Politicians and most other residents of the United States alike, from every rung along the full political spectrum, generally agree on one issue: our immigration system is severely broken and needs fixing. Seemingly insurmountable gaps in political solutions to repair the system along with Congressional inaction to the point of blockage have brought the country to the point of crisis.
Though Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and other prior occupants of the White House, in addition to select members and committees of Congress have suggested possible solutions to the current standoff, change seems impossible this year, even as growing numbers of people attempt to enter the country to reunite with family members or to escape violence and poverty abroad.
Though politicians and members of their constituencies argue immigration policy from seemingly infinite perspectives and sides, one point stands clear and definite: decisions as to who can enter this country and who can eventually gain citizenship status generally depends of issues of “race,” for U.S. immigration systems reflect and serve as the country’s official “racial” policies.
Looking back on the historical emergence of the concept of “race,” critical race theorists remind us that thisconceptarose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification for conquest and domination of the globe beginning in the 15thcentury of the Common Era (CE) and reaching its apex in the early 20thcentury CE.
Geneticists tell us that there is often more variabilitywithina given so-called “race” than between “races,” and that there are no essentialgeneticmarkers linked specifically to “race.” They assert, therefore, that “race” is an historical, “scientific,” biological myth, an idea, and that any socially-conceived physical “racial” markers are fictional and are not concordant with what is beyond or below the surface of the body.
Though biologists and social scientists have proven unequivocally that theconceptof “race” is socially constructed (produced, manufactured), however, this does not negate theveryreal consequences people face living in societies that maintain racist policies and practices on the individual, interpersonal, institutional, and larger societal levels.
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), born Carl Linné, (also know as the “Father of Scientific Racism”), a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, developed a system of scientific hierarchical classification. Within this taxonomy under the labelHomo sapiens, (“Man”), he enumerated five categories based initially on place of origin and later on skin color: Europeanus, Asiaticus, Americanus, Monstrosus, and Africanus. Linnaeus asserted that each category was ruled by a different bodily fluid (Humors: “moistures”), represented by Blood (optimistic), Phlegm (sluggish), Cholor (yellow bile: prone to anger), Melancholy (black bile: prone to sadness).
Linnaeus connected each human category to a respective Humor, thereby constructing the Linnaeus Taxonomy in descending order: Europeanus: sanguine (blood), pale, muscular, swift, clever, inventive, governed by laws; Asiaticus: melancholic, yellow, inflexible, severe, avaricious, dark-eyed, governed by opinions; Americanus (indigenous peoples in the Americas): choleric, copper-colored, straightforward, eager, combative, governed by customs; Monstrosus (dwarfs of the Alps, the Patagonian giant, the monorchid Hottentot): agile, fainthearted; Africanus: phlegmatic, black, slow, relaxed, negligent, governed by impulse.
The British psychologist, Francis Galton (1822-1911) — a cousin of Charles Darwin –was a founder of the “Eugenics” movement. In fact, Galton coined the term “eugenics” in 1883 from the Greek word meaning “well born.” Eugenicists attempted to improve qualities of a so-called “race” by controlling human breeding. Galton argued that genetic predisposition determined human behavior. He proposed that the so-called “elites” in the British Isles were the most intelligent of all the peoples throughout the planet, while “[t]he average intellectual standard of the Negro race is some two grades below our own [Anglo-Saxons]. The Australian type is at least one grade below the African Negro…” and “The Jews are specialized for a parasitical existence upon other nations.”
The U.S. writer, Madison Grant (1865-1937) codified a supposed “racialization” among European groups in his influential book, The Passing of the Great Race , or The Racial Basis for European History(1916), in which he argued that Europeans comprised four distinct races: The “Nordics” of northwestern Europe sat atop his racial hierarchy, whom Grant considered as the natural rulers and administrators, which accounted for England’s “extraordinary ability to govern justly and firmly the lower races.” Next down the racial line fell the “Alpines” whom Grant referred to as “always and everywhere a race of peasants” with a tendency toward “democracy” although submissive to authority. These he followed with the “Mediterraneans” of Southern and Eastern Europe, inferior to both the Nordics and the Alpines in “bodily stamina,” but superior in “the field of art.” Also, Grant considered the Mediterraneans superior to the Alpines in “intellectual attainments,” but far behind the Nordics “in literature and in scientific research and discovery.” On the bottom he placed the most inferior of all the European so-called “races”: the Jews.
Official Immigration and Naturalization Policy
The “American” colonies followed European perceptions of “race.” A 1705 Virginia statute, the “Act Concerning Servants and Slaves,” read:
“[N]o negroes, mulattos or Indians, Jew, Moor, Mahometan [Muslims], or other infidel, or such as are declared slaves by this act, shall, notwithstanding, purchase any christian (sic) white servant….”
In 1790, the newly constituted United States Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which excluded all nonwhites from citizenship, including Asians, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans, the later whom they defined in oxymoronic terms as “domestic foreigners,” even though they had inhabited this land for an estimated 35,000 years. The Congress did not grant Native Americans rights of citizenship until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, though Asians continued to be denied naturalized citizenship status.
Congress passed the first law specifically restricting or excluding immigrants on the basis of “race” and nationality in 1882. In their attempts to eliminate entry of Chinese (and other Asian) workers who often competed for jobs with U.S. citizens, especially in the western United States, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to restrict their entry into the U.S. for a 10 year period, while denying citizenship to Chinese people already on these shores. The Act also made it illegal for Chinese people to marry white or black U.S.-Americans. The Immigration Act of 1917 further prohibited immigration from Asian countries, in the terms of the law, the “barred zone,” including parts of China, India, Siam, Burma, Asiatic Russia, the Polynesian Islands, and parts of Afghanistan.
The so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the U.S. and the Emperor of Japan of 1907, in an attempt to reduce tensions between the two countries, passed expressly to decrease immigration of Japanese workers into the U.S.
Between 1880 and 1920, in the range of 30-40 million immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe migrated to the United States, more than doubling the population.Fearing a continued influx of immigrants, legislators in the United States Congress in 1924 enacted the Johnson-Reed [anti-] Immigration Act (“Origins Quota Act,” or “National Origins Act”) setting restrictive quotas of immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe, including those of the so-called “Hebrew race.” Jews continued to be, even in the United States during the 1920s, constructed as nonwhite. The law, on the other hand, permitted large allotments of immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.
This law, in addition to previous statutes (1882 against the Chinese, 1907 against the Japanese) halted further immigration from Asia, and excluded blacks of African descent from entering the United States. It is interesting to note that during this time, Jewish ethno-racial assignment was constructed as “Asian.” According to Sander Gilman : “Jews were called Asiatic and Mongoloid, as well as primitive, tribal, Oriental.” Immigration laws were changed in 1924 in response to the influx of these undesirable “Asiatic elements.”
In the Supreme Court case,Takao Ozawa vs. United States, a Japanese man, Takao Ozawa filed for citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906, which allowed white persons and persons of African descent or African nativity to achieve naturalization status. Asians, however, were classified as an “unassimilateable race” and, therefore, not entitled to U.S. citizenship. Ozawa attempted to have Japanese people classified as “white” since he claimed he had the requisite white skin. The Supreme Court, in 1922, however, denied his claim and, therefore, his U.S. citizenship.
In 1939, the United States Congress refused to pass the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which if enacted would have permitted entry to the United States of 20,000 children from Eastern Europe, many of whom were Jewish, over existing quotas. Laura Delano Houghteling, cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration sternly warned: “20,000 charming children would all too soon, grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”
Following U.S. entry into World War II at the end of 1942, reflecting the tenuous status of Japanese Americans, some born in the United States, military officials uprooted and transported approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans to Internment (Concentration) Camps within a number of interior states far from the shores. Not until Ronald Reagan’s administration did the U.S. officially apologize to Japanese Americans and to pay reparations amounting to $20,000 to each survivor as part of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.
Finally, in 1952, the McCarran-Walters Act overturned the “racially” discriminatory quotas of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. Framed as an amendment to the McCarran-Walters Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed “natural origins” as the basis of U.S. immigration legislation. The 1965 law increased immigration from Asian and Latin American countries and religious backgrounds, permitted 170,000 immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere (20,000 per each country), 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere, and accepted a total of 300,000 visas for entry into the country.
The 1965 Immigration Law, however, was certainly not the last we saw “race” used as a qualifying factor. The Arizona legislature passed and Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070, which mandates that police officers stop and question people about their immigration status if they even suspect that they may be in this country illegally, and criminalizes undocumented workers who do not possess an “alien registration document.” Other provisions allow citizens to file suits against government agencies that do not enforce the law, and it criminalizes employers who knowingly transport or hire undocumented workers. The law is currently on hold as it travels through the judicial process challenging its constitutionality.
Immigrants who enter the United States I believe to this day are pressured to assimilate into a monocultural Anglo-centric culture (thinly disguised as “the melting pot”), and to give up their native cultural identities. Referring to the newcomers at the beginning of the 20thcentury CE, one New York City teacher remarked: “[They] must be made to realize that in forsaking the land of their birth, they were also forsaking the customs and traditions of that land….”
An “Americanist” (assimilationist) movement was in full force with the concept of the so-called “melting pot” in which everyone was expected to conform to an Anglo-centric cultural standard with an obliteration of other cultural identities. President Theodore Roosevelt (1907) was an outspoken proponent of this concept:
“If the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself (sic) to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else….But this [equality] is predicated on the man’s (sic) becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American….There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American but something else also, isn’t an American at all….We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we want to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”
Many members of immigrant groups oppose assimilation and embrace the concept ofpluralism: the philosophy whereby one adheres to a prevailing monocultural norm in public while recognizing, retaining, and celebrating one’s distinctive and unique cultural traditions and practices in the private realm. The term “Cultural Pluralism” was coined by Horace Kallen (1882-1974), a Jewish American of Polish and Latvian heritage who believed that ethnic groups have a “democratic right” to retain their cultures and to resist the “ruthless Americanization” being forced upon them by segments of the native white Anglo-Protestant population.
Social theorist Gunnar Myrdal traveled throughout the United States during the late 1940s examining U.S. society following World War II, and he discovered a grave contradiction or inconsistency, which he termed “an American dilemma.” He found a country founded on an overriding commitment to democracy, liberty, freedom, human dignity, and egalitarian values, coexisting alongside deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination, privileging white people, while subordinating peoples of color.
If we learn anything from our immigration legislative history, we can view the current debates as providing a great opportunity to pass comprehensive federal reform based not on “race,” nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other social identity categories, but rather, on humane principles of fairness, compassion, and equity.
Today, the United States stands as the most culturally and religiously diverse country in the world. This diversity poses great challenges and great opportunities. The way we meet these challenges will determine whether we remain on the abyss of our history or whether we can truly achieve our promise of becoming a shining beacon to the world.