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The popularity of anti-immigrant rhetoric a sign of a frightened country that has lost its way

Aug 19, 2015

I’ve been studying presidential elections for a long time, and can tell you that this has been the most anti-immigrant campaign since the Know-Nothing Party of the early 1850s.

Ironically, many of those bashing immigrants today are descended from people who the early immigrant-bashers hated: Germans, Irish and Catholics.

But I’m not sure that even the Know-Nothings ever descended to the levels we’ve seen this year, with the leading Republican presidential candidate saying he’d build a wall across our southern border and force Mexico to pay for it. Nor did they ever call for repealing the part of the Constitution that says children born here are automatically citizens.

What’s worse is that all this seems to resonate with a frightening number of voters, and has helped make the man saying them, Donald Trump, wildly popular.

... Trump himself hasn't been intellectually consistent. He's also said we need more skilled immigrants.

Not every Republican agrees, and Trump himself hasn’t been intellectually consistent. He’s also said we need more skilled immigrants. Yet most of his rivals have joined his denunciations to some extent, and bash so-called “sanctuary cities” like Detroit, which have shown some degree of tolerance for undocumented aliens.

To me, these are all signs of a frightened country that has lost its way.

And this rhetoric has saddened one non-immigrant I deeply admire, Deborah Drennan, who for the past seven years has run something called Freedom House, one of the most American institutions there is.

Freedom House gives refuge to asylum seekers who manage to get there after enduring persecution, violence, rape, and other unspeakable things in their native countries. It’s been around for more than 30 years, lasting longer than Trump’s three marriages.

The candidate may not know this, but the U.S. Constitution also says even undocumented people have the right to remain here if they have been persecuted or face a legitimate fear of persecution where they came from.

However, they have to prove this, and Freedom House, a 19th century old red-brick former convent in Detroit, gives them a safe place to do so -- a process that can take a year or more. Some seek permanent asylum in this country; some in Canada. Drennan and an army of volunteers arrange for them to get food and shelter; legal help and psychiatric counseling.

When I first began writing about Freedom House, most of its refugees were from the wars in Central America. Later, it was Bosnia. Today, most are from Africa. I once interviewed one beautiful young Rwandan woman there covered with machete scars from the attack which killed the rest of her family; somehow, she remained optimistic and cheerful. When they get asylum, they become productive, hard-working Americans.

"People who come here need to know this is not a place you'll be taken advantage of."

Drennan thinks sanctuary cities like Detroit cut down on crime, not add to it.

“People who come here need to know this is not a place you’ll be taken advantage of,” she said.

She believes immigrants in sanctuary cities are less likely to be victims of human trafficking. Most of all, she believes the words on the Statue of Liberty.

I don’t know if Donald Trump would erase those words, but I do know that Detroit was started by an undocumented alien who scrambled up the river bank one summer long ago, a guy named Cadillac. Today, some of us seem to have forgotten what America is all about.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.