Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Anti Immigrant Sentiment backlash. The ethnicity change but the target remained the same.

"Many persons who have spoken and written in favor of restriction of immigration, have laid great stress upon the evils to society arising from immigration. They have claimed that disease, pauperism, crime and vice have been greatly increased through the incoming of the immigrants. Perhaps no other phase of the question has aroused so keen feeling, and yet perhaps on no other phase of the question has there been so little accurate information."

These words, written in 1912 by Jeremiah Jenks and W. Jett Lauck, who had been part of the United States Immigration Commission, sound surprisingly contemporary. In 1995, there is a popular argument that immigrants are responsible for many, if not all, of the problems facing our country. This theme has been struck before in US history.

It has arisen now in part because right-wing organizations have promoted immigrants as a group targeted for blame. For example, an organization prominent in this right-wing campaign, the American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF), in a 1992 mailing, lists immigrants as the culprits behind high taxes, wasted welfare dollars, lost jobs, high costs for education, and rising crime. AICF claims that immigrants are driving up health care costs by grabbing free care while also bringing disease into the US. Interestingly, subsequent versions of the same letter, sent out the following year, reduce their claim of 13 million illegal immigrants to 6-8 million, a number still higher than that cited by Time magazine as no more than 5 million. As Jenks and Lauck conclude in the above quote, the debate is still characterized more by angry talk than by facts.

An important ingredient in the success of the right's anti-immigrant campaign is its ability to deflect anger about the negative effects of the current US "economic restructuring" onto the scapegoat of immigrants. This tactic nests within a larger goal of capturing political gain by exploiting a popular issue. This is nothing new, but rather is a practice rooted in a long-standing history of reaction to immigration, nurtured today by a cluster of right-wing political organizations dedicated to this single issue.

The Anti Immigrant sentiment within our History of US Immigration.

It is impossible to understand the current wave of anti-immigrant sentiment without some historical perspective. Indeed, excepting the Native American population, it is often said that the US is a nation of immigrants. Certainly, the role of cheap immigrant labor has been critical in building the US economy.

Immigration has been both voluntary and forced. In early US history, territorial and economic expansion was a magnet for persons fleeing poverty and political repression. There was also forced immigration in the form of the slave trade and the annexation of one half of Mexico by the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War. This, not traditional immigration, is the reason that a significant number of Chicanos in the Southwest live in the US rather than in Mexico.

By the turn of the 19-century, territorial expansion was no longer a major force fueling immigration. The new magnet was the industrial revolution, which was in full swing and in need of labor. Today, as the US is going through another economic shift to a service and information-based economy with global reach, immigration is once again a factor.

The US has historically had a complex reaction to immigration. On the one hand, immigrants have been crucial to US economic progress at certain junctures in our economic development. On the other, there has been considerable hate and anger directed toward immigrants, based on xenophobia, religious prejudice, and fear that immigrants will take jobs from native-born workers. It is revealing to take a brief look at some of this history of immigration as told by Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States.

In his description of the colonies in the 1700s, Zinn notes that the colonies grew quickly as English settlers and black slaves were joined by Scottish, Irish, and German immigrants. Immigration was causing the larger cities to double and triple in size, but often urban poverty grew apace. "As Boston grew, from 1687 to 1770, the percentage of adult males who were poor . . . .[and who] owned no property, doubled from 14 percent of adult males to 29 percent. And the loss of property meant loss of voting rights." Indeed this often-romanticized period of US history was a time of far harsher immigration conditions than those of today.

Civil War era immigration occurred in an even more hostile environment. The Contract Labor Law of 1864 allowed companies to sign contracts with foreign workers in return for a pledge of 12 months' wages. This allowed employers during the Civil War not only to recruit very cheap labor, but also strikebreakers. Predictably, this resulted in conflict. "Italians were imported into the bituminous coal area around Pittsburgh in 1874 to replace striking miners. This led to the killing of three Italians, to trials in which the jurors of the community exonerated the strikers, and bitter feelings between Italians and other organized workers." It is interesting to note that there was no definition of United States citizenship in the Constitution until the 14th Amendment was added in 1868. A definition was needed, in part to counteract the Dred Scott decision, which held that slaves were not citizens.

At the turn of the century, the immigrant population had changed from largely Irish and German to Eastern and Southern European and Russian, including many Jews. Zinn again describes the impact well, citing the role of immigration of different ethnic groups as contributing to the fragmentation of the working class. He discusses how the previous wave of Irish immigrants resented Jews coming into their neighborhoods. At this time, there was also the added fear that immigrants would bring with them socialist ideas that would undermine the principles of this country.

While nationality, religion, and political ideology were the main basis for resentment of immigrants in urban areas during the first half of the 19-century, race was the issue when Chinese immigrants arrived, brought in to fill a labor gap and then later to work as construction workers on the railroads in the 1860s. Indeed the first anti-immigrant law, passed in California, targeted the Chinese. In 1882, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was not repealed until 1943. Even then, immigration quotas for Chinese were only raised above 105 per year by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The late 1800s were difficult for Chinese in the US--the growing trade union movement based part of its organizing strategy on advocating deportation of Chinese immigrants. Race riots on the West coast were the response of angry whites who blamed Chinese for their woes.

In 1917 and again in 1942, the US initiated guest labor programs, commonly known as the Bracero programs, that brought Mexican workers into the Southwest to work as non-citizen farm workers and fill an alleged labor shortage. Up to half a million workers were enrolled in the program at its height. The flow of undocumented Mexicans grew during this time, prompting a government effort to stem the tide by "drying out the wetbacks"--an effort to convert undocumented immigrants into Braceros. When that failed, "Operation Wetback" was launched with the deployment of a military style border patrol. The Bracero programs effectively exposed thousands of poor Mexicans to the wealth of the United States and contributed to immigration pressure. It also displaced Chicanos from rural agricultural jobs, fueling their exodus to urban centers.

The role of racism in anti-immigrant sentiment seemed to have dimmed by the late 1970s, at least according to Lawrence Fuchs, who served for two years as director of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. Commenting on hearings held by his committee in 12 major cities from 1979 through 1980, Fuchs stated that "racism [against immigrants] was not nearly as powerful a force as it once was." Fuchs attributed this decline in anti-immigrant racism to the civil rights movement and an expansion of the spirit of pluralism that it forced. This optimistic reading of US tolerance for ethnic, racial, and religious diversity parallels the optimism of that period.

Intolerance, however, was just below the surface of American politics. The appearance of a hospitable melting pot that had an accepting attitude toward immigrants proved illusory. It took only the arrival of immigrants who were politically unwelcome, such as those fleeing the repression in El Salvador, for government policies of exclusion to become explicit again.

As in the case of El Salvador, immigration has sometimes followed a pattern of growth from parts of the world in which the US is heavily involved militarily or economically. In recent years, immigration has increased from South East Asia and the Central America/Caribbean region. This sometimes results from granting entry for persons fleeing official enemies of the US, such as Cuba or Vietnam, but also draws people from countries allied with the US, such as the Philippines, Hong Kong, or El Salvador. It is likely that as global trade relationships grow through treaties such as NAFTA, the coming period will prompt greater immigration.

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