Immigration Crack-Downs: A Little Bit of History Repeating

Advocates for "enforcement only" would like nothing better than to see a future in which most of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the US be removed, either through coercive means or voluntarily. In a climate of fear and defensiveness, there is a psychological need to assign blame and fight back against the perceived enemy. It is not the first time that fear has triggered the adoption of tough immigration policies. For example, it was economic insecurity that triggered the racism that contributed to the passage of the infamous laws excluding Chinese immigrants from the US in the late 1800s.

The general invisibility of Latina/o civil rights abuses during the last century has left a large majority of Americans unaware of the forced removal of approximately one to two million persons from the United States during the Great Depression. The 1930s marked the first time in the history of international migration between the US and other countries that the federal government sponsored and supported the mass deportation of immigrants.

Unfortunately, throughout US history, when harsh measures are done in the name of national security, it is often directed at unpopular ethnic/racial minorities. It is easy to draw a parallel between the repatriation of the 1930s and the internment of the Japanese to the measures taken by the US government after September 11 because the policies that were passed after 9/11 proved to be no different. Racial profiling in this sense is a tool that Americans turn to when a perceived outsider threatens to damage the status quo.

History of Exclusion

Despite being recognized as "a nation of immigrants," this country has a long history of selective inclusion and exclusion and mistreatment of the other. During the times of exclusion and deportation, the United States is also a "gatekeeping nation," one that has established rigid immigration policies to control immigration and exclude certain immigrant groups, often based on race or ethnicity.

Within hours of the declaration of war on Japan, all Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans who were in the US were branded "alien enemies." Of the 120,000 men, women, elderly, and children of Japanese ancestry sent to interment camps, more than 60% were native-born citizens. According to the US Department of Justice's "Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry During World War II: Report to the Congress of the United States," within a few days after President issued Proclamations 2525, 2526 and 2527, 500 aliens of different ancestries were on a train with darkened windows bound for an undisclosed location in Montana.

While most historical comparisons concerning immigration and race before and after 9/11 focus on the incarceration of Japanese Americans, the relevance of Mexican Repatriation remains vitally important for us to remember. Over the last century, migrant workers have been the most exploited class of workers in America. The concept of a guest worker program in this country is not new. More than 72,000 guest workers participated in the program from 1917 to 1921. In 1924, the government to discontinue the program and created the United States Border Patrol to locate and remove all non-citizens illegally. By 1931, it was time for the Mexicans to depart.

During the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s, approximately 60 percent deported to Mexico were US citizens, including children born on the US. Both local and federal authorities did not consider the rights of the numerous citizens whom they deported. It is estimated that one to two million people were deported from the US. Twelve states - Colorado, Illinois, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming - all lost over half of its Mexican population, while Indiana lost three-fourths.

In "Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s," Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríquez wrote that the massive deportation and repatriation programs of the 1930s had a profound impact to both the Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant communities. Families were torn apart; deportees lost their personal property, automobiles, homes, businesses, and other investments in America; and lives were destroyed.

The deportation campaign of the 1930s is part of a long history of "enforcement only" immigration policies that have violated the civil rights of persons of Mexican ancestry in the US. In Operation Wetback, another mass deportation campaign, over one million Mexican immigrants, as well as United States citizens of Mexican ancestry, and undoubtedly other Latinas and Latinos, were deported. The 1996 immigration legislation has resulted in increased border enforcement that has led hundreds, if not thousands, border deaths and a dramatic rise in deportations.

Post 9/11

The current fervor against immigrant groups is eerily reminiscent to the anti-Mexican sentiments of the 1930s. FBI reports on domestic hate crimes after 2001 indicate that such crimes against Latinas and Latinos surged from 2003 to 2006.

The vitriolic attacks has succumbed Latinas and Latinos to the worst kind of racial profiling and scapegoating.

Central to these attacks have to do with demographic shift resulting from immigration. Media figures such as Fox Channel talk show host Bill O'Reilly have proclaimed that "the supporters [of immigration reform] hate America and want to flood the country with foreign nationals to change the complexion of our society." CNN anchor, Lou Dobbs, has repeatedly warned against an "illegal alien invasion" and has included reports from the Council of Conservative Citizens, a national white supremacist organization, for expert opinion.

Currently, immigrants are rounded up and herded into overcrowded detention camps awaiting their deportations. Although racial profiling is clearly not limited to use in immigration settings, it has profoundly affected legal and undocumented immigrants as well as citizens because they look or speak as if they could be from another country.

Most people overlook the degree to which racial stereotypes might influence the public's perception on the targeted ethnic/racial group, in this case, Latina/os. Of the few articles written about the raids conducted by ICE, one could easily come to the conclusion that Latina/os continue to be coded in ways that conflate their identities with immigrants or foreigners, which means they would be presumptively subjected to immigration laws.

The Latino-as-foreigner stereotype is particularly troublesome when this perception slides into Latino-as-illegal-immigrant stereotype. This view tends to associate any brown-skin person who speaks English with a Spanish accent as an undocumented immigrant. During the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) latest raid in Houston, federal agents targeted 16 Latinas, 1 US citizen and 15 legal residents, that fit a crude profile of the undocumented immigrant.

Although the number of US citizens who have been swept up in the raids is small compared to the mass deportation of the 1930s, the hasty process of providing the necessary documentation to federal authorities during a raid does infringes upon the rights of many Mexican-Americans who are US citizens or lawful permanent residents.

With the help of Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Marie Justeen Mancha, her mother and three other US citizens of Mexican descent are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against ICE for targeting US citizens of Mexican descent, like Mancha, solely because of their skin color.

For the time being, the tenor of the current immigration debate has thus far not changed significantly since Mexican Repatriation or the interment of Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans. Too many non-Latino Americans believe that we are in the mist of an invasion that will lead to economic plight and crime-ridden streets. Political leaders and the media need to examine the facts and speak out.

As a nation, we must be most careful in times of severe national stress and not repeat the sins of the past. The true test of human progress is whether we have the wisdom to see our faults and the strength to acknowledge them. Until we admit this, perhaps legitimate discussions concerning safety and economic growth will lead to an honest approach to immigration reform.


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