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Anti-immigrant sentiment reaches fever pitch over Central American child refugees 

"There are tens of thousands of Canadians living illegally in this country and I have yet to meet a Canadian who has been rounded up."

SEIU Local 32BJ rally
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Members of SEIU Local 32BJ rally July 24 for a presidential order giving limited rights to undocumented workers.

The headline from the July 20 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette seemed innocuous enough: "Residents express concerns over arrival of child immigrants in Emsworth."

The story described the impending arrival of as many as 30 Central American refugees under the age of 12 at the Holy Family Institute, a Catholic-run orphanage. The children will be just a few of the estimated 60,000 undocumented, unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order signed by President Obama last year.

But the concerns some residents voiced weren't in any way minor, nor were they grounded in either compassion or fact.

"A lot of community members are concerned about the disease and drug-cartel involvement these children could bring. The news was quite a shock," the P-G quoted Emsworth Mayor Dee Quinn as saying. And Quinn wasn't alone. Gov. Tom Corbett also cited the children as a potential public-health worry, telling KDKA: "We cannot be a country that just takes everything that comes here without at least looking into the background of this."

Congress is deciding whether to tackle immigration reform on a large scale, and the country waits to see how strong the executive order that Obama has promised is; many suspect it will grant work rights and deferred deportation to more than 11 million undocumented Latino immigrants. Meanwhile, rhetoric about "illegals" has reached a fever pitch.

While undocumented immigrants in this country come from all over the world, the focus — and a lot of the vitriol — from both the public and elected officials has lately targeted Latinos. The conversation is so heated that it has become commonplace to discuss child refugees from Latin America in the same breath as drug cartels.

"What we're going through right now is just patently ridiculous," says Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, who has long litigated cases of discrimination against immigrants. "There is a long and shameful history in this country of treating immigrants horribly. At one time, the same claims about health and safety issues were made about the Irish, and they are as ridiculous now as they were then.

"Latino immigrants are oftentimes more physically and audibly identifiable, and because of that they have become the new scapegoats of the xenophobic segment of our society. Although I don't believe that it's a large segment of the population. It's just a group that is very loud and vocal about their hate."

That fact isn't lost on Maria Antonio. She spoke at a July 24 rally on the South Side urging President Obama to sign an executive order to give undocumented workers the right to work without fear of deportation. The rally was hosted by the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. Antonio, who lives here with her children and works in the area, is undocumented; her husband, she says, is currently awaiting an immigration hearing after being picked up by authorities simply because of the way he looks.

"We work and pay taxes. We pay our bills, we pay our rent, but we live in fear that the police will stop us and put us in the hands of immigration," Antonio told the crowd through an interpreter. "I do believe firmly because we can be seen and immediately identified as Latino that we are being discriminated against."

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