Friday, May 29, 2015

A brief history of immigration discrimination in the United States

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddle masses yearning to be breathe free” 

The famous quote from Emma Lazarus is often used to describe America, the land of freedom and opportunity. However, that opportunity only applied if you were White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (aka WASP). Everyone is familiar with the discrimination and horrors that African Americans suffered as slaves and as citizens. And the atrocities that the US government inflicted on the Native Americans. Also, the internment of law-abiding Japanese-American citizens during World War II. These weren’t the only groups to be discriminated against. The Scot-Irish, Italians, Jewish and more recently Middle Easterners have suffered their share of discrimination too. Unfortunately, discrimination against immigrants has been a long standing practice in the United States. Every immigrant has met with discrimination in some form when coming to America and the immigration debate is nothing new in the United States.

In 1790, the United States was an infant. A new country with a new Constitution trying to establish itself as a country to be recognized among the nations. The Naturalization Act of 1790 was passed restricting citizenship to free Whites. In 1848, after the Mexican-American War, Congress refused to pass Article X of the Treaty of Guadalupe which promised citizenship to Mexicans who decided to stay in newly acquired American territories. Instead, it required Mexicans to prove in court, with a lawyer and in English that they has legitimate claims to their lands. In 1850, California passed the Foreign Miners Tax which imposed a special tax on the holdings of Chinese and Latin American miners. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act which allowed US citizens to claim land in new territories; however, it barred Native Americans, Blacks, and any Non-European immigrant. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese immigration for 10 years and later banned in 1902. A ban which not be lifted until 1943.

Most of the immigration practices came into effect after the 20th century when the world opened up for many countries and they flooded to the U.S. The Immigration Act of 1924 closed the door on immigrants for Southern and Eastern Europeans while allowing immigrants from Britain, Ireland and other Northern Europe. Between 1930-1940, 600,000 Mexican Americans were deported. Many were legal citizens and in 1935, California passed a law which declared Mexicans as “foreign born Indians.” The US government would implement the Bracero Program which allowed Mexicans to come to the US for temporary work during the labor shortage in the war period. When the program officially ended in the 1960s, many Mexicans went home never being paid their promised wages. By 1952, immigration laws began to relax some restrictions but imposed new ones, such as a quota of immigrants from each nation and introduced guidelines for refugees. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act criminalized employment of undocumented workers and by 1990, placed sanctions for employers who knowingly hired workers without the proper papers. I remember in 1994, my freshman year of high school, there was a major walk-out in protest of Proposition 187. Prop 187 set to establish a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibited illegal immigrants from using health care, public education and other services in California. The proposition passed but was later found to be unconstitutional by a federal court.

The current debate is nothing new. The debate between restricting immigration to an open-door policy. What I find interesting is that two stereotypes still fuel the immigration debate. First, that immigrants are the cause of our societal problems. They take our jobs, they commit the majority of the crimes and they are just here for the benefits are often used as reasons for restricting immigration. With every stereotype there is a grain of truth; however, it is not true for all immigrants. Most immigrants take the jobs that majority of us wouldn’t take even if we were desperate. Most immigrants are as law abiding as citizens. And the benefits? Sure many immigrants may come here for the better health care but how hypocritical when many citizens will go to other countries to get surgeries and medicine that they can’t get here. Second, the modern day immigrants are nothing like the old immigrants. They weren’t here illegally, they were good, hard-working people and became good citizens. People don’t realize that majority of immigration laws weren’t in effect when most of our ancestors came to this country. And many of the immigrants who do come to this country illegally do become legal citizens. People forget that the United States is a country built by immigrants from the colonists in 1620 to 20th century business entrepreneurs. The following iconic businesses were founded by immigrants:
Google: Sergry Brin from Russia
AT&T: Alexander Graham Bell from Scotland
Goldman Sachs: Marcus Goldman from Germany
Kohl’s: Maxwell Kohl from Poland
Big Lots: Sol Shenk from Russia
Goya Foods: Prudencio and Carolina Unanue from Spain
Yahoo!: Jerry Yang from Taiwan
And countless mom-n- pop shops and restaurants that we enjoy every day.

What’s my point? My point is that the people of the United States have struggled with immigration since the beginning and discrimination often fueled the immigration laws. The immigration debate is very complicated and has deep roots that will take a long time to untangle. There are no simple solutions and I can’t begin to offer a solution. It is a situation when a compromise needs to be met in a country which no longer wants to cooperate with each other. A quote from a character on a NCIS episode once observed “Short memories. That is the impression I have of you as a people.” We, as citizens of the US, have short memories. How soon we forget with time and how we forget the lessons of the past. In order to move forward, we need to look back and strive not to repeat the mistakes of the past. We must find solutions which allows those who want to come to America to build a new life are able to. Just as our ancestors did. We need to stand by the words which are proudly displayed on the Statue of Liberty.