Peter Schrag: Alarm about Muslim immigrants sounds familiar

The reports, according to CNS, the conservative Cybercast News Service, came from border county Texas sheriffs: “Arabic-speaking individuals are learning Spanish and integrating into Mexican culture before paying smugglers to sneak them into the United States.

“Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez of Zapata County told Cybercast News Service that Iranian currency, military badges in Arabic and other items … have been discovered along the banks of the Rio Grande River.”

That was in 2006, and, predictably, it accompanied dire warnings from immigration restrictionists in Congress that al-Qaida was working “around the clock” to infiltrate terrorists into the United States.

Sound familiar? Was the notion that the terrorist infiltrators from Mexico were wearing military badges with Arabic insignia any sillier than the knee-jerk demagoguery of the governors who said they’d refuse to accept Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks because there might be a terrorist among them?

There are easier ways for terrorists to get into the country. And once here, thanks to the politicians who are doing all the posturing now, they can buy all the guns they want, as 2,000 have, even if they’re among the 700,000 on federal watch lists.

A century ago there were flurries of nativist agitation when it was reported that the Chinese, barred from entering the country by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, were disguising themselves as Mexicans and coming across the southern border.

Of course, there’s reason to be vigilant about terrorism. But excepting only the terrible bureaucratic negligence that made 9/11 possible, the deadliest recent acts of terrorism on American soil were committed by people named Harris, Klebold, Holmes, Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, Nichols and McVeigh. The last two killed more people – 168 – in the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995 than the eight terrorists did in Paris this month.

There wasn’t an Arab or a Muslim among those killers. All but one, a Korean, was a good old American boy. And none of the pols now ventilating about Muslims said boo about guns.

From the first days of our colonial history, we’d been ambivalent about who we wanted in, and who should be kept out. Through the years, the categories changed, depending on our economy, politics and biases – first we wanted to exclude the Germans and Irish, then Italians, Poles and Hungarians, then Asians, Jews and Mexicans, now Muslims. And as our immigration criteria changed we created characteristics – low intelligence, disease, criminality – complete with elaborate psychological tests, to justify them. Those characteristics are all on Donald Trump’s list.

In the end, our assimilationist tradition usually prevailed. It’s what’s made us different from other nations, and why we haven’t grown the thousands of young jihadists that have poured out of Europe to join al-Qaida and the Islamic State. We don’t have enclaves of angry Muslims quite like those in Paris or Brussels, at least not yet. But if the restrictionists have their way, we may eventually get them.

With each act of domestic violence in our history that could somehow be tied to some foreign source, the nativists charged in: fear of anarchists in the 1890s and early 1900s; the great Red Scare of the years immediately following World War I; the war on Iraq after 9/11 for which we’re still paying dearly and which helped make ISIS possible. We rid Iraq and Libya of their butchers but left the chaos in which terrorists thrived.

If there’s any strategy in murderous acts like those in Paris, it’s to fuel anti-Muslim backlash in the West and thereby spawn yet more recruits for al-Qaida and ISIS. They’re counting on people like Trump and the governors to do their bit.

Peter Schrag is a former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee.