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Unmasked: Rick Perry, Racism, and the Anti-Immigrant States’ Rights Movement

Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Oct 12, 2011

With a single quick-lips shot to his right foot, Rick Perry wounded his presidential ambitions, confounded his conservative base, and – most significantly – unmasked once again the racism of the anti-immigrant, states’ rights movement.

Defending his support of in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants during the Tampa tea party debate last month, Perry pitched his own mantra to an audience and a movement wedded only to the Jim Crow version of states’ rights—the version aimed at keeping immigrants and people of color out of voting booths and, ideally, out of the country. Alabama, “Yes!”—states have the right and obligation to kick out and keep out undesired immigrants. Texas, “No!”—states do not have the right to educate undocumented immigrants.

Ever since it became clear that immigration reform was dead in the waters of the Potomac, the anti-immigrant movement has honed its nascent state-level strategy to restrict immigration and immigrant rights.  Its public policy initiatives bore fruit not only in Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama, but also in Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Oklahoma.

Its state electoral strategy (exposed here in 2009) was successful in Georgia with the election of Nathan Deal as Governor; in Virginia with the election of Ken Cuccinelli as Attorney General; and in Kansas with the election of Kris Kobach as Secretary of State—all of whom came out of the John Tanton-Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) anti-immigrant network. The perils of a Washington-only strategy haunt the movements for democratic reform once again, and the real fallout is yet to come.

There is perhaps no more dangerous and sweeping outcome of the anti-immigrant states’ rights movement than the new wave of Jim Crow voter identification laws that it has spawned.

Allegedly aimed at keeping undocumented immigrants from voting, the new ID laws will primarily yield polling-place challenges to literally millions of African Americans, as well.  As the Brennan Center for Justice has reported, as high as twenty-five percent of voting age African Americans – 5.5 million citizens – do not have a government-issued ID.  From Milwaukee to Memphis, from Atlanta to Austin – and in countless communities nationwide – the voter ID gauntlet has been thrown down by the anti-immigrant movement.

As ninety-six year old Dorothy Cooper declared this week: having consistently exercised her vote as an African American for some seventy years, she was recently recently denied a voter ID under Tennessee’s new law—“I never thought it would be like this ever.”

The new sweep of voter ID laws is a Jim Crow solution obfuscating a desperate search for signs of an actual voter fraud problem—a mythical problem, even in Kris Kobach’s Kansas.

But, never let it be said that the states’ rights zealots make sense.

Their fight is, after all, really not about states’ rights whatsoever—as the Rick Perry slipup on immigration has revealed so starkly.  It is at heart the enduring, yet fleeting fight to maintain the power of the now-dominant population.

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