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‘Demographic fears’ may be a driver in anti-immigrant resolutions, says civil rights advocate

Members of the public clap and cheer after public comments against a resolution that critics sas is anti-immigrant, during the DeKalb County's Law and Justice committee May meeting, 2024.
Maria Gardner Lara
Members of the public clap and cheer after public comments against a resolution that critics sas is anti-immigrant, during the DeKalb County's Law and Justice committee May meeting, 2024.

DeKalb County is the latest community to debate a resolution geared towards discouraging migration to the county.

The so called-non sanctuary resolution introduced in DeKalb County failed but similar measures have passed in Ogle, Winnebago, Stephenson, Grundy, and Lee counties.

Many resolutions contain criticism of the Biden Administration’s handling of the rise in people seeking asylum at the southern border and associate migrants with criminality and illness.

Critics say the rhetoric is anti-immigrant.

Thomas A. Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the resolutions don’t have much practical effect. The nonpartisan organization advocates for Latino civil rights nationally.

“That said, of course, any resolution that's enacted by an elected body is an important symbol,” Saenz said. “In the end, however, I would say these resolutions are bound to backfire on the folks who are supporting them. And because they will, unfortunately, acquire a reputation that those counties are not welcoming to immigrants across the board. And that is dangerous, mainly because immigrants are such an important part of the economy.”

A common reference contained in resolution texts like the one in Stephenson County include a pledge “to prioritize the expenditure of taxpayer funds to its legal residents in need including senior citizens . . . veterans, and the homeless.”

Saenz said it’s a false notion that serving one portion of the population hurts others.

“Generally speaking, the folks who say that, they don't really have a track record of supporting government spending for other groups either,” he said. “They tend to be anti-government, and not champions of investment in other communities.”

He said a larger problem is the belief that immigrants aren’t an integral part of the community.

“We are all in this together,” Saenz said. “So, if you fail to invest, for example, in public health of immigrants, we will all suffer because illness does not know status and does not accord any respect to status. If you fail to take care of public health, for some group, everyone suffers.”

He said some of the motives for these resolutions is demographic fears.

The Latino population is growing throughout the United States. In DeKalb County, Latinos now make up 13 percent of the population, a three percent increase between the 2010 and 2020 U.S. Census.

In Winnebago County, the Hispanic community is 14 percent of the population, which is a four percent rise from the previous census.

“I would say for most, it's just an unspoken fear that, that things are changing, and change is scary, right?” Saenz said. For some, it is obviously grounded in racism, a fear that the white majority is losing out.”

He said for some elected officials, there’s a perceived threat to their continuing in office by the changes in the demographics.

“And that's where you often see adopted measures,” he said. Like these resolutions that are designed to exploit the demographic fear in their constituents to get them riled up and believing that there's a major threat, in order to inspire more support for their remaining in power.”

But Saenz said this strategy is bound to backfire long term.

“Long term,” he said, “it actually breeds significant, enduring antipathy from Latino voters, towards the elected officials who engaged in these kinds of activities.”

Saenz said the aftermath of California’s Proposition 187 illustrates his argument.

The ballot measure passed in 1994 passed by a slim majority and required public employees including police and teachers to report on an individual’s immigration status. Court challenges halted the law from going into effect.

He said the elected officials advocating for the policy paid the price long term, like the former Republican Governor whose campaign based his re-election bid on the measure.

“Pete Wilson is a bad word in California,” he said.

He said California’s Republican party has been left nearly powerless since then, and that period offers lessons for current times.

“Bottom line after 30 years, we know how this story goes,” he said. “And it is not going to end to the benefit of those engaged in this kind of bad conduct with resolutions like these.”

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.