Transnationalism in Hamilton, Ohio: Identity, Immigration and Politics

Introduction
How would you feel if someone stopped you on the street and demanded that you prove you are a citizen of the United States? How would you feel if that person was an officer of the law? How would you feel if you knew it had happened because of the way you look?

Discussions about immigration usually focus at the national policy level. However, immigrant settlement is often extremely concentrated in specific regions and cities. These are the places that immigration politics is most contentious. Geographic concentration affects the ways immigration politics develops, especially because visible difference in the landscape is perceived as threatening national identity (Ellis, 2006). This paper focuses on Hamilton, Ohio, a small Midwestern city that has recently experienced an influx of Latino immigrants, identifying possible causations of this perceived threat and describing the effects national policy may have on the community.

Latinos in Hamilton
Though Midwestern America has had a long (if seldom recognized) history of Latino immigration throughout the 20th century (Diaz McConnell, 2004), Hamilton has not had a significant Latino population for much of its history. This trend, like many others has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. During this time, Hamilton has experienced exponential growth of a diverse Hispanic/Latino population that makes up at least 2.6% of the community.

Population of Hamilton (U.S. Census 1990 and 2000)
The Hispanic/Latino population of Hamilton was estimated to be around 4,000 in 2005 (Sewell, 2005). Like many Latino communities in the United States, the community consists of United States citizens of Latino ancestry, legal aliens and an unknown number of illegal aliens. Hamilton’s Latino community is largely based in an area of Hamilton called the Fourth Ward, where most Latino residents live and many Latino businesses thrive.

Immigrant residential and business enclaves are construed as symbolic of group differences. The Fourth Ward’s high concentration of Latinos makes the community very visible and may make it appear larger than it actually is. Immigrant presence is magnified through state, city and neighborhood concentration level. Concentration of immigrants with highly visible cultural, ethnic and linguistic differences spurs concerns about loss of control of territory and fears of being overrun (Ellis, 2006).

The perception of Hamilton’s rapid demographic change as drastic is one of the reasons the immigration of Latinos to the area has become so controversial. However, there are other factors involved. Latinos are the only group of people currently coming into Hamilton at a significant rate; the city’s population peaked in 1960 at 72,345 (U.S. Census 1970) and has been steadily declining since. This is largely due to a loss of many high-paying blue-collar jobs as the city lost its industrial firms based in paper manufacturing, iron works and machine works to outsourcing. Recent economic growth has largely been in low-wage jobs (Blount, 2000). Many Latinos chose to move to the area because they typically work these low-wage jobs and Hamilton has a relatively low cost of living since it has never fully recovered from its economic depression. Historically, Latinos have been victims of heightened discrimination in the Midwest during times of economic depression (Diaz McConnell, 2004). Thus, Latinos are coming to an area that is economically appealing to them, but where they may face unfair treatment.

It would be untruthful to say that all of Hamilton rejects Latinos. Perception of Latinos seems to follow the 20-60-20 model used by Flora and Maldonado in their research about Midwestern communities’ reaction to Latino immigrants. Twenty percent of the population welcomes Latino immigrants as an asset to a diverse community. Sixty percent of the population is unsure about the new immigration, but is fearful of change in the community. Twenty percent is vehemently opposed to immigration. The latter 20% is often the most vocal in the community and would be characterized by Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones and his supporters.

Sheriff Jones “Doing Something about Illegal Aliens”
Sheriff Jones began his campaign against Latinos soon after his election, targeting Hamilton residents who appear to be of Latino decent as possible illegal immigrants. Mexicans, who are seen as the main “invaders” are ethnically profiled as the cause of problems in Hamilton. In November, 2005, Sheriff Jones began a public Internet “blog” (www.butlercountysheriff.org/blog) to communicate with his constituency. The Sheriff uses this as medium to express his views about the Latino community and national immigration politics. He writes in this blog during work hours, apparently while he is in his office and being paid by Butler County. Claims he makes about the connection between immigrants, drugs and crime are not verifiable. Statements include:

October 2, 2006: “In the community which I live violence has increased due to illegal aliens getting a free ride. There has also been an increase in drugs coming across the border for sale in the United States.”
December 8, 2006: “I’ve always known that fraudulent IDs were being made for illegal aliens but I didn’t expect to them to be made BY illegal aliens and so far from the borders!! Looks like it’s time to get even tougher.”

December 13, 2006: “I have been promising for over a year that I was going to do something about illegal aliens in Butler County and today, I now have the entire toolbox - State AND Federal law. There is no other. Today, the Department of Homeland Security has officially granted my request for “287 (g) immigration authority”! This makes us one of seven state and local law enforcement agencies in the nation with the authority to enforce immigration laws including deportation. Now, we’ll be able to address these issues right here at the local level!”
January 12, 2007: “…here on the homefront, we cannot forget our own borders and homeland security! It seems at times that we in the heartland are speaking for the nation in regards to illegal aliens and unsecured borders destroying our system of checks and balances. We must continue to fight on our homefront for what is right. No matter WHY our borders are crossed, illegal IS illegal. I have just begun to fight and will continue to fight for what is right [emphasis original].”

March 6, 2007: “Today, I am sending an invoice to the Mexican Government; President Felipe Calderón for the expenses we incurred [during a recent drug bust]… I am asking the Mexican President to seal his borders to keep the poison from entering this country and Butler County!”

On the County website, Jones has posted special forms for Hamilton residents to report individuals that they think may be illegal immigrants and businesses they think may be employing illegal immigrants. He feels that the “illegal problem” will likely be brought under control by Hamilton residents watching their neighbors.

Jones has also taken drastic anti-immigrant stances in other media forms. Across Butler County, he has posted 6 billboards with a picture of himself with a gun in his pants superimposed over his badge and the statement “Hire an Illegal-Break the Law”, to publicize his campaign to target local businesses who employ illegal immigrants. Outside of the Butler County Jail, he has posted a series of yellow and black steel signs that say “Illegal Immigrants Here” with an arrow pointing toward the jail.

Despite claims by residents (Ludden, 2006) that the Latino community has revitalized the once dilapidated and empty Fourth Ward, Sheriff Jones also targeted this district as below community standards in a recent letter to the Hamilton City Manager, stating:

I have personally walked through the 4th Ward and have witnessed human feces on the side walk; trash on the ground, trash cans set on the curbs and in front of homes that are overflowing with beer cans and debris. Junk cars are parked everywhere and other cars are parked on the sidewalks and in yards. There are houses that are, and others that should be, boarded up. These homes present a life threatening danger to emergency personnel that may be called to respond to one of them. I have also noted that a great number of homes in this area are occupied by more people than what the home was built for. It appears as if there is no enforcement of the city codes and the 4th Ward has become an island within the City of Hamilton. This area has gotten totally out of control… As the largest employer in the 4th Ward, I am concerned for the safety of my employees who have to drive to and from work. I am also concerned for the safety of visitors to the jail, such as lawyers, citizens obtaining records, CCW license, etc. In addition, we have numerous employees of other county agencies traveling through this area to drop off or pick up prisoners, or have another need to visit our facility from agencies throughout Ohio and the United States. With all of the pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and the violence on the streets, something must be done soon… (Jones, 2006 public communication).

There is no evidence to support these claims.
Jones’ nativist vigilante views are not unique in Hamilton or the United States. However, as an elected law official, his actions on them are given an air of legitimacy. Some Hamilton residents fear that the Sheriff’s actions will damage all parts of the Latino community (including legal aliens and citizens) and Hamilton as a whole. Latino residents are now frightened of the police because they are being intensely targeted as possible “illegals”. If crimes are committed, Latinos are often afraid to report them to the police. Fewer customers patronize Latino-owned businesses. Lourdes de Leon, the co-owner of Taqueria Mercado, a local Mexican restaurant, and a United States citizen of Mexican descent says she is “afraid” and worries the Sheriff may target her business, even though she is “doing nothing wrong” (Ludden, 2006). In a past incident, the Sheriff had to let 10 Latinos go when he was found to have arrested them as “illegals” without grounds.

Crime and drug trafficking were present in Hamilton long before the influx of Latinos. Neither Latino immigrants in the area nor other local residents have been shown to have or are suspected of having terrorist connections. Hamilton is a formerly relatively stable community being divided by the inappropriate actions and claim- making of a belligerent public official. Still, the Department of Homeland Security has granted Sheriff Jones, an individual with a clear anti-immigrant agenda and a history of stretching the law as he sees fit, overarching powers to enforce immigration law. This is highly problematic to the entire Hamilton community and will likely widen divisions.

Hamilton needs the Latino community—a fresh force in the formerly stagnant economy. Immigrants (both legal and illegal) fill jobs that are necessary in Hamilton. If they did not, there would not be demand for immigrant workers. Latino-owned businesses diversify Hamilton’s economy. Unfairly targeting the Latino community as the bringers of crime and drugs will cause alienation, and eventually economic and cultural loss to all of Hamilton.

References

Blount, Jim. 2000. The 1900s: 100 Years In the History of Butler County, Ohio. Hamilton: Past Present Press.
Diaz McConnell, Eileen. 2004. Latinos in the rural Midwest: the twentieth-century historical context leading to contemporary challenges. Apple Pie & Enchiladas: Latino Newcomers in the Rural Midwest. Ann V. Millard and Jorge Chapa, editors. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Ellis, Mark. 2006. Unsettling immigrant geographies: US immigration and the politics of scale. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie. 97 (1): 49-58.
Flora, Cornelia Butler and Marta Maldonado. 2006. Immigrants as Assets for Midwestern Communities. Changing Face Project. Available: http://migration.ucdavis.edu/cf/more.php?id=190_0_2_0 [Accessed 4/15/07].

Ludden, Jennifer. 2006. Latinos rattled by Ohio sheriff’s mission. All Things Considered. National Public Radio.
Mayer, Monte. 2006. Press release: Butler County Sheriff’s Office to Receive Federal Immigration Powers. Hamilton: Office of the Sheriff.

Author: Heather Hillenbrand

Student - Anthropology

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