Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Nation of Immigrants: A History (Abridged)

The Immigration Dilemma- Week 2

When discussing immigration, people from many different perspectives agree that United States is "a nation of immigrants." Proponents of immigration tend to highlight that welcoming immigrants is an "American tradition." People who fear or dislike undocumented migration will similarly point out that we are all immigrants and that immigration has shaped the face of the United States, but that the difference is that their ancestors immigrated "the legal way" and were not criminals crossing the border.

But historically, what was the legal way?

This is a lot of information to cover, so the post will be long. Therefore, I've anchored the various sections for you to make it easier to navigate.

Without a doubt, we are all immigrants--even the indigenous peoples of the Americas were once newcomers to their land somewhere between 12,000 and 30,000 years ago. Let us all rest assured, however, that they did not go to their local consulate to receive papers to cross into North American territory. They merely migrated--whether to follow their food source, to escape political oppression, or to partake in adventure. And by the time Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, there were somewhere between 2 and 10 million native peoples living in the United States.

The first European settlement was then established in Florida in 1565 (once again, not seeking permission or legal documentation from the Native peoples living there), followed by other Spanish settlements along the now Southern border in 1598. The first English colony was established in 1607 in Jamestown, VA, followed by the Puritan colony of Plymouth in 1620. The Dutch settled New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1624 and the French settled in Louisiana in 1699. Other European colonists then began coming by the millions to settle the new colonies.

However, this was not a period of "blissful" migration. As the population of what many people consider their "legal ancestors" grew, the Native population was decimated by warfare, enslavement and European disease. Jamestown was the first settlement to import slave labor in 1619, beginning a long history of forced migration. Tensions existed between settlers from varying European countries; Benjamin Franklin once even said of the Germans:

Why should [immigrants] establish their Language and Manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to [change] us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?

Early immigration to the United States was not "legal" per say, as people arriving in the United States were not filling out papers or undergoing inspection. The European colonies' borders were merely open. But even while Europeans came freely to the land, Native peoples and slaves were moved by force and against their will.

The first major piece of immigration legislation did not come about until the passage of the Immigrant Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited access to citizenship to "free white people" with "good moral character." This law, nor the Alien and Seditions Act of 1798 which permitted dangerous criminals to be deported from the United States, did not affect who was able to enter the country, merely who had citizen-rights in the country. The borders themselves remained open and unrestricted.

It was not until 1875 that a law passed limiting who could enter the United States. This law forbade "undesirable" people from the U.S., in particular criminals, prostitutes, and Chinese workers. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 then went even further by forbidding all Chinese immigrants and not allowing Chinese people in the U.S. to naturalize as citizens.

In 1891, the Immigration Act centralized the exclusion and control of immigration under one comprehensive immigration act administered by a single government agency: the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. Immigration laws for the next thirty years then focused on excluding the entrance of "undesirables" like anarchists and "feeble-minded" individuals.

The Quota Law of 1921 became the first law to place numerical limits on the number of people who could migrate to the United States, capping immigration based on nationality. The particulars of the caps themselves changed multiple times leading up to 1964, responding to varying political and economic trends. It was not until 1929 that the "consular control system" was developed, requiring immigrants to obtain visas before arrival in the United States.

The development of numerical restrictions and a consular control system are both critical to understanding "legal" immigration. On the one hand, it explicitly limited the number of people coming to the United States and placed a class/educational bar on who had access to consular visas; notably, immigrants from Western Europe were not yet subject to numerical caps either. On the other, it did not address the increasing need for labor in the United States, particularly in the agricultural industry.

The agricultural industry's need for labor led to the creation of the Bracero program (1942-1964), which was an early version of temporary migrant visas and guestworker programs created out of an agreement with Mexico. The Bracero program brought Mexican workers to the United States to work with the intention that they would only stay for a limited period without access to permanent status. This program thus by-passed other numerical restrictions, but denied other immigrant rights to these individuals. The program eventually ended due to systemic exploitation.

With the rise of the civil rights movement, the blatantly racist nature of the quota and exclusion system came under increasing critique and, in 1965, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1965 which comprehensively overhauled the system, abolishing discriminatory quota systems. The Act maintained numerical quotas for varying regions, however, and--for the first time--placed restrictions on migration from Western Europe. The 1965 Act also created the seven-tier family preference system which is still in place today.

While the Immigration Act of 1965 was supposed to be fair, flexible, and comprehensive allowing the US to--in JFK's words--"turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscious," the bill did not sufficiently address the future flow labor needs of the time. By 1986, undocumented migration had soared to new levels to fill jobs in the U.S. economy.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) tried to address undocumented immigration in two ways: it legalized those who were already here and imposed higher sanctions for undocumented persons and employers who hired them. It did not, however, raise the numerical limits placed on immigration, meaning that it did not expand the immigration system to meet the needs of the economy.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA) developed even more punitive measures for undocumented immigrants, expanding grounds for inadmissibility, deportation, and bars of entry. That same year, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconcilliation Act barred even legal permanent residents from participation in social programs for a period of 5-10 years after receiving their green card.

Since September 11, 2001 immigration has increasingly been linked to national security and the Global War on Terror.

Despite attempts to comprehensively reform the immigration system in both 2005 and 2007, the immigration system of today continues functioning under laws formed in 1965, 1986, and 1996 which do not address the current needs of the U.S. economy. Today, there are an estimated 12 million undocumented migrants working in the United States filling jobs that are needed DESPITE the current economic recession. These immigrants had no legal way to come to the United States.

What I hope this rather long post--but quite abridged version of the history of immigration in the United States--teaches us is that for many years there was no "legal way" to migrate. Moreover, if your or my family came to the U.S. before 1986, it is likely they did not come "legally" but instead were legalized--through the entitlement of colonization, the privilege of whiteness, the end of slavery, the rise of civil rights, and an amnesty for workers.

Discussion questions:
  1. What does the history of immigration reveal about the current immigration debate?
  2. Is it encouraging or discouraging to read this abridged history of the US immigration system? Why?
  3. How could a reformed immigration system benefit the US economy?
  4. Who needs to sit at the table when immigration reform is discussed?

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