Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
A History of Saying “No Thank You” to Immigrants
11/26/2015Posted by on
Our country is engaged in two of her three sacred Thanksgiving traditions: gorging ourselves during a big family meal and ironically displaying unjustified fear of migrants as we remember the first harvest of early European migrants. About this time last year President Obama made a big speech announcing a now-stalled reform of our immigration system and people lost their damn minds about the rule of law and them coming to take our jobs. Two weeks ago, European-born Islamists made a series of terrorist attacks that Daesh has claimed responsibility for. In response, 29 Republican governors and 1 Democratic governor, starting with my own state’s Governor Synder, announced their intent block Federal government attempts to settle Syrian refugees because a terrorist will sneak in or something through the 2 year process. You know, the victims fleeing the war wrecked misery caused in large part by Daesh. This is a profound moral failing. A moral failing deeply institutionalized into our law and culture. And it persists because there is a political benefit to stoking the predictable knee jerk fear of outsiders.
Our immigration system is badly flawed; not just in a technocratic sense, but as the result of malicious policy choices. It caters to racists, nativists, and cowards. It does so by throttling immigration by country of origin, “securing the border” and expelling “subversives. It doesn’t make you a racist, nativist, or coward if you support that system, but it does mean that if you support that system you end up helping racists, nativists and cowards. As an inevitable consequence we have massive permanent underclass of illegal immigrants.
Let me now state that I am the child of two immigrant parents. My wife’s parents were refugees who were in danger because of a failed American war. I’m not coming from a place of objectivity and I won’t pretend otherwise. So what follows (and preceded) is certainly editorialized, but it Is also as precise and accurate as I can manage. For convenience, I will also be referring to refugees, long term nonimmigrant visitors, and immigrants all as “immigrants” despite the legal and sociological differences between the groups. If they’re coming here for a better life than where they were, they’re immigrants enough for our discussion.
My parents and my wife’s parents were able to enter the United States legally through the front door, but they had very little to do with it. My parents are Chinese by way of Taiwan and the Philippines they had good grades and worked hard and applied to college, sure, but they were also politically approved by the Americans, because we liked Taiwan and the Philippines and we didn’t care much for Communist China. My wife’s family fought (via a CIA operation) on the American side of the Vietnam War in exchange for a land of their own when the Americans kicked the commies out of ‘Nam. It didn’t work out so great when America pulled out in defeat. It still took dedicated lobbying and the sponsorship of Christian missionaries to get America’s direct allies over, never mind their families. American politics had a whole lot more to do with our families making it over here than our families did, despite all of the things they did to earn the right to come over. The front door is illusory, crushed by the tight fist of nativist politics. Immigrants manage to slip in through the cracks by luck and pluck. And that’s all that’s left for them now, despite modern America being built on a massive spike in immigration.
The old system lasted between 1921 and 1965, starting with the appropriately named Immigration Act of 1921. The system worked like this: to preserve the American character of our society and secure our border from “homosexuals”, “idiots”, “feeble-minded persons”, “criminals”, “epileptics”, “insane persons”, alcoholics, “professional beggars”, all persons “mentally or physically defective”, polygamists, and anarchists, no more than 3% of the immigrant population could come from any single country of origin, which biased immigration significantly towards West and Northern Europe. This formula was revised in 1924 to lower the rate to 2% and to eliminate citizenship by naturalization from certain places of origin. This had the not at all coincidental effect of keeping out the following Un-American troublemakers:
- East Asians
- South East Asians
- Southern Europeans
- Eastern Europeans
Latin America got an unlimited pass because they provided cheap farm labor.
Under the 1924 Act, Asian immigrants were specially barred by classifying them as non-white. This referenced the Naturalization act of 1790, which restricted naturalization to so called free whites of good character. That specific part of the 1924 Act was called Asian Exclusion Act. That passed less than a hundred years ago.
In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act finally abolished the racial restrictions of the 1790 Act, but kept the racial/ethnic preferences designed into the national origin caps while ratcheting up the paranoid barriers against suspected “subversives” with the wrong politics. Harry Truman vetoed the act over the political tests and quotas citing many “examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.”
In a remarkable show of bipartisan can-do, the 82nd Congress, led by two Democrats, overrode Truman’s veto. Senator McCarran, one of the co-sponsors left us this gem of wisdom:
I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. […] However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain.
As a result our system went from explicit racism in preferring whites of “good character” to a slightly more-subtle xenophobia expressed by hand-wringing about all those who refuse to adapt to the American way of life.
In 1965, the national origin quota system was finally replaced with the precursor to our modern preference based system. The new system discarded national preferences in favor of selecting highly skilled migrants and those with family already present. Except it applied the national origin quota system to our visas, which is the first step in coming over as a tourist, worker, or immigrant. There was a hard cap for 170,000 per year created for those originating in the Eastern Hemisphere. There was a hard cap of 120,000 for the Western Hemisphere, with unlimited access for a few favored nations. With some adjustments, we are still using this system today. The bill’s sponsors promised that very little would change as far as the demographic mix of the United States. They were wrong.
The 1965 act heralded a massive rush of immigration to the United States. It created the America we are living in now. My mother was one of the lucky 170,000 year to be allowed a student visa so she could attend school here, work hard, raise a family, and create jobs. My father was allowed to come here and work as a doctor, running the lab and helping surgeons hunt and destroy cancer.
Opponents of immigration defend their position as taking care of the people who are here already as their primary obligation. Well, it turns out immigrants lower prices, create jobs, and help keep you alive. My parents are just one example of many at the highly skilled end. The deliberately cultivated importation of farm laborers from Latin America is another. Our immigration system doesn’t protect the people already here. It hurts them. It tries to deport them. It is in a real sense, the most unsuccessful wasteful and racially discriminatory affirmative action program yet conceived, rewarding legacy European immigrants and punishing poor Latinos who have the hustle necessary to work hard in the illegal immigrant underclass.
Even when the fear of nebulous and omnipresent undesirables, subversives, and now terrorists isn’t hopelessly tainted by politics and racism, it turns out throttling immigration and securing the border doesn’t help much anyway. If you shut out refugees, they come through as skilled workers. You shut out skilled workers, they pose as family members. You ban all new people from coming in, they sneak in. You button up the border, and they laugh and have someone on the inside kill you anyway. You have lost much and gained nothing but fear. Daesh is a malicious idea, not a diffuse people group. That idea can spread over the internet with deadly consequence without the bother of sending over a bomber across the border. We’ve created a cruel, complex, and punitive system and have gotten nothing of worth out of it.
Don’t believe me? Look up the details yourself. Try to follow the immigration process from start to finish and see if you can even comprehend it. Try to comprehend the difference between immigrant and nonimmigrant visas. Try to imagine marrying the person you met in college, and then being interrogated by overworked case officers under inhuman directives about whether your marriage is genuine. Imagine that marriage breaking up under economic strain and infidelity later and you being held up as an example of someone who married as fraud. and then have the failure of that marriage be used as proof of your fraud. Try to imagine coming over to visit family, only to find out you’ve broken the law when you stayed an extra day to help out with the new baby. Try to imagine laboring in America and trying to apply for legal presence, only to find out you have to find the money to fly back to your country of origin and apply there – a home you may never want to see again. And why? Because rules are rules my dear. It says so right on the notice the immigration officials – the ones who are supposed to deport you – send to your apartment.
Yeah, immigration enforcement is a bizarre bit of kabuki. I mean, so often they know where you are. And if you don’t show up to your deportation hearing it’s not like they’re going to send the border patrol after you. They’re busy. Unless you’re a violent offender, anyway. Oh, the consequences are pretty bad for your long term plans so it’s better to show up, but we care a whole lot less than we say we do. Then again, maybe you should be in the country. Maybe you’re not an illegal at all, but an undocumented refugee. So you show up at your immigration hearing, and in your accented English you try to explain to the immigration judge your situation. But the judge is a lawyer and has a legal checklist to follow and there is another government lawyer in the room talking to him. Her job is to make the case against you. If you’re lucky, a non-profit activist or lawyer noticed you on your way in. If not, you’re on your own. You don’t know how to make your case and you go to back to the hell you nearly bankrupted your family to escape from. Your children will never see you again.
Let me make this clear. In our immigration courts, where the consequences for failing to attend are not prioritized, there is a government lawyer whose job it is to try to kick out people who may be bona fide refugees and send them back to hell.
Right now Syria is hell, and Americans have no small part in it becoming that way. We have a bunch of Governors trying to block Federal policy because they’re concerned about the potential of someone sneaking in through a two-year process. It’s not just that it’s worth the risk. It’s that the risk reduction in eliminating or strengthening the system is so negligible as to be nonexistent. But it’s good politics. You get to sound tough. It’s easy to sound tough when all you’re hurting are voiceless and voteless immigrants.
Immigrants work for you and I and the tomorrow of our children. Immigrant soldiers bleed on our battlefields, immigrant laborers sweat in our farms and immigrant children dream the American dream when so many Americans are too cowardly to hope for a better tomorrow. Did your forefathers live and die to give you a better life in this country or do you think they lived and died so you can give other people a worse one? What kind of thankfulness is it to count your blessings to be American and free while shutting out new Americans?