Immigration and Racism

A Nation of Immigrants

We are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are a native born American Indian, and no matter how long your family has been in this country, you are, at the very least, a descendant of immigrants. Yet, today a meaningful percentage of the population wants to change immigration policy to make it considerably more restrictive and limited. While many consider this approach racist, the fact is, immigration policy or the path to citizenship has had racist elements ever since the country’s birth as a nation. For example, in 1790 the first naturalization law (repealed and replaced in 1795) limited the granting of citizenship to immigrants who were “free White persons of good character.” It was only after the Civil War, in the Naturalization Act of 1870, that the naturalization process was extended to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.”


Immigration Acts

The Immigration Act of 1882 delivered perhaps the first real attempt to provide broad powers to the federal government to control immigration, theretofore a function of the states at their respective immigration ports. It allowed the government’s immigration officials to restrict entry of “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge.” That same year the Chinese Exclusion Act suspended immigration of Chinese nationals for a period of ten years. Later those exclusionary policies were extended to all Asian immigrants, and in 1892 the Chinese suspension was re-imposed for another ten years, though not officially repealed until 1943.

But the most sweeping changes came in the 1917 Immigration Act that established a literacy test for all immigrants over the age of 16 and restricted immigration of specific nationalities, though exempting persons of those nationalities with specific professional vocations—undoubtedly beneficial to the country’s needs at the time. The act was also known as the Asian Barred Zone Act and included countries of India, Afghanistan, Central Asia and others within distinct geographical longitudinal and latitudinal lines. Subsequently the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, for the first time, set admissions quotas by nationality, limiting the number of its immigrants each year.

During the following years, immigration laws were changed numerous times, adjusting and redefining the basis for quotas, providing for refugees and asylum seekers from different countries and adding anti-terrorism measures.


Motivation for Changing Immigration Law

The purpose of this brief historical journey through immigration law is to demonstrate the wide variety of actions taken over more than 200 years to deal with what was, at the time, considered a moral way to deal with refugees of crises such as war or persecution, or a perceived threat from immigrants. Those threats were based on prejudice or “fear of the other” because of differences in the immigrant’s religion, culture, customs or skin color; job security—immigrants would take jobs from U.S. citizens; or concerns for personal safety—immigrants were likely to perform criminal or terrorist acts. So, what is driving the current movement for more restrictive immigration policy?


Job Security

Some claim that immigrants are taking jobs that would otherwise go to U.S. citizens. I have no doubt there are instances where that occurs, but a 2010 research study by the Migration Policy Institute concluded as had previous studies that, “In the long run, immigrants do not reduce native employment rates, but they do increase productivity and hence average income . . . Moreover, the short-run impact of immigration depends on the state of the economy: When the economy is growing, new immigration creates jobs in sufficient numbers to leave native employment unharmed, even in the relatively short run and even for less-educated native workers . . .”

Since the country is now at “full employment” with a growing economy, the impact of immigration on jobs is likely modest at best. Of course, this does not account for the many menial jobs performed by immigrants that U.S. citizens won’t take, for example, on the farm, in restaurants and in construction.

If protecting job security does not justify a change in immigration policy, what about concerns for personal safety—the fear of harm by immigrant criminals or terrorists?


Concerns for Public Safety

Much has been made of Immigrants as criminals, but the reality is far different. In a 2015 report on The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States, the American Immigration Council noted: “For more than a century, innumerable studies have confirmed two simple yet powerful truths about the relationship between immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime. This holds true for both legal immigrants and the unauthorized, regardless of their country of origin or level of education.”

But what about the risk of terrorism from immigrants? In a 2016 CATO Institute report entitled, Terrorism and Immigration, A Risk Analysis, its author, Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration expert, noted, “Foreign-born terrorists who entered the country, either as immigrants or tourists, were responsible for 88 percent (or 3,024) of the 3,432 murders caused by terrorists on U.S. soil from 1975 through the end of 2015.” . . . “The number of murders committed by terrorists who are native-born or have unknown nationalities is higher than the number committed by foreigners in pre- and post-9/11 United States. The horrendous death toll from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 dominates deaths from other attacks.”

To put this in perspective, during the years 1975 through 2015, aside from the 2,983 murdered in the 9/11 attacks in 2001, foreign born terrorists were responsible for 41 such murders while native born Americans accounted for 408.

Yet current government reports suggest terrorism attacks attributable to foreign terrorists are much greater in number. In a 2017 interview reported by PolitiFact, Albert Ford, a program associate with the International Security and Fellows programs at New America,  a non-partisan, nonprofit think tank in the United States, advised that of 418 individuals tracked by New America who are accused of jihadist terrorism related crimes in the United States since 9/11, 85 percent of them were either U.S. citizens or U.S. legal residents, and about half were born American citizens.

This view was echoed by Todd Rosenblum, Former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs, taking exception to the way the government reported the relevant numbers. He said, “Domestic terrorism events inside the United States are far more likely to be committed by someone who is anti-government, a white nationalist, a religious extremist—and not necessarily Muslim at all but people who grow up with the same feelings of alienation.”


The Truth Behind the Proposed Immigration Reform

The facts bear out that immigration is not hurting American jobs, and that immigrants are less a threat to commit crime or terrorist acts than American citizens. Thus, the outcry to dramatically limit immigration must be attributable to something else, and that something else is prejudice or “fear of the other.”

When we come in contact with anyone (not just an immigrant) whose skin color, dress, religion, culture, and customs are different than those to which we are normally accustomed, it is not unusual to feel uneasy. After all, are we not a tribal people, seeking to live among our own kind as we define it? And while we have learned over the years that diversity is good, and have incorporated it in our daily lives, that principle is under daily attack by the President and his supporters, which makes it even more difficult to ignore “the fear of the other” that they are stoking. Nonetheless, while their racist commentary and divisiveness will continue, we should remember what kind of country we are, and what we stand for.

It is time to recall the words of the American poet, Emma Lazarus, inscribed on a bronze plaque at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, welcoming immigrants from all over the world:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That is the heart of the real United States.

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