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Now that health care reform passed, the drum for immigration reform is starting to beat. It’s a toss up as to whether to be terrified or thrilled. Terrified because the debate on health care was nasty and fraught with misinformation, and that does not bode well for a lightning-rod issue like immigration. Terrified also because the immigration reform blueprint put forth by Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham (The Right Way to Mend Immigration, Washington Post, March 19, 2010) is setting the legislative debate to the tune of enforcement and punishment, instead of rights and equality.
Thrilled, though, because the ultimate success of health care reform shows that change as ambitious as overhauls to a long-standing system is possible. Perhaps also the terror can be assuaged by the reality of reform—the more (louder, fiercer, uglier) the opposition fights, the closer the likelihood of winning change. Think Mahatma Gandhi: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
That being said, we cannot let the fight from the opposition go un-responded to, not in the name of political expediency or for any other reason. At least not the “we” advocating for immigrants’ rights, marching and writing and working for progressive immigration reform. Let’s leave political expediency to the politicians. Our focus should be broadcasting why reforming the immigration system is a civil and human rights issue.
To do this, one lesson from health care to apply here is that we need to name and tackle the underlying reason for why changing the status quo is so hard. Frank Rich recently made the case that the extreme reactions to the health care bill were grounded in anxieties about change in the very identity of America (The Rage is Not About Health Care, N.Y. Times March 28, 2010). The change Rich refers to is about those in power—a Black president and a female Speaker of the House, to name the top two. For immigration reform, add to this the fact that 90 percent of the undocumented immigrants in the United States are people of color. 1/ If we are going to reform a broken system to confer these and future immigrants the equal right to citizenship, we need to challenge the narrow, homogenous idea of the American identity.
We have a problematic history of defining who is American along racial lines. First there was the Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted American citizenship to free White persons. Then there was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended the immigration of Chinese nationals to the United States because, in the words of the Senate, “the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endanger[ed] the good order of certain localities…” 2/
Quotas created by the Immigration Act of 1924 favored Northern and Western European (i.e. White) immigration, drastically limited Southern and Eastern European immigration, and prohibited Asian immigration. The quotas were influenced by the isolationist political climate following World War I: A sociologist from the period, Jerome Dowd, wrote that the war showed that “America was not a melting pot into which every kind of human ingredient could be poured without spoiling the broth.” 3/
Explicitly discriminatory immigration policy finally ended with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which repealed the 1924 immigration quotas and created a path to immigration without discrimination based on country of origin. It makes poetic sense that immigration reform would be an outgrowth of the civil rights movement—who knew better about color-coded citizenship rights than African Americans? The link between this historic immigration reform and the more general advances for racial justice in the U.S. cannot be underestimated, or overlooked. It was a blip in time when the rights of people of color across citizenship lines were unified.
So for centuries immigration policy was explicitly set according to race, and this ended when the civil rights movement gained significant achievements toward equality for African Americans. But let’s be candid—immigrants have not, generally, been aligned with African Americans; in fact, their sought-after American identity often is antagonistic to African Americans. Nobel-prize author Toni Morrison has commented on this phenomenon: “It is no accident and no mistake that immigrant populations (and much immigrant literature) understood their Americaness as an opposition to the resident Black population…Deep within the word ‘American’ is its association with race.” 4/ The notion of White as virtually synonymous with American is deep rooted if you consider that the concept of a White race originated in the United States, by the lumping of various European ethnicities into this new racial classification. 5/
Our history of defining who is American along racial lines, and how this has impacted the relationship between immigrants and African Americans, bears heavily on the immigration reform debate to come. We cannot let it be the 800-pound elephant in the room, for we already have witnessed the cost of silence: African-American spokespeople for anti-immigrant views, “reform” proposals like the Schumer-Lindsey mandatory national ID card for every person seeking work in the United States, borders that are like war zones while temporary worker programs sanction the exploitation of an entire workforce.
Addressing the relationship between race and rights—and between immigrants and African Americans—will help create a climate for real reform of a broken immigration system. Hopefully, it will also push us to have a more honest, dignified debate this time around.
ANITA SINHA is a senior attorney with Advancement Project, an innovative civil rights law, policy, and communications “action tank” based in Washington, DC. Anita has been a student of and lawyer and policy reform advocate for immigrant rights since 1999.
1. Migration Information Source, Unauthorized Migrants Living in the United States: A Mid-Decade Portrait (Sept. 2005), available at http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?ID=329 (Of those living the U.S. as undocumented immigrants, 57% are from Mexico, 24% are from Latin America, and 9% are from Asia).
2. United States. Cong. Senate. 47th Congress, 1st Session. Chinese Exclusion Act. [passed 6 May 1882], available at http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/chinex.htm.
5.Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. Routledge Books: New York (1995), p. 12.