US Immigration Policy: An Historical Perspective

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 17 12:55:13 UTC 2006

Immigration Policy: An Historical Perspective
By Norman Markowitz

>>From the mid 19th century to the end of World War I, unrestricted
immigration to the United States from Western and Eastern Europe
transformed what had been an overwhelmingly Protestant Christian nation of
free farmers and laborers from the British Isles (and to a much lesser
extent Western Europe) and slaves of diverse religious backgrounds seized
and transported from Africa into a diverse multi-cultural, multi-national
society. A German, Italian, Polish and Yiddish press, along with many
others existed for generations and still exists for newer immigrants. Many
groups clustered in ethnic communities and continued to speak their native
languages for a number of generations, given the size of the country, the
relative isolation of many rural areas. Ethnic clustering and ethnic
divisions, the establishment of an ethnic hierarchy in which groups looked
to their own middle classes rather than to general labor solidarity, was a
major prop of capitalist power and was encouraged by the ruling class.

German immigrants, for example, who came here fleeing from both economic
crisis at home and the failed liberal revolution of 1848, strengthened
greatly the anti-slavery movement and fought in significant numbers on the
union side during the Civil War. There was even a German language version
of the "Star Spangled Banner," which was seen as an expression of
immigrants identification with the nation, unlike in recent days when a
Spanish language version produced sharp attacks from the right and a
statement by Bush that the "Star Spangled Banner" should be sung in
English. Also there were Irish immigrants fleeing the genocidal potato
famine who faced intense religious and ethno-cultural prejudice. (I use
the word genocidal because the famine not only took the lives of 25
percent of the Irish population but also because it was a result of many
generations of British imperial policy and free trade ideology that
permitted the Irish to starve while crops and meat were exported from
Ireland.) Since slavery made color racism the foundation of all forms of
oppression in the United States, immigrant groups were defined as "non
white" and became "white" as they rose in the society or were placed above
a more recent group of immigrants.

Bush, whose "compassionate conservatism" in 2000 was crafted with a few
Spanish words, talked about immigration Monday night. He put forward a
plan which would be comical if the question were not so important.
Cosmetic increases in the border patrol; the use of national guard forces
(who already are being massively misused in Iraq, given their traditional
role as a domestic force) until the increases in border patrol numbers are
completed; a "guest worker" program to act as a safety valve and the
possibility of citizenship for "illegals" who come forward and pay a
$2,000 fine for their "crimes." None of the major issues  the
impoverishment that drives the people to come, the crimes of the employers
who knowingly use them and profit from them, even any realistic policy
with any chance to curtail illegal immigration is either addressed or put
forward in the Bush "plan."

Past and present immigration have many things in common. Both are largely
the result of severe economic dislocations effecting regions under the
sway of industrial capitalism. Although there were immigrant populations
fleeing political and ethnic religious persecutions (the Jewish minority
in the Czarist Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires is the best known but
by no means the only example) and immigrants with some property and skills
pulled to the United States by agents of land developers, steamship
companies and factories preaching a gospel of easy money, the great
majority of immigrants were poor peasants and handicraft workers whose
labor had been made superfluous by capitalist mass production, "free
trade," and the export of capital from the more developed regions.

Free immigration of course did not apply to East Asians, who faced
"oriental exclusion" legislation as early as the 1880s, even though
Chinese labor had been as essential to the construction of the Western
spur of the Transcontinental Railroad as Irish labor had been to its
Eastern spur. Mexicans, who were the indigenous population (albeit a small
one) of the Mexican Northwest before it was annexed and became the
American Southwest in the Mexican-American War (1845-1849), crossed a
demilitarized border seeking work but often faced vigilante violence and
forced expulsions when their labor was not needed.

Also, free European immigration was challenged both by large sections of
the organized labor movement, for whom it was a matter of wage
competition, and also by White Anglo-Protestant Supremacists, who
campaigned from the 1880s on for immigration restriction legislation that
would limit European immigration to the British Isles and Northwestern
Europe. Led by groups like the American Protective Association, the
restrictionists built powerful lobbies in Congress, sponsored racist
scholarship like Madison Grants The Passing of the Great Race (1915),
which portrayed most of the Catholic and Jewish immigration as genetically
inferior people whose low intelligence and high birth rates threatened to
destroy American enterprise and social cohesion if their migration was not
ended. The WWI hysteria against foreigners manipulated by both the
government and conservative business interests and postwar xenophobic red
scare enabled right-wing Republicans to enact legislation in 1924 that not
only ended free European immigration and reduced the total number of
immigrants but established a "quota" system that sharply restricted
immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. This quota system was a
factor in prevent Italian and other anti-fascists and most dramatically,
Eastern and Central European Jewish people from immigrating to the U.S. to
escape Hitlerite persecution and eventual genocide.

The quota system established in the 1924 National Origins Act was
eliminated by the Great Society Congress in 1965, creating a much fairer
system that allowed for non-Europeans to become U.S. citizens. However,
the number of immigrants was still limited. The new legal immigration to
the U.S. has been positive. The establishment of South Asian and African
communities which previously were non-existent in most of the country has
developed, and a significant expansion of East Asian communities has both
enriched American culture, significantly upgraded American cuisine, and
created what may eventually be the most dynamically global multicultural
society in human history. Many of these immigrants have, unlike the
European immigrants of the industrialization period, come to the U.S. with
professional education and skills which have made an important
contribution to medicine, computer science, and the arts, sciences, and
professions generally. These legal immigrants who in considerable numbers
have become US citizens are invisible for and to the national chauvinists
who call for draconian methods to block illegal immigration with no
interest in the effects of NAFTA and IMF-World Bank policies on Mexico and
Central America; who support arrests, imprisonment, and deportation of
undocumented workers but have no interest in interfering with the
employers who hire them; who seek to chase undocumented day laborers out
of downtown districts where they congregate because that is bad for
business but eat in the restaurants and work in offices in which those
undocumented workers provide service labor.

The Bush speech, filled with empty posturing to those willing to look and
listen, addresses any of the relevant questions. The "guest worker"
provisions are reminiscent of the ill-famed "bracero program" between the
U.S. and Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s, a program condemned by labor and
human rights activists as unrestrained exploitation. There is no
Pan-American plan to reverse the impoverishment of rural Central America
(including Mexico) of the kind that New Dealers advocated in the 1930s and
1940s or, even with its failures and anti-Communist subtext, the Alliance
for Progress program for Latin America put forward by the Kennedy
administration in the 1960s. There is no understanding much less policy to
develop infrastructure and raise living standards in ways that would
reduce wage competition and provide for a much greater regional market for
both U.S. and Mexican/Central American goods, not U.S. firms establishing
"enterprise zones" in Mexico and Central America to produce goods for the
U.S. mass market and agribusiness firms taking over land to produce fruits
and vegetables for the U.S. market.

The suggested increase in border patrols over a number of years is more of
a joke than anything else, given the size of the U.S. Southwestern border.
When one looks at the Bush administrations use of troops to occupy Iraq
and war preparations against Iran, it shows both what the administrations
real priorities are and Bushs general contempt for the intelligence of the
American people. Even if the border patrol were increased to 50,000 the
problem would not be overcome. Desperately poor people have already died
of thirst and hunger attempting to cross that border. For anyone to
believe that an increased security presence of the size that Bush is
calling for will deter both the people and the criminals who have made
smuggling them in into a lucrative business is comparable to believing
against all evidence that Iraq was supporting Al Qaeda and producing
weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion

The promise of possible citizenship connected rather fantastically to the
fine is also, coming from this administration, rather like a police
promise that a confession will ensure a suspect a light sentence. The
AFL-CIO has come forward with a call to organize and grant citizenship
rights to undocumented workers. Such a policy would eliminate the
incentive for employers to hire such workers at sub-minimum wages and
often off the books, use their status to super exploit them, and make them
in effect a drag on wage rates. Such a policy would also eliminate the
campaigns to deny undocumented workers public assistance, remove their
children from schools, and also end the corruption associated with their
paying into social security accounts for which they have no possibility of
reaping benefits.

Citizenship rights should of course go along with this program, since it
is against the interests of all citizens to have millions of people
existing in the political twilight zone that undocumented workers
currently find themselves in the United States. Such a program will both
address the problem and answer the Bush administration, which wants to
both maintain the cheap and very vulnerable labor that undocumented
workers represent and continue to reap political benefits by appealing to
those who blame undocumented workers for wage stagnation, job loss, and
other conditions created by capitalist "globalization," which is a cause
rather than an effect of illegal immigration to the U.S and industrialized

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs.

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