New York Times (Op-Ed)
By Héctor Tobar
February 13, 2017
LOS ANGELES — My Guatemalan grandmother used to tell me: When a fly lands on your arm, it means I’m thinking of you.
Now I and my fellow Latino troublemakers have become flies in the White House. No Latino was invited to join the new president’s cabinet, so it was the only way in. We lurk in the niches in the Oval Office, circle lazily in the Lincoln Bedroom, and buzz in the private residential corridors where the president sleeps.
We land on the president’s arm. It’s driving him crazy.
The commander in chief believes we stole true victory from him. Somehow, on Nov. 8, we convinced several million of our undocumented brothers and sisters to abandon their work in fields, factories and family residences, leaving crops untended and babies crying — just so they could cast the votes denying Donald J. Trump the glory of a popular vote plurality over Hillary Clinton.
Many different people have pointed out the absurdity of the president’s latest beef with Latino immigrants and his obsession with voter fraud in general. My favorite is the study concluding that more people are hit by lightning in this country each year than are illegally impersonated in the voting booth.
Alas, no fact will persuade Mr. Trump to surrender his obsessions. He’ll give up on a lie only when he feels his enemy has been vanquished, or his goal accomplished. “Barack Obama is Kenyan” was his trial balloon; so then Mrs. Clinton deserved to be locked up — until Mr. Trump became president. The fly was swatted, so to speak, and it didn’t matter anymore.
As president, Mr. Trump is still selling the undocumented menace, the border wall and the rest of his anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican fixation to the American people. And he will keep doing so until the day he leaves office. Unwilling to truly transform the economic structure of this country — the presence of so many Wall Street types in his administration hardly suggests a revolution is imminent — the president will instead bully Spanish-speaking busboys and day laborers to convince the country he’s doing something to “make America great again.”
Most immigrants and residents of the American Southwest know that the Trump border wall is superfluous. A robust barrier already exists. Back in 1996, a Border Patrol agent took me on a tour of the beefed-up fences, barriers and detectors that had been recently built south of San Diego. New obstacles have been steadily added along the border in the 20 years since.
These days, the flow of unauthorized migrants is down to a trickle: Border Patrol apprehensions in the Southwest are at their lowest levels since the early 1970s. But that’s just one more fact for our addled, angry president to ignore.
All good hucksters know emotion and perceptions can trump facts. Americans see how immigration has transformed the look and feel of many cities and towns in the United States. Mr. Trump is only the most successful of the many entertainers, politicians and pundits who’ve built their fame, fortune and power by telling us that our foreign-born neighbors are responsible for the decline of the America we love. Their message has trickled deeper into the collective American psyche, aided by a very small minority of activists who’ve been using low-budget tools to spread lies for decades.
Circa 2008, long before anyone imagined that “fake news” might help someone get elected president, one such activist wrote an email filled with invented “facts” about Latino immigration that had been supposedly reported in The Los Angeles Times. These so-called facts illustrated how “illegals” were transforming California into a barbarous pit, while simultaneously draining the public coffers. In 2009, I dissected the list, and found a series of distorted and inflated statistics, opinions and conjecture disguised as fact. The email quoted a purported government report circulating on the internet that was a complete fabrication.
“There’s something really disturbing about a work of fakery meant to tarnish an entire class of people,” I wrote then.
In the Trump era, paranoid, manipulative and patently false visions of immigrant America have become the basis of United States government policy, including the recent ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. If the wall is built, the true foundations of its construction will be in fake emails and talk radio rants. It will be a multibillion-dollar slander made of steel and cement, a taunt directed at both Mexico and the Latino residents of this country.
Since the election of Mr. Trump, we’ve seen too many ordinary Americans embrace their inner bullies. Middle-school kids shouting “build a wall” at Latino students in Michigan. Anti-immigrant vigilantes harassing day laborers in Los Angeles. Like Mr. Trump, the people doing these things find a fleeting sense of power in the idea they’re superior to the darker-skinned multitudes in their orbit.
Of such ugly people, my mother, a Guatemalan-born United States citizen, says, “Hay que tenerles lástima” (“We must pity them”). Their hatred is born of ignorance and an inner inferiority, whereas we are confident in our existence.
Like our Muslim immigrant brothers and sisters, we are survivors with roots in distant places. We speak more than one language. We know something about the suffering of the world, and so we know how truly great this country is. We believe that humility, persistence and perspective are our greatest strengths.
Mr. President, you may not care to see or understand these things, but every time a fly lands on your arm, it means we’re thinking of you. We are wherever you are and will be everywhere you go. And we’re not going away.
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