Learning from our history of finding scapegoats

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Sadness, fear and confusion. Those are the three emotions woven throughout conversations I had in the wake of a 2008 immigration raid in Postville. For nearly the same reasons, these emotions also surrounded the Muslim residents taking part in a community demonstration last weekend.

The alignment is understandable, if regrettable.

People of many faiths gathered on May's Island on Saturday, Dec. 19, in a show of support for Muslims and other immigrants, who have recently been targeted in political rhetoric. The solidarity demonstration was organized by the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County.
People of many faiths gathered on May’s Island on Saturday, Dec. 19, in a show of support for Muslims and other immigrants, who have recently been targeted in political rhetoric. The solidarity demonstration was organized by the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

Some Postville Hispanics were spared the felonious identity theft convictions faced by 389 male workers — a prosecution strategy that the U.S. Supreme Court later found lacking. Instead of being bustled quickly through a makeshift courtroom at the Cattle Congress in Waterloo, the workers, mostly women, were fitted with tracking devices and sent back to Postville to care for children and await their fate.

About a dozen of the 46 detainees with the anklets waited 19 months. Unable to legally work, they survived mostly by charity from local churches.

Frustrations and problems related to their employer notwithstanding, Postville had become their home. Their children attended school, played sports, made friends. The families created and supported local businesses, and joined communities of faith.

For all the national talk about undocumented workers living in the shadows, most people in Postville weren’t hiding. They attended community meetings, took part in neighborhood activities and lived just as “regular” people do in any number of Iowa’s small towns.

The least visible heartbreak of Postville is how the fabric underpinning the town was shredded, and the marginalized remains held up for public scrutiny.

In a single day, everything changed. For several months, it was ground zero in the national immigration debate. The tiny Iowa town once known as “hometown to the world” was transformed into a caricature of immigration woes.

Those left behind — primarily women and children — carried a large burden. They were vilified and left to rot in the same streets they once viewed as their own.

Still, the world has moved on from Postville. Larger immigration raids have taken place, and swathes of Central American children have arrived on U.S. shores. Donald Trump is hardly the first candidate to claim that “the Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States … criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”

In the 2008 election, for instance, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo aired an ad called “consequences,” in which immigrants were equated with terrorists. And Iowa Rep. Steve King has falsely claimed that more than a quarter of the nation’s violent crimes are committed by immigrants, and said “for every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

No wonder Hispanics, citizens or not, have felt demonized by American politics, and apprehensive about the future.

It’s also little wonder that the American public, stuck in a cycle of stagnant wages and reeling from significant cultural changes, is generally fearful. Having boogeymen scapegoats makes things easier, and most care little where the target falls. Given the global backdrop, the scapegoats du jour are Muslims.

Reading my blog post last week about the unity demonstration on May’s Island, one reader commented: “It might help if you had a column quoting the Muslim leaders denouncing the Muslim terrorist organizations and the common idea that it is their intent on imposing their faith and laws on our community and country.”

Joann Gehling of Hiawatha (left) and and Marje English of Cedar Rapids hold signs in protest at Plaza Park in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. The two women took part in a solidarity demonstration, which highlighted recent controversial statements 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has made regarding muslims. The candidate spoke later in Veterans Memorial Coliseum, across the street from the demonstration site.
Joann Gehling of Hiawatha (left) and and Marje English of Cedar Rapids hold signs in protest at Plaza Park in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. The two women took part in a solidarity demonstration, which highlighted recent controversial statements 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has made regarding muslims. The candidate spoke later in Veterans Memorial Coliseum, across the street from the demonstration site. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Such nefarious scheming would be news to Mo and Sally Igram, two of several local Muslims who joined the demonstration last Saturday. While Sally is originally from Ohio, Mo has lived in Cedar Rapids his entire life, save his time in the military. His ancestors helped found the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids during the 1930s, and his immediate family helped found the old Time Check YMCA. Although he now is retired, many locals still know Mo through his previous dental practice.

It was another Igram relative — World War II veteran Abdullah Igram — who petitioned President Dwight D. Eisenhower for a change in the existing dog tag system that allowed a very limited number of religious faiths. Igram wanted either an “M” to be used for Muslim or an “I” for Islam since the three available choices — “C” for Catholic, “P” for Protestant and “J” for Jewish — did not represent him.

Recounting this and other bits of the family’s history, Sally’s eyes held the same confusion and sadness that marked the Postville women.

“We were born here. This is our community. So, yes, it does hurt,” she said of recent political rhetoric regarding Muslims. “We just don’t understand.”

I wanted to tell her that I understood. I wanted to try to explain it, but I can’t. The best I can offer are the meager rationalizations I wrote above: People are afraid of change and lashing out, refusing to acknowledge the difference between people who are a part of us and those who wish us harm. Too many are willing to trot out personal transgressions for use as accusations against others.

It’s shortsighted politics with no room for real world nuance, expedient and ignorant.

Humanists of Linn County members took part in a solidarity demonstration on Saturday, Dec. 19, that was organized by the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County. People of many faiths gathered on May's Island in a show of support for Muslims and other immigrants, who have recently been targeted in political rhetoric.
Humanists of Linn County members took part in a solidarity demonstration on Saturday, Dec. 19, that was organized by the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County. People of many faiths gathered on May’s Island in a show of support for Muslims and other immigrants, who have recently been targeted in political rhetoric. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

 

People of many faiths gathered on May's Island on Saturday, Dec. 19, in a show of support for Muslims and other immigrants, who have recently been targeted in political rhetoric. The solidarity demonstration was organized by the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County.
People of many faiths gathered on May’s Island on Saturday, Dec. 19, in a show of support for Muslims and other immigrants, who have recently been targeted in political rhetoric. The solidarity demonstration was organized by the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

 

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on December 27, 2015. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette