I loved the title of this article. The author is Peter Rachleff, a Professor of History at Macalester College in St. Paul, and a specialist in labor and immigration history. I am not suggesting that we become uncaring to who is in our country, I believe we need to know, but we will have to become innovative and foward thinking if we want to find reasonable, humane, and fiscally sound solutions to comprehensive immigration reform.
In April 2006, hundreds of thousands of immigrant rights protestors marched in cities across the United States. They countered prolonged debates about the pros and cons of comprehensive immigration reform with a short but sweet affirmation, scrawled on placards: “No Human Being Is Illegal.” Their direct assertion challenged the deeply entrenched practices of our government and a deep wellspring of racism in our culture. Their actions also evoked traditions of protest, organization, and resistance.
Since the days of slavery – well before the establishment of the United States itself – the government, buttressed by popular culture, included some residents as citizens and excluded others as outsiders, as what historian Mae Ngai has called “impossible subjects.” Not only were slaves defined as outside the political and social community, but freed slaves and their children were typically excluded from citizenship. The federal constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. The Naturalization Act of 1790 offered citizenship to “free white persons.” The Alien Act of 1798 authorized the president to order the deportation of any alien “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” during peacetime. Once the government began to regulate immigration, argues Professor Ngai, it had begun to create the “illegal” alien.
Race was the central criterion by which such decisions would be made, and thinking about race was shaped by popular prejudices, beliefs, and passions. A dual process cast the racially different as “other,” while securing a place on the inside for all of those accorded “white” status. The outsiders were vulnerable to the worst forms of economic exploitation, from slavery and servitude to sweatshops, in the most dangerous conditions at the lowest wages. Yet they enriched their employers. Just a step above these outsiders on the economic ladder, from their own position of insecurity, simultaneously threatened by the wealth and power of those above them and the lack of power manifested by those below them on the socio-economic ladder, working class whites struggled to hold on to what status and privilege they had. They practiced discrimination and even mob justice at times, and they sought laws, court orders, and enforcement from the state to shield them from competition with the outsiders. And hence a pattern took shape which would be seared into the American body politic. When insecurity spread among working class whites and popular discontent threatened to swell, the elite and the state responded by scapegoating and exorcising “the other,” both people of color and immigrants.
This pattern has dominated our society since its founding to the present day. When the industrial revolution undermined the independence of white artisans in the first half of the 19th century, they began to organize unions and independent political parties. But one state after another revised its voting qualifications from property ownership to whiteness and maleness and the discontent subsided. The deep depression of the 1870s and the political turmoil it occasioned led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law which proscribed a particular race. Amidst the economic and political turbulence after World War I, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, the nation’s first comprehensive immigration restriction law. It established numerical quotas on immigration and a racial and national hierarchy that favored northern and western Europeans over southern, central, and eastern Europeans, most of whom at that time were not considered to be “white.” An enforcement bureaucracy blossomed, attentive not only to borders and ports, but also to cities, fields, factories, and mines throughout the country.
Ironically, the post-1965 era also marked the transformation of the global and American economies into the turbulence generated by neoliberalism and free market economics.
The very same economic shifts were sweeping the U.S. domestic economy, destabilizing manufacturing and undermining the economic security of American workers. They feared losing their jobs, while they were becoming increasingly aware of the presence of new non-white immigrants in their communities, many of whom were willing to work for longer hours and less pay than they were. Politicians, demagogues, radio talk show hosts, and the like found this to be fertile ground for the replaying of that historical nativist script. Scapegoating immigrants, especially non-white immigrants, was a path to fame, fortune, and political power.