Thursday, July 15, 2010

Exhuming McCarthy 2.1:
Utah and terrorism in America

The rhetorical shape of the immigration debate, the contours of this defining issue are getting coarser and more desperate the closer we get to this year’s election and the one in 2012.

We’re just past halfway through 2010, a year that’s seen a nasty escalation in anti-immigration rhetoric nationally, as well as the spiritual secession of the state of Arizona, whose anti-immigration law (not yet in effect) has aroused fears of racial profiling, as well as the prospect of tasking police officers with confirming citizenship status and arresting those suspected of being in the United States illegally— a state usurpation of a function of the federal government.

Now, some residents of Utah are ready to make that the next state to put reason, social tolerance and federal law in the crosshairs with a xenophobic, insidious anti-immigration strategy that’s disturbing in itself and ominous in its wider, national implications.

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On Wednesday’s edition of MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” the rock-solid Olbermann reported on a letter this week sent to Utah law enforcement officials, state government officials, TV and radio news outlets and The Associated Press — a letter that anonymously outs about 1,300 residents of Utah as undocumented immigrants. The recent letter follows one sent only to federal authorities in April.

In the letter, the genially-named “Concerned Citizens of America” — “a large force of tax-paying citizens … who live throughout the state of Utah” — articulates its frustration with U.S. immigration policy, and reaches back to the McCarthy era with its own shadowy enemies list, a collection of names, addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, spousal identities, social security numbers and even the due dates of at least six pregnant women.

“Some of the women on the list are pregnant at this time and steps should be taken for immediate deportation,” the letter reads.

“We see a direct relationship between these illegal aliens and the escalation of crime in our communities, in the form of drug and alcohol abuse, theft and domestic violence. Our country cannot — and should not — continue to support this type of situation. They need to go — and go now.”

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Utah Letter

One of the more disturbing factors in the letter — whose names haven’t been released by news organizations or the federal officials who received them — is the explanation for how this cache of private data was discovered, and by extension the probable real source for that information.

Whoever wrote the letter used a grassroots, civics-class rationale to how the group came by its information. “We … spend the time and effort needed to gather information along with legal Mexican nationals who infiltrate their social networks and help us obtain the necessary information we need ...”

In the latest state rebuke of federal authority, the list and its detailed info is a violation of federal law, specifically provisions of Title II of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), enacted by Congress in 1996. The law’s Privacy Rule, in effect since 2003, strictly regulates disclosure of protected health information — the very information widely circulated in the letter itself.

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Ironically, through the breadth of the information included in the letter, the “Concerned Citizens” may have also done a lot to identify who they are. On Wednesday Olbermann interviewed Tony Yapias, a radio talk-show host and the former director of the Utah Office of Hispanic Affairs. Yapias thoroughly discounted the neighborhood canvass as a source of such information. For him, the information in the letter is so voluminous, so complete in its documentation of family identity — right down to due dates of expectant mothers — that it could only have come from one source.

“It comes from a database,” Yapias told Olbermann. “It’s much too sophisticated a list to be put together” on an ad hoc basis by a random group of “Concerned Citizens.”

“I believe that this came from a state agency ... a social services agency,” Yapias said.

We might know the alleged block-by-block source for the information was bogus for another reason: With the challenges collectively facing the nation’s Latino communities, legal and otherwise, it’s hard to imagine “legal Mexican nationals” informing on those people sin papeles — without residency papers. Latino solidarity runs a lot deeper than that.

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Yapias, who described Latino communities in Utah as feeling “terrorized” by the letter, noted the painfully obvious: that in a 24/7/365 news cycle nourished mainly by the Internet, the random release of such a letter could be disastrous.

And that’s the deeper tragedy of all this: more than a scandal, the Utah letter has the potential of becoming the blueprint for a subversive national response to the immigration problem. This malignant spin on the neighborhood-watch concept updates the McCarthyite idea of the informant to the 21st century, and seeks to arouse that deepest and worst of American paranoia: neighbor spying on neighbor. It’s a silent terrorism of part of the American population with the potential to ensnare citizens and illegals alike.

At least one family of legal Utah residents has been incorrectly identified as illegal in the letter; how many more families are likely to be victimized by a common surname or an erroneous address?

The Utah letter is proof of how, with three months and change before the November election, the immigration debate is building to a poisonous, possibly dangerous crescendo. How this shakes out will say more generally about this country than any one state or any single election. This is a gut check of American principles; this is a call to resist issue-driven frustration; this is a time to push back against the mob — even when the mob comes calling in the guise of “Concerned Citizens.”
Image credit: McCarthy: public domain.

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