Despite sharply different views, activists on both sides of the immigration debate have reached the same conclusion: America is being poisoned.
One side believes Hispanics streaming into the country illegally will destroy American culture, while the other fears rising racism and bigotry will desecrate American ideals.
“There’s an inherent contradiction between the racist rhetoric I hear about Hispanics and the Christian values that are supposed to be leading the hearts of Americans,” said Yuri Cunza, president of the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “It’s time to learn from the past dramatic and terrible consequences of racist thinking and move ahead.”
But activists fighting for tougher immigration laws dismiss accusations of racism and say their primary aim is to reclaim their country.
“I don’t care what race you are, no one should be rewarded for breaking the law,” said Gene Rutledge, a retired Border Patrol agent who lives in Clarksville.
On Web sites, talk radio shows and in interviews, anti-illegal immigration activists describe Hispanic migrants as lawless, disease-ridden “invaders” waging an undeclared war against the United States.
But anti-illegal immigration activists insist race has nothing to do with their views. Some point to Rutledge’s wife, Delfina Espinoza, whose father emigrated from Mexico legally in the 1950s.
“The illegals coming to this country are turning the nation into a Third World country,” said Espinoza, who met her husband, when he stopped her near the Mexican border, incorrectly suspecting she might be an illegal immigrant. “They take no pride in America and have no respect for anyone.”
While immigrant rights activists say the rabid tone of some talk radio shows is inciting racial tension, others say the belligerent attitude of some Hispanics is sparking the animosity.
Local radio host Steve Gill, a fervent proponent of tougher border security measures, said many people were outraged when they saw Hispanics carrying signs that said “This is our country” at some of the immigrant right rallies.
In his view, Hispanics are guilty of racism when they demand an exemption from federal law that would apply only to them.
“They would never say we should bring cruise ships full of undereducated, disease-ridden, impoverished Haitians to this country to undercut the wages of the Hispanic community,” Gill said.
The anger reflected on the Internet and the radio stems from the sense many feel that the country is being invaded, he said. While Gill said he’s never told his listeners to use violence against Hispanics, he understands why some feel there should be a military response.
“If 100,000 Mexicans rushed the border at the same time and if people looked at the situation the way it really is, no one would call it anything other than an invasion, and we would send in the military and shoot people,” Gill said.
Local radio host Phil Valentine has also been active in the anti-illegal immigration movement. More than 1,500 people turned out for a “De-Magnetize America” rally hosted by Valentine in April.
‘Not what this country is supposed to be about’
Jose Gonzalez, executive director of Conexion Americas, a nonprofit organization in Nashville designed to help Hispanics integrate into the community, said he is saddened by the increasingly violent anti-Hispanic sentiment he encounters.
Gonzalez said immigrant rights advocates are fighting for new laws to protect immigrants and allow them to move here legally to work, not an exemption from the law.
“One of the things this whole debate has done is bring out some emotions a lot of people didn’t know this country had,” he said.
“This is how sad it is. I heard a radio talk show host say the solution to immigration is to put the alligators attacking people in Florida in the Rio Grande River.”
He also said he discovered a video game on the Internet called “Border Patrol” in which shooting the most vulnerable Hispanic people—pregnant women and children—earns the highest number of points.
“All we’re doing is building fear and racism, and that’s not what this country is supposed to be about,” he said. “The thing is, Tennessee values and Southern values are the same as Hispanic values. They’re church, family and hard work.”