A South Carolina restaurant is serving up Mexican food, with a side of bigotry. Employees at Taco Cid wear t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “How To Catch An Illegal Immigrant.” The accompanying cartoon shows a couple of tacos set underneath an old-fashioned box trap. The shirts are also available for purchase.
Supposedly humorous, Taco Cid’s t-shirts are not funny, and represent an appalling business strategy. The shirts are insulting to immigrants, Latinos, and reasonable Americans. Even worse, the company’s response to the negative publicity has been not to apologize – but to insist that undocumented immigrants are the real problem.
The Taco Cid website says, “Our t-shirts were created as a witty and comical statement regarding ILLEGAL immigrants. There are NO racial nor hate remarks towards any specific ethnic group.” Yet the shirts imply that the undocumented are akin to rats or vermin needing to be trapped. While the company insists it is not singling out any particular group, the t-shirt’s lettering is in red, white, and green, the colors of the Mexican flag. Subtle.
Taco Cid’s shirts are offensive because undocumented immigrants are the most marginalized, vulnerable segment of society. Consider that immigrants are being beaten and killed, driven from their homes, detained in inhumane conditions, and deported in record numbers. In this context, Taco Cid’s shirts seem less amusing and more akin to bullying.
These shirts play to negative stereotypes of Latinos. As NBC Latino has noted, for many Americans the term “illegal immigrant” and “Latino” are synonymous. A 2012 poll by Latino Decisions found that 1 out of 3 Americans incorrectly believe that most Hispanics are undocumented. In fact, according to the Pew Center, only about 18 percent of Hispanics are undocumented.
Taco Cid’s website declares that the company and its employees are not racist and that they treat every customer the same way. That’s big of them, since there are federal laws banning discriminatory business practices. Unfortunately, it’s no secret that racism exists in the restaurant industry. A study by North Carolina State University found that 40 percent of servers admitted to treating their customers differently, based on their race. 90 percent of waiters admitted that they had heard or engaged in racially charged conversations at work.
Actually, Taco Cid’s anti-immigrant stance is based on a fallacy. The restaurant’s site states that they are opposed to illegal immigration because the undocumented are “taxing the system” and “not supporting the American system.” However, the undocumented do pay sales, property, income, and social security taxes. In 2011, the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy estimated that the undocumented paid $11.2 billion in taxes. Because they are not eligible for most social service programs offered by the government, undocumented immigrants pay in far more to “the system” than they will ever receive back.
Taco Cid is located in a state where the Confederate flag still flies in front of the capital and where laws against inter-racial marriage remained on the books until 1998. Still, the narrow mindset on display at Taco Cid is not exclusive to the South. Within the last year, there have been incidents of California high school students dressing up as “Mexicans,” and Penn State sorority members holding a party in which they donned sombreros and fake moustaches. The looming national debate over illegal immigration may even bring out more ugliness; as excited as Hispanics are about our growing numbers and increased visibility, there remain others who find this demographic development threatening.
Taco Cid’s t-shirts are a bad idea, all the way around. They represent anti-immigrant sentiment at best, and flat-out racism at worst. And they sadly illustrate how the undocumented continue to be targeted by the intolerant among us.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.