Not long after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- a tragedy that resulted in the killing of six people and the wounding of 14, including Giffords -- a Latina friend sent me an e-mail with an awful confession:
"Aren't you relieved," she asked, "that it was a white guy and not a Latino? Can you imagine how the (expletive) would have hit the fan if it had been a Latino? OMG."
You might consider this sort of comment crass. But I can assure you that millions of Latinos around the country were thinking the exact same thing.
We live at a time when all Latinos -- including those who came to the United States legally and whose roots go back five or more generations in the Southwest, or those whose ancestors came from Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic or elsewhere -- are presumed to have arrived yesterday and to have come unlawfully. We live at a time when Latino immigrants -- whether legal or illegal -- are made into scapegoats for everything from street crime to traffic jams to failing schools.
Why not a murder spree? The only problem is that the accused gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, is neither Latino, nor an illegal immigrant. This is homegrown terror.
Try telling that to some conservatives, in Arizona and around the country, who jumped to the conclusion that the shooter was an illegal immigrant.
That's what happened in Phoenix within hours of the shooting, according to DeeDee Garcia Blase. She is the president and founder of Somos Republicans, a national organization of Hispanics. The group has taken on as its mission to keep the GOP from saying and doing dumb and destructive things that might further alienate Hispanics. As you can imagine, trying to save the Republican Party from its darker impulses is a full-time job.
Blase was attending a meeting of the Maricopa County GOP when she heard the news that Giffords had been shot.
"While in shock and in disbelief," Blase wrote in an op-ed that appeared in The Santa Fe New Mexican. "I heard snickers in the distance and muffled voices asserting that the shooting was probably 'done by an illegal.'"
A few days later, a conservative radio host in San Diego shared the same sentiment with listeners.
"When I heard the story, I thought it was an illegal alien," he said, "because there are, like, 100,000 of them in that state."
Actually, no one knows the exact number of illegal immigrants in Arizona, or any other state. Before Gov. Jan Brewer signed the state's tough immigration law last year, rough estimates were as high as 400,000. Now, demographers claim, many of them have left Arizona for less-hostile places.
Later that same day, syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh put in his two cents.
"The American people . . . hear of a mass shooting in Arizona, what's the first thing they think of?" Limbaugh asked. "One of two things: Illegal aliens went wild, or a Muslim terrorist attack. . . . Because those are reality."
Actually, it's not reality. It's prejudice. There is a difference. Assuming something is so doesn't make it so.
FBI statistics show that from 2005 and 2008, with illegal immigrants streaming into Arizona, violent crimes reported in the state dropped.
The nonpartisan Immigration Policy Institute has said that the debate about immigrants and crime overlooks two major points: "Crime rates have already been falling in Arizona for years despite the presence of unauthorized immigrants, and a century's worth of research has demonstrated that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the native-born."
To recap, before we knew who had been arrested for this horrible crime, some Latinos worried that, if the shooter turned out to be one of them, there would an awful backlash against the entire community. When they learned that the alleged assailant wasn't Latino, they breathed a sigh of relief. But the reprieve was short-lived because, to others, the villain in this story might as well have been Latino and an illegal immigrant to boot.
You can't miss the irony. For the last several days, Republicans have been complaining to anyone who will listen that it was terribly unfair for liberals to go off half-cocked and jump to the conclusion that it was right-wing talk radio and anti-government rhetoric that inspired this tragedy.
Don't you hate when that happens?
© 2011, The Washington Post Writers Group