Dog whistling by the numbers

Ian Haney Lopez describes dog-whistle politics in three steps.

Step one: “Gin up controversy by pushing a racial idea or meme into the conversation.” Be sure to use coded language. Never be blatantly racist. Save some room to wriggle out.

Step two: “Exercise the plausible deniability.” Deny, deny, deny. Say something like, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” to quote our commander-in-chief.

Step three: Turn it on them. Accuse your opponents of stifling conversation over frivolous appeals to “political correctness” for having brought race into the matter in the first place.

Numbers USA is special interest group that claims to support immigration reduction and recently took issue with my describing them as “anti-immigration.”  

Let’s look at some of their proposals.

The Numbers USA website states the U.S., holding five percent of the world’s population, is taking on half of the migrants classified as refugees. This is true.

Currently we receive roughly half the resettled refugee population every year, and the majority of the second half end up in Europe. This makes a lot of sense. The continent of Europe has roughly the same economic status and size as the United States, making both places the most equipped to take in refugees. For a Somalian refugee to be settled in a “safe third-world country” like Guatemala would be an exercise in futility at best and a sick joke at worst.

Numbers goes on, stating that on top of the “unfair” distribution of people seeking asylum, “large numbers of refugees engage in fraud through this process,” going on to cite a United States Citizenship and Immigration services report. NUSA’s summary was that “it found that just 30% of asylum cases surveyed were fraud-free — in other words, 70% bore some indication of fraud.”

The wording in the report itself is quite different. “The detected fraud rate in the asylum program for the population from which the sample was drawn is 12 percent.” While the amount with “indicators of possible fraud” was 58 percent.  To summarize, “the high rate of referral of these cases indicate that current techniques and procedures that the Asylum Program utilizes in adjudicating cases are reasonably effective in dealing with cases that contain indicators of fraud.”

In other words, the cases that are potentially fraudulent are subject to further review 80 percent of the time. The system works. Fraud is rooted out. So what is Numbers USA’s concern?

So what is Numbers USA’s concern?

“Several dozen suspected terrorist bombmakers — some of whom may have targeted American troops — were apparently allowed to move to the United States by claiming to be war refugees,” reads the refreshingly honest rational from Roy Beck, the co-founder of NUSA. Classic fearmongering, fear the terrorists and tighten the restrictions on refugees even further.

And these kinds of fear based—and often racial fear based—rationales for reducing immigration can be found all over the organization’s website. They point to “Anwar al-Awlaki — a terrorist with links to jihadists including Umar Farouk Abdulmutullab, who attempted to bomb a jetliner with a bomb hidden in his underwear” as an “example of how Birthright Citizenship has the potential to benefit enemies of the United States.”

They support laws that allow local police to question suspected undocumented immigrants. Laws that, according to Georgetown Law, lead to “rampant racial profiling against Latinos, Asian-Americans, and others presumed to be illegal immigrants solely based on their appearances.”

The policies they support are rife with racial and classist overtones, though they don’t oppose policies like EB-5 that allow wealthy immigrants to buy green cards, but are never explicitly racist.

That brings me to step two: Deny, deny, deny.

“The task before the nation in setting a fair level of immigration is not about race or some vision of a homogeneous white America; it is about protecting and enhancing the United States’ unique experiment in democracy for all Americans, including recent immigrants, regardless of their particular ethnicity,” said Beck.

In their “About Us” section, and across the homepage, are the repeated claims of a “pro-immigrant attitude,” that appeal for a “refrain from anger toward the foreign born who live among us,” and the belief that “race and ethnicity should play no role in the debate and establishment of immigration policy.”

From the beginning they have adamantly denied any racial, ethnic or class bias in the face of accusations from The New York Times, Huffington Post, Politico, Southern Poverty Law Center and others. The SPLC links Numbers USA to the white nationalist, Holocaust-denying group “Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement.”

And so, we find ourselves at step three: Turn it on them.

This is where Roy Beck and Numbers USA accuse the world outside themselves of stifling discussion on a serious matter. This is where they make this not an issue of race or class, but an issue of the squeamishness of American politicians and the “liberal media.”

“Our kindly feelings toward immigrants must no longer stifle public discussion about the effects of immigration numbers,” their site reads.

And maybe so, but a quick trip to the world of Twitter shows the discussion Numbers USA supporters want to have. The kind of conversation where immigrants are compared to “feral cats” with “hyperactive uteruses” amongst other unsettling, dehumanizing attacks.

So the cycle continues, three steps at a time. Coded communications made by racist organizations, for racists. And this should be deeply unsettling.

We can see direct links between this kind of rhetoric and real-world violence. The shooter in El Paso used the same vitriolic rhetoric as Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson in the manifesto he posted before killing 22 people in a Walmart. He spoke of a “Hispanic invasion” and called on others to help “preserve our way of life.” He even called immigration a drain on resources and a threat to the environment, mirroring some of the talking points on the NumbersUSA website.

This language is dangerous. It inspires hate and violence like we saw in El Paso, Christchurch and the Pittsburg synagogue just to name a few. Just because NumbersUSA, Donald Trump and the talking heads at Fox News don’t explicitly promote racial violence, does not mean that their language can’t incite it. And it does not mean that we can’t call it what it actually is. 

NumbersUSA is not ‘anti-immigration.’… We’ve never endorsed any proposal to zero out immigration,” Andrew Good from Numbers USA wrote to my editor. “We are an immigration-reduction (activist) organization.” And as much as I hate to admit it, he’s right. But I really don’t care because it is far too easy to hide behind subtle language.

While they are not anti-immigration, they are most certainly opposed to poor immigrants. They may not be anti-immigrant, but they certainly oppose Honduran migrants and Syrian refugees. The policies they propose show that if it were up to them, the engraving on the base of the Statue of Liberty would read like a Jim Crow era diner sign: “No Mexicans, No Blacks” with the added assumption that anyone with no money is also unwelcome.