around and said, ‘Man, I didn't realize how many Mexicans there were here,' ” (Stephanie) Usrey, 39, recalled. “And they don't seem to feel any discomfort when they're, like, six inches from your face and talking to each other in their language, either. I just felt very encroached upon. . . . It was like an instant feeling of ‘I'm in the minority, and if we don't get control over this, pretty soon all of America will be outnumbered.' “

Not pretty, but not unusual either, as the Georgia senators and the candidates speaking around Iowa have learned.

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