Immigration and Racial Bias
— Malik Miah
THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE, once again at the center of U.S. politics, was accelerated by the success of president Obama winning more than 70% of the Latino and Asian vote in the 2012 elections. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s call for all 11 million undocumented immigrants to “self deport” was a significant reason for his defeat. Latinos are the largest ethnic minority in the country — and growing rapidly — and more and more of them vote.
Bipartisan groups have formed in the Senate (the “Gang of Eight”) and House of Representatives to hammer out a compromise bill to send to President Obama by the summer. The compromise under discussion centers on “border security” with Mexico, and if that is accomplished a long pathway to permanent residency or citizenship would then begin.
Why this issue is front and center, however, is more than just the recent election. Young Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants have staged protests and rallies, including at the Capitol, pushing their demand for legalization, a dangerous step considering that Obama has deported more people than Bush did in eight years — more than 1000 per day.
Immigrants from Latin American countries are no different than immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. They move to the United States — legal or undocumented — to find better opportunities for their families. That they pay taxes and add more to the economy than they take out is rarely acknowledged. The myth fed by right wing media, that immigrants come here to get “free stuff” like social benefits, is simply false.
Since the end of slavery, the immigration issue has divided descendants of the original settlers from new arrivals. Nonwhites, the vast majority of newest immigrants, face more violence and discrimination than white immigrants who could assimilate into the white majority.
The capitalist class is for immigration — both legal and undocumented. It serves their interests to expand the legal population of educated and skilled immigrants to serve Silicon Valley and big businesses, and to keep a second-class underground population to work backbreaking, low-paying jobs.
Racial bias frames the discussions. It is the most effective way to confuse and divide white workers from those who should be their natural allies — nonwhite immigrants.
Class division is also seen in how undocumented workers crossing the Mexican border are treated compared to high skilled H-1B visa holders from India, China and other countries. The latter have an easier time getting legal status even when many become “overstayers” (40% of undocumented) after their employment, student or tourist visas expire. The hysteria over border security targets the mainly non-white working class immigrants.
The political negotiations in the Senate and House are based on meeting the dual needs of big business, but a sizable part of the Republican base are well-funded nativist conservatives who see all “illegals” (including non-immigrant H-1B visa holders from Asia) and nonwhite immigrants as a threat to their view of America.
Hate Groups and Generational Divide
The Numbers USA group, based in Michigan, is a leading proponent of keeping whites as the majority of the country. One of its founders is a retired Michigan doctor, John Tanton, who argues that the survival of the United States depends on keeping a “European American majority.”
Roy Beck, its president, has aggressively warned elected Republicans to oppose immigration reform or face a primary challenger. The group has written legislation for conservative legislators to block any immigration reform that includes a “pathway to citizenship.”
The group has spent $100 million over the past decade in its anti-immigrant efforts. Numbers USA also works with two other rightwing anti-immigration groups, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies. The Southern Poverty Law Center correctly describes these organizations as hate groups.
A majority of younger Americans (under 40) reject this racist and chauvinist view of European Americans first. Most recognize immigrants as fellow human beings, coworkers and neighbors.
The AP wire, reflecting these evolving attitudes, changed its editorial policy in early April to end the use of the term “illegal immigrant” to describe someone’s identity in its reporting on the issue. The new policy guidelines state:
“Illegal immigration. Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission. Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.
“Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution. Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?”
An April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reports that two-thirds of Americans now back a pathway to citizenship.
Marco Rubio, Republican Senator from Florida, favors a very slow and onerous path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. He, like his Tea Party backers, is not sure the path should include citizenship.
As a Cuban American Rubio sees the issue differently than an immigrant from Mexico or other Latin American countries. Cubans who step foot on U.S. land are automatically given residency and a pathway to citizenship because of U.S. hostility to the Cuban Communist Party and state.
Yet Latino communities are very diverse and generally support residency (green card) and the option of citizenship. Most have family members or friends who are undocumented.
The Senate bipartisan “Gang of Eight” proposals would grant more H-1B visas to immigrants who are highly educated, especially in sciences and engineering, and more guest worker visas for agriculture and ranchers.
The conservative plan, however, states that unless strict targets on “security” for the southern border are met first, the other advances toward legality will never happen.
The goal is to stop 90% of current border crossings. The entire process could take 10 years. It’s a self-defeating formula. Washington spent $18 billion in 2012 for immigration enforcement. The new provisions would add billions more. The only groups that benefit from this plan are the security and prison industrial complex.
In addition, under the proposal, all employers must use the flawed E-Verify system to check the status of employees. Currently it is a voluntary system. A mandatory system would create a national data bank for all workers.
The AFL-CIO, representing the top labor officials, has made an agreement with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to increase the number of “guest workers” who would be supposedly covered by labor and prevailing wage laws. Labor, however, has a history of being nativist (pro-American born, anti-immigrant workers) and opposing free movement of labor across national borders. (The Teamsters campaign to stop Mexican truck drivers from moving products across the border was one example.)
Race Underpins History
Immigration has had a racial bias since the Civil War — hardly surprising for a society built on slave labor. The United States’ founding fathers had written the Constitution for white males, since women were invisible and slaves were dehumanized.
The first people to carry papers everywhere were freed slaves — those living in non-slave states. How else could you prove you were not a runaway slave? And Native Americans were conquered people without rights, who to this day have the worse living conditions than any other ethnic group.
Whites (mainly Protestants) were the “privileged” group and seen as protected by the Constitution. Immigrants from Europe, including Catholics, faced discrimination but were not afraid of deportation. They could move West to new land.
Anger and violence was directed at immigrants of color such as Chinese and other Asians. Race was the issue; their religion was a minor factor for white hostility.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the most significant restriction on free immigration in U.S. history, was the first time that a Federal law denied entry of an ethnic group on the basis that it “endangered the good order of the country.” The law explicitly excluded Chinese “skilled and unskilled laborers employed in mining.” It went so far as to prevent Chinese already settled in the United States from ever gaining citizenship (sounds familiar to today’s discussions).
At the time, Chinese immigrants were the largest immigrant group in the state of California. The state passed more racist laws, for example making it illegal for Chinese and whites to intermarry.
Unions for the most part supported restrictions on immigration, particularly of Asians, which they saw as hurting white workers. The exception was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
In 1924, during the backlash against immigrants after the 1917 Russian Revolution, a new draconian law, “The National Origins Act,” excluded all classes of Chinese and explicitly extended the restrictions to all Asians from East Asia.
The law wasn’t repealed until 1943. California did not change its laws on interracial marriage until 1948. It took until 1967 for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn other interracial marriage bans.
The 1965, 1986 and 1996 Laws
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was the most positive change for legal immigration. It repealed an immigrant quota system and expanded immigration from Asia, Africa and other countries. Families separated for years could now be reunited.
Undocumented immigration also increased as Chinese, other Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans made their way to the United States. Those willing to make such a change in their lives by definition are people with the most drive and talent to succeed. (According to government data the immigrant group ending up with the highest per capita income is from Africa — the poorest continent!)
In 1986 President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. It allowed undocumented workers who had entered the country before January 1, 1982, and had resided continuously in the country, to immediately apply for a green card. They had to pay a fine, back taxes due and admit guilt to illegally entering the country. This led to three million immigrants getting legal status and eventually becoming citizens (what the right calls “amnesty”).
In 1996 President Bill Clinton signed the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act” to go after the undocumented. It led to stepped-up deportations. Under earlier laws immigrants could only be deported for crimes that led to five or more years in prison. Under Clinton’s law minor offenses such as shoplifting could make an individual eligible for immediate deportation. It was also applied retroactively. (The Supreme Court later overturned the retroactive clause.)
Clinton’s law was aggressively used after September 11, 2001, to round up and deport suspicious “aliens” who tended to be Muslims and/or Arab looking.
The Solution: Open the Borders
There is a long-term policy change that would permanently solve the issue of immigrants with and without papers. It is to Open the Borders, and separate residency and working rights from citizenship.
A free flow of labor would resolve the legal issue of new immigrants. The European Union does that for members of the Union. (“The right to work at EU level is guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 15) which stipulates: ‘1. Everyone has the right to engage in work and to pursue a freely chosen or accepted occupation; 2. Every citizen of the Union has the freedom to seek employment, to work, to exercise the right of establishment and to provide services in any Member State.’”)
People from Greece can go to Germany to get a job if they have the skills or education. They remain citizens of Greece and have no citizenship rights in Germany. They fall under German laws for employment and labor rights.
If Mexicans could freely come to the United States to work in the fields, construction and other jobs under labor and safety laws like other workers, it would strengthen the position of all workers. Since only citizens can vote, it would not change the electoral map. The rules to become a citizen don’t change: If citizenship is your objective, the process is the same that already applies to legal residents. An open border simply makes all immigrants legal.
The institutional discrimination intrinsic to the system for African Americans and other minorities wouldn’t go away. But as demographics change, the minority workers, including immigrants, would have more bargaining power.
Supporters of full equality for undocumented immigrants need to take up the banner of open borders. As the Dreamers have shown, a concerted push for free labor can win stronger short-term reforms and eventually open borders to end the illegal status of the undocumented.
May/June 2013, ATC 164