CCIS Co-Director David FitzGerald speaks with Bloomberg News about the recent minor immigration controversy and the response of U.S. legislators. Read the article here.
Center for Comparative Immigration Studies
CCIS Co-Director David FitzGerald speaks with Bloomberg News about the recent minor immigration controversy and the response of U.S. legislators. Read the article here.
CCIS Co-Director David FitzGerald spoke with The Republic on recent border security measures. Read the article and watch the video from AZ Central here.
CCIS Co-Director John Skrentny talks with Office Hours host Sarah Lageson about his new book After Civil Rights: Racial Realism in the New American Workplace.
Tom K. Wong is Assistant Professor of Political Science at UCSD, email@example.com, @twong002
Download a PDF version here.
An earlier version of this article appeared on July 8, 2014 via the Center for American Progress.
A humanitarian refugee situation at the U.S. southern border has been unfolding over the past few years and dramatically intensifying over the past several months, as tens of thousands of unaccompanied children are fleeing their homes in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In search of a safe haven, these children embark on dangerous journeys, arriving in the United States and neighboring countries throughout Central America. Indeed, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, asylum applications from children are up by 712 percent in the neighboring countries of Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has argued that “many of the children apprehended at the border are fleeing unspeakable violence in their home countries.”
Even as the Obama administration struggles to deal with the situation, including finding adequate shelter and protection for the kids, some in Congress have attempted to score political points by arguing that the increased numbers are the result of the administration’s own immigration enforcement policies, such as the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in 2012, which grants eligible unauthorized youth a two-year reprieve from deportation and a work permit. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), for example, called on President Barack Obama to end the DACA program and begin deporting those with the status to send a message to prospective child refugees that they should not come to the United States. A recent Congressional hearing also placed the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) at the center of the current increase in unaccompanied minors. However, a close statistical evaluation of the available data suggests a very different dynamic that is leading children to leave their Central American homes. It is not U.S. policy but rather violence and the desire to find safety that is the impetus for these children’s journeys.
An analysis of the available data suggests that:
Violence is driving children to flee Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador
How can it be determined that violence is a primary factor causing children to flee? One way is to use the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, data on homicides and homicide rates by country. Coupling this data with that of the number of children arriving each year allows us to examine the relationship between violence and children arrivals.
Figure 1 shows how violence affects the flow of children. The relationship is positive, meaning that higher rates of homicide in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are related to greater numbers of children fleeing to the United States.
Another way to examine the relationship between violence and unaccompanied children is to use the data on security levels in Latin America compiled by FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. The annual index ranges from 1 (safe) to 5 (very dangerous) for each country, and data are available from 2009 to 2014. Here again, the relationship is positive, meaning that more dangerous security conditions are related to greater numbers of unaccompanied children. Using the FTI Consulting index data provides an even more strongly statistically significant result, suggesting an even clearer link between violence and children fleeing.
Not only do countries with the highest rates of homicide have the largest numbers of unaccompanied children fleeing, but the data also make clear that countries in Latin America with lower rates of homicide are not sending large numbers of unaccompanied children.
In 2012, the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico accounted for 41,828 homicides, at a rate of 28 per 100,000 people. Exclude Mexico and the murder rate jumps to 54 per 100,000 people. The president of Honduras has gone as far as calling the children refugees from “war” in his country. By contrast, other countries in the region, such as Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama had a total of just 1,881 murders, at a rate of only 13 per 100,000. Nicaragua is particularly useful as an example: It is the second-poorest country in the region—behind only Haiti—and yet, with far lower rates of violence than the three main sending countries, it has not seen an uptick in unaccompanied children leaving.
I also note here that including all Latin American countries in the analysis adds leverage (increases the n) so that other factors can simultaneously be analyzed. The main finding about violence holds when also accounting for economic conditions and distance to the United States.
DACA, the TVPRA, or lax border enforcement is not to blame
In fiscal year 2009, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, encountered slightly fewer than 20,000 unaccompanied children from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. So far in FY 2014, more than 51,000 children have entered, with the increase almost entirely coming from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (see Figure 2).
The sharp increase during FY 2012 has been used by senators such as Ted Cruz (R-TX) to argue that the creation of the DACA program in June 2012 is the reason “that we have seen the number of children taking the incredible risks entailed with coming across the border grow exponentially.”
There are two problems with this line of thinking. For one, the increase in unaccompanied children began well before 2012. CBP estimates that between FY 2008 and FY 2009, for example, there was a 145 percent spike in unaccompanied children arrivals, jumping from 8,041 to 19,668.
But even more importantly, the U.S. fiscal year starts on October 1 and ends on September 30 of the following year. This means that FY 2012 actually started in October 2011 and ended in September 2012. Considering that applications for deferred action could only be submitted starting on August 15, 2012, it is highly unlikely that DACA caused an increase in children. Data on monthly border apprehensions—which admittedly do not distinguish between unaccompanied children and all others caught at the border—show that the number of people caught at the border actually slowed in the months after DACA was announced.
It also stands to reason that if DACA is causally related to the increased flow of unaccompanied children, the national origins profile of these children should potentially be as diverse as the profile of DACA recipients themselves—in other words, the dramatic increase in unaccompanied minors would not, as the data currently show, be limited to only a few countries. This, in the language of causal inference, means the absence of unit homogeneity. In other words, if DACA were in fact incentivizing the flow of unaccompanied children, Nicaraguans and Panamanians would feel this just as Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans, which would mean dramatic upticks across the board. However, this is clearly not the case.
The TVPRA, which was signed into law by former President Bush at the end of 2008, includes core provisions that are germane to the current political debate over unaccompanied minors. To begin, the TVPRA makes a distinction between non-contiguous and contiguous countries to the U.S. For unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries, the TVPRA requires that they be given “safe and secure placement” under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HSS, in order to protect them from “traffickers and other persons seeking to victimize or otherwise engage such children in criminal, harmful, or exploitative activity” (see Section 235(c)(1)), and that they have access to legal counsel “to the greatest extent practicable” (see Section 235(c)(5)). This by no means is a “free pass,” as these unaccompanied children are also placed in removal proceedings pending the hearing and adjudication of their cases. The TVPRA also allowed the U.S. to negotiate “child repatriation agreements” with contiguous countries (see Section 235(a)(2)). As a result, unaccompanied Mexican minors are to be treated in the manner described above unless they agree to “voluntarily return,” a process that can lead to their return to Mexico in as little as 48 hours. As the UNHCR notes, most Mexican unaccompanied minors are promptly returned to Mexico under the voluntary return procedure after no more than 1-2 days in U.S. custody. And while data are currently not publicly available on the percentage of children who are returned under this procedure, the fact that only 3% of all unaccompanied minors who were transferred to HSS custody during FY 2013 were from Mexico suggests that the vast majority of unaccompanied Mexican minors are in fact being promptly returned.
It is important to note that the general treatment of unaccompanied minors under the TVPRA is consistent with U.S. obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention (as well as our own Refugee Act of 1980). However, some such as Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), argue that these provisions are contributing causal factors to the flow of unaccompanied minors.
If the TVPRA had a causal effect upon its enactment, one would expect the number of unaccompanied children coming to the U.S. from non-contiguous countries (i.e., Central American countries south of Mexico) to increase from 2008 to 2009. However, the data show that unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras decreased by 12%, 20%, and 39%, respectively, from FY 2008 to FY 2009. Moreover, as noted earlier, while CBP estimates an overall increase in unaccompanied children between FY 2008 and FY 2009, the data show that this increase is driven exclusively by unaccompanied minors from Mexico—to recall, the TVPRA allowed the U.S. to immediately deport unaccompanied Mexican minors under expedited return procedures. This suggests that the expedited return of unaccompanied Mexican minors has not deterred children from Mexico from attempting to enter the U.S. I note here that during this period, Mexico experienced one of its largest year-to-year increases in deaths as a result of its drug war, jumping 141% (an increase from 2,837 deaths to 6,844).
Of course, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are currently at the center of the political debate over unaccompanied minors. Does this mean that the TVPRA has a lagged causal effect? This does not seem to be the case. If the TVPRA is causally related to the recent increase in unaccompanied children, it also stands to reason—given the TVPRA distinguishes between contiguous and non-contiguous countries—that the national origins profile of unaccompanied minors would include fewer Mexican children (as a contiguous country whose children are subject to expedited return), and a broader range of Latin American countries (as non-contiguous countries whose children are provided basic protections under the legislation). This is not the case. Unaccompanied minors from Mexico have held largely steady over recent years. Moreover, and to reiterate, the recent increase in unaccompanied minors remains limited to only three countries. As with DACA, this again, in the language of causal inference, means the absence of unit homogeneity.
Arguments such as those of Sen. Cruz connecting DACA to the increase in unaccompanied children also cite lax border security by the Obama administration as an additional contributing factor. But these arguments, such as those about DACA, are equally unsupported by the data. To give just a few examples:
If lax border security were contributing to the increase in children arriving, we would expect to see a negative relationship between border security metrics and the number of unaccompanied children entering the United States. To put it another way, we would expect more children to arrive as border security efforts decrease. Instead, the opposite has occurred: As the United States has ramped up its border enforcement, more children have come (see Figure 4).
To be clear, this should not be interpreted to mean that more border security means more unaccompanied children—again, we only have a handful of observations to analyze. Rather, the data suggest that the recent increase in unaccompanied children is not the result of lax border security, but is occurring despite record levels of border security spending and staffing.
And from recent press reports, it is clear that our border security policies are working exactly as intended: Numerous stories note that the Border Patrol is apprehending these kids upon entry, or soon after. Here too, the evidence is clear that border enforcement policies are not driving the surge in unaccompanied children.
Instead of attempting to repeal programs such as DACA or the TVPRA, the United States should—as Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has suggested—ensure that these children are safe and secure, go after the smugglers and traffickers bringing them here in the first place, often luring them by spreading misinformation, and seek solutions that help quell the violence in these children’s home countries. The data show that this situation is a humanitarian and refugee issue, not an immigration issue, and all sides must not lose sight of the children themselves who are at the heart of the matter.
Notes to Figure 1. Violence and the annual percentage change in unaccompanied minors from 2009 to 2013. For example, Honduras’s homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people in 2012 was associated with a 125% increase in unaccompanied minors from 2012 to 2013. The result is only weakly statistically significant (p = .094), which is expected given the fact that the data covers only a few years. UNODC data are only available through 2012; still, the data are helpful in explaining the relationship between violence and childhood arrivals. Violence is measured using UNODC data on homicide rates—lagged so that cause comes before effect—and unaccompanied children are measured using the annual percentage change in unaccompanied children. Source: Author’s calculation of UNODC and CBP data. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Study on Homicide, 2013” (2013), available at https://www.unodc.org/documents/gsh/pdfs/2014_GLOBAL_HOMICIDE_BOOK_web.pdf. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children,” n.d., available at http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children (last accessed July 2014).
Notes to Figure 2. Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children,” n.d., available at http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children (last accessed July 2014).
Notes to Figure 3. Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “United States Border Patrol: Border Patrol Agent Staffing by Fiscal Year,” n.d., available at http://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/documents/U.S.%20Border%20Patrol%20Fiscal%20Year%20Staffing%20Statistics%201992-2013.pdf (last accessed, July 2014).
Notes to Figure 4. Author’s calculations based on U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children,” n.d., available at http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “United States Border Patrol: Border Patrol Agent Staffing by Fiscal Year,” n.d., available at http://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/documents/U.S.%20Border%20Patrol%20Fiscal%20Year%20Staffing%20Statistics%201992-2013.pdf (last accessed July 2014).
ABOUT THIS SERIES Join Damien Cave and Todd Heisler as they travel up Interstate 35, from Laredo, Tex., to Duluth, Minn., chronicling how the middle of America is being changed by immigration.
From the hot sun of Laredo, Tex., and the first on ramp for Interstate 35 to the chilly fog here in Duluth, Minn., at the highway’s end; from a city that’s 96 percent Hispanic and struggling to integrate new immigrants, to one that is 90 percent white and longing for the energy young foreigners bring — The Way North has come a long way.
The project began with an ambitious goal: to chronicle immigration’s impacts in the middle of America, at the local level where immigrants and established residents collide. Far from the gridlock of Washington, in the schools, churches and neighborhoods of a half-dozen states, how have new neighbors been getting along?
The results, discovered through 4,072 miles traveled up and around I-35, along with hundreds of interviews, are hard to categorize. Definitive conclusions may not arrive for decades as illegal (and legal) immigration continue to stir up strong emotions, from rage to romanticism. But along I-35 — ground zero for what experts describe as a historic demographic shift, with immigrants settling in new locations — certain patterns, hard truths and surprises emerged.
Who knew that a bottle of Bud Light — or a lack thereof — could be so important? Not Nathan Hill. When he turned an old Mexican bar on Austin’s rapidly gentrifying east side into a hipster country music venue, he failed to serve the beer of choice for the bar’s former regulars, a sometimes surly but loyal band of immigrant laborers. He never intended to offend them, but his beer selection of local microbrews struck them as exclusionary; they saw it as a sign that they were no longer wanted, and as a result, they stopped showing up.
In many other cities and towns, small slights and misunderstandings have made the challenge of integration even harder; or they’ve exemplified the struggle.
In north Wichita, for example, Francene Sharp found herself bothered by what she considered a lack of neighborliness. A former physical education teacher, she lives in a home her father built in the 1940s, in a neighborhood that has become predominantly Mexican. And while she remains friendly to all, she said she was bothered by a group of Mexican men living next door several years ago because they sometimes urinated outside when they had been drinking.
“This is America, we have indoor bathrooms,” she told them.
She said she also wished that another family down the block would abide by local laws that limit yard sales to two a month. “They’re out there every weekend,” she said. “That really bothers me.”
And in many ways, Austin and Wichita reflected a pattern of conflicting expectations. Established residents sought ways to make immigrants abide by laws regarding quality of life while immigrants — especially legal immigrants often wrongly thought to be here illegally — sought respect and a clear welcome.
Especially farther north in the Midwest, in regions previously settled by German immigrants, the clash between immigrants and longtime residents often involved the rules and routines of daily life, like parking. Several communities tussled over a tendency among Mexican immigrants to park on the lawns of the homes they bought or rented. But more broadly, such local struggles seemed to reflect what Mark Krikorian, an advocate for reduced immigration, has described as the basic challenge of integrating large numbers of immigrants in new places.
“What we need to teach is this basic insight that you are now part of this club and not part of another club,” he said. “It’s the idea that we’re all in the same boat.”
Cities and towns that have managed to reconcile their differences with immigrants, along with individual immigrants who have rapidly assimilated into American life, can all point to one important factor: bridge figures. People, that is, who are comfortable in both the immigrant and American worlds, and who translate and explain the frustrations, values and misunderstandings of each.
In Austin, it was Eddie Costilla, the owner of La Perla, a bar near what Mr. Hill calls his “honky tonk,” the White Horse. With Mr. Hill and others, Mr. Costilla explained the underlying concerns of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans being pushed out of east Austin by rising rents and upscale night life. Now the White Horse serves Bud Light, and it has given over Sunday afternoons to a Mexican band, Conjunto Los Pinkys.
In Minneapolis, Mohamud Noor, a candidate for state representative, spends most of his days trying to help Somali immigrants coming into the Somali social services agency where he works as interim director. One recent afternoon, that involved assisting a family seeking hospice care for a dying relative. The next morning, he met with parents concerned that the charter school their children attend lacks teachers and officials who speak Somali.
“People think I can fix everything,” Mr. Noor said, laughing. “A lot of times people come in and they want to fight something. I tell them no, we want to build something instead. It’s not about talking negatively; it’s about finding a solution.”
Mr. Noor, like many other immigrants who have become unofficial ambassadors for their communities, also emphasized the need for role models — immigrants who exemplify what is possible in the United States, making it obvious that effort and education will be rewarded.
Miguel Castillo, the principal of Antonio M. Bruni Elementary in Laredo, said he often tells students that he grew up like them, poor, an immigrant born in Mexico, but that he achieved because a friend helped him figure out how to go to college. “I try to provide them with the same kind of guidance,” he said, adding that he constantly tells them: “I could be looking at the next president of the United States, or an astronaut who goes to Mars.”
He added: “It takes a lot to break the poverty cycle. Once you go to college and graduate, that sets an example for the rest.”
But not all issues are minor, or so easy to reconcile with conversation or the example of a single high-achiever. Many Americans, young and old, Democrats and Republicans, including legal immigrants, would like to see more effort from immigrants — to learn English, to understand and participate in American democracy, to stem crime or gang membership in their communities.
Immigrants, meanwhile, would like to be treated as less of a threat, and to be more appreciated for the hard work they put in, whether building businesses or revitalizing neighborhoods that might otherwise be sliding into disrepair. Even those who lack legal status, like Ignacio, a roofer in Tulsa, often feel that they are doing everything they can to contribute.
“People ask why we don’t take long breaks,” he said. “Our culture is work.”
The debate over legalization for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally remains a delicate topic for nearly everyone. Immigrants, here legally and not, tend to see the inaction in Washington as an effort to keep them in the shadows and vulnerable to criminals and family separation through deportation.
Nonimmigrants (and some legal immigrants) argue that legitimizing lawbreakers will only bring more, and they point to the thousands of mothers and children showing up at the border from Central America now as proof of what happens when enforcement weakens.
But at the core of this dispute lie deeper anxieties about economics, competition for work and culture. Immigration has a long history of stirring up angst and dread. In a new book called “Culling the Masses,” David Scott FitzGerald and David Cook-Martín show that even before there were nation-states, people erected fences, walls and boundaries to keep out the unwanted.
And though the United States proclaims itself a nation of immigrants, lawmakers have been excluding certain ethnic groups since 1790, when Congress started passing laws that prevented Africans and Asians from becoming citizens on the grounds that they were inherently incapable of self-government.
“It’s often about resources, and not just economic resources,” said Mr. Cook-Martín, a sociology professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. “It’s the resource of belonging. We want to be careful with that, and so we erect borders.”
For some, the economic slide of the past few years has intensified outrage as immigration has become woven into broader complaints about globalization and the way the economy works for the benefit of big businesses, at the expense of the middle and working class. Despite a wide range ofindependent studies showing that immigrants do not simply take American jobs — they also create jobs with their demand for goods and services — many people feel that immigrants are partly to blame for widening inequality and their own falling fortunes.
Shannon Woolard, 42, who sells T-shirts celebrating Irish and Czech heritage in Central Texas, for example, said her husband was now making about $35,000 as an oil and gas technician, a sharp decline from when he made around $100,000 as a construction worker before the housing bust. And while she acknowledged that the bad behavior of bankers contributed to his job loss, she said immigrants in the country illegally also made it harder for her husband to find work, by accepting lower wages and shipping off their earnings to relatives back home.
“On a I weekly basis I go into the convenience store and there are people sending money to Mexico,” she said. “The money is not staying here.”
Experts note that remittances sent to Mexico have been falling, with the economy still sputtering and as immigrants are becoming more settled here. And in many communities, a new attitude of accommodation has emerged with time, as people see immigrants raising families, and adding vibrancy with new businesses — in St. Paul, Minn., in Kansas City, Mo., and inDenison, Iowa, to name just a few.
The question now is whether people will look toward the positives that immigrants bring, or to the past and what they want to preserve. As William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said, the question remains: “To what extent do people in these places realize that these people, these immigrants, are a big part of their growth for the future?”
BY ELIAS ISQUITH JUNE 12, 2014
David Brat (Credit: AP/Steve Helber)
While Speaker of the House John Boehner seems to want the media (or at least GOP donors) to think otherwise, most observers of American politics believe any chance of comprehensive immigration reform coming out of Congress this year is vanishingly small. The politics on the issue for the GOP are brutal, with the Tea Party on one side and the business wing on the other, and most Republicans see no need to create internal strife in advance of a midterm election in which they’ve got, according to Nate Silver, about even odds to retake the Senate.
Yet while it’s tempting to lambast the modern-day Republican Party — with David Brat now taking the political world by storm — as a frightful and xenophobic aberration from the welcoming, pluralistic and multicultural values embodied by the Statue of Liberty and symbolized by the metaphor of a “melting pot,” the truth may be that the most vocal opponents of immigration are the ones with a stronger claim on the model of American history. At the very least, that’s what Grinnell College professor David Cook-Martín and University of California, San Diego, professor David Scott FitzGerald argue in their new book, “Culling the Masses.” Rather than tell a story of a nation of immigrants, “Culling the Masses” is an in-depth look at how the history of immigration policies in the U.S. and all over the world challenge the general belief that democracies naturally tend toward welcoming policies of equality and anti-racism.
In order to better understand this contrarian and disturbing argument, Salon recently called up Cook-Martín to discuss the book as well as how his findings influence his view of immigration politics in the U.S. today. Our conversation is below, and has been edited for clarity and length.
Could you explain not only what your book is about, but also why you were inspired to write it?
In terms of what inspired me to write the book, after finishing a project in which I looked at citizenship laws in multiple countries … I was left with a lot of questions about how countries were selecting immigrants by race. I knew that they were selecting obviously by skills or in terms of abilities and so forth, but I had questions about how they were selecting by race or ethnicity. I was talking to the person who became the co-author of this new book about what he had found in the Mexican case. He had studied emigration from Mexico also in the long perspective and had been dealing with some of the same questions as he read some historical and legal sources on how Mexico itself was selecting immigrants by race in their immigration laws, even though they didn’t really have a lot of immigration.
So we had these questions and we thought, “Well, look, let’s just go out, do a little bit of research, and just find that book that tells about how immigration laws selected in different countries in the Americas.” The reason we wanted to look at the Americas is that most of what we had read compared the U.S. to Western Europe or countries within Western Europe, and if you do that, you get little variation in terms of different kinds of political regimes. So we wanted a little bit of variety in terms of liberal democracies, more authoritarian kinds of countries and so forth. That’s why we were looking at the Americas, because by looking at those kinds of countries you get a little more variation in that sense. We looked for that book that would do this, and we didn’t find it, so we decided — maybe foolishly; I don’t know — we decided we would do this and set out to write that book.
What we ask in the book is, “What explains the different patterns that we see in immigration and citizenship laws with respect to selecting either immigrants or prospective members or citizens?” And like anyone else, we had notions of democracy that meant that, y’know, we thought that democracies would treat everyone equally regardless of race — which appealed of course to our own political sensibilities — and, of course, we knew that there were exclusionary policies; we both are experts in immigration policy; but we didn’t realize how systematic this was, and what we saw on the ground, in terms of what actually happens with immigration laws, is that the most democratic countries — the most liberal, democratic countries — have the longest uninterrupted periods in which they selected immigrants by race.
Let’s talk about the United States. What do you think is the common understanding of the U.S. when it comes to immigration policy? Does your research challenge or complicate that conventional narrative?
With respect to the point that I mentioned earlier about the coexistence of liberal democracy on the one hand and racism in immigration law on the other hand, I think the conventional narrative is: Yes, of course, there were things like slavery, and, of course, there was racial selection; but that was just a matter of an immature liberal system, and liberal democracy over time had to work out its own internal kinks. So [racism] is sort of a passing aberration. The problem with that narrative — especially when it comes to immigration law — is that that passing aberration lasted for at least 220 years.
Let me put some dates to that: As early as 1790, with respect to nationality, the U.S. was already excluding non-whites. With respect to immigration, per se, in the 1850s, the U.S. was already saying, “No, we don’t want ‘coolies’ transported on American vessels.” And certainly by 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act began, you had a very overt exclusion against the Chinese that lasted in immigration law pretty much all the way through 1865 (although that changes when it comes to citizenship law) … From 1790 through 1952, most Asians could not naturalize, simply because they were Asian.
I think the preponderance of the historical evidence is in the direction of [racist immigration policy] not being a passing aberration or something that needed to [be] worked out. It was part and parcel of democracy — hence the title of our book.
What you just said sort of reminds me of Thomas Piketty and how his book also challenges a traditional understanding of America that is, in fact, the product of an aberrant period. For Piketty, he’s showing that the roughly 30-year period of relative economic equality following World War II is outside the norm and that the U.S. economy has usually been defined by great inequality. Your book makes a similar argument; you’re saying that the period most Americans think of when they think of U.S. immigration policy — the late 19th century until the early 1920s — was also aberrant and that the U.S. usually didn’t have such a welcoming official stance toward the rest of the world’s population.
The period between 1880 and let’s say the first World War … that period of time is often thought of as a golden age of immigration. But if you look not only at the U.S. but at most countries, whether they’re countries of immigration or emigration, it’s also a period of time at which states are building the capacity to control who comes and goes. So over time they gained more capacity and they did use it. By the time of World War I, arguably, the stem in the flow of migrants had more to do with both economics and war, but also states had built up the legal infrastructure and the administrative infrastructure to control who came and went. The closer you got to the 1930s, the more control states actually had. If that’s where you were going with it.
Can I follow up on a point that you made that I think actually contributes to the kind of analogy or link that you were drawing to Piketty’s work?
You’re right: We have sort of judged immigration law on the postwar period, and from that perspective, the U.S. is very egalitarian … whereas both Canada and the U.S. were actually, over the long-term, extremely exclusionary, as suggested earlier. But not only that, when it [changes] around the time of World War II, it was not the U.S. and Canada saying, “Hey, let’s get right with our liberal democratic principles and change immigration so that it’s more egalitarian and doesn’t select based on race or ethnicity.” That’s not what happened. What happened is that there was sort of a series of geopolitical moments that drove the major world powers in that direction, of doing away with those kinds of exclusionary laws — and it was actually countries in the global South, Asian countries, Latin American countries, and a little later, African countries, who pushed this agenda on the world stage of anti-discrimination in immigration policy and other public policy. I think that’s another finding that some folks have found surprising, that it didn’t come from the enlightenment of the Global North but rather that that shift away from discrimination in immigration law came by advocacy from below, from some of these weaker countries.
OK, so fast-forward to today and the ongoing debate about immigration reform. Do you see any continuities with the past in terms of how the debate about immigration is conducted today?
On the continuity end, I want to say … that one of our findings is that the more open the political process is to a diversity of voices, the more likely you’re going to have some sort of exclusionary policy come from that. There are big historical qualifiers to that, but that’s a major finding. I wish that were not the case, as someone who is democratically inclined; but that’s what we find. By the way, it happens not only in democracies, but also in populist regimes that are open, at least rhetorically, to voices from below.
If I could interrupt for just a second, I want to underline the point you just made because it’s pretty counterintuitive and important. You’re saying that the more pluralist or democratic a country is, the more likely it is that its immigration policies will be exclusionary?
Yes. I don’t want to emphasize the number as much as I want to emphasize the plurality of interests represented. So let me make this more on the ground: If you were to think of a primary process happening in California in the 1870s and ’80s, [it was] very open, very democratic … because you had all these people at the table. But that led very directly to exclusions against the Chinese in California and, subsequently, that became part of federal policies … Similarly today, in those [countries] in which the political process is open to local voices, you have more of a tendency towards exclusion. The best example of that is probably SB 2070 in Arizona (and then subsequent iterations of that in different states) and in this trend to [make] immigration policy local, as opposed to the long-term trend of it being a federal domain.
Does that mean that if someone wants more inclusive, open immigration policy, they should push for a federal rather than state-by-state response?
Yes, I think so. I can add one other element to this: the higher you go up the political structure, the more there are other constraints on what actors can do. So, at the federal level, there’s one major constraint that we talk about in the book, and that’s geopolitics. It’s much harder for the executive today — let’s say Obama were to say, “We’re going to ban Mexicans by virtue of their origins; we’re just going to ban Mexicans.” Can you imagine the reputational fallout of that, and the multilateral institutions that would be involved and so forth? I’m not making a case for the fact that the U.S. is or is not answerable to these transnational intergovernmental organizations; I’m just saying they, at the federal level, are much more aware of geopolitics than Sheriff Arpaio. He’s not constrained by that so much.
Didn’t something along these lines happen in the early 20th century with then-President Teddy Roosevelt and Japan? Something about how he had to go over there and try to repair the relationship that was damaged by California’s anti-Japanese restrictions on immigration?
That’s a very astute example, actually. That’s a great example of how these geopolitics play out. So why did we sign — we meaning the U.S. — why did we sign an agreement with Japan [to] exclude Japanese immigrants as we had with Chinese immigrants? Well, partly because Japan was an empire at the time, a powerful empire, who had just upset the Russians in a war and were sort of seen as a very heavy player in the region. So it would have been very difficult to outright exclude the Japanese, and hence you end up with the gentlemen’s agreement [which was] essentially a bunch of internal memos that went back and forth between the U.S. and Japan that said Japan would take measures to self-regulate on emigration. That’s where geopolitics comes in.
The idea that there’s a divergence in priorities the higher up you go in the political hierarchy reminds me of the current dynamic within the Republican Party over immigration, in which the party’s more business-minded, elitist and educated wing — the country club Republicans, basically — want immigration reform while the more populist, salt-of-the-earth Republicans — Tea Partyers, basically — are intensely against anything they deem “amnesty” (which encompasses a lot). Considering we live in such a time of political and economic inequality, though, do you think immigration reform might happen soon because the GOP elites are more influential than the Tea Party?
I think what you pointed out about the disjuncture between conservatives on this particularly issue … I don’t think that that’s that different from what we’ve seen in the long-run. [In the past], you also had labor adamantly against immigration, basically of everyone, but it was also racialized at one point. So this issue has traditionally been one that has made for some pretty interesting bedfellows. You’ve had people like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce aligned with some left-wing folks and progressives on the immigration issue for very different reasons; and you also had the alignment in terms of division among the more conservative types, but also people who have made arguments against immigration on more environmental grounds and population grounds … you’ve had strange alliances in the past.
I think that’s because what happens with immigration is that it has two main contrasting and sometimes colliding orientations. One is to focus on issues that have to do with labor, and labor’s economic interests, and what a country needs in terms of its labor market to function as a competitive, capitalist economy. On the other hand, you have matters of the heart — or of identity, so to speak. These things, these kinds of different interests, have become more or less salient depending on context. At times, and often times, elites won on this issue of getting cheap labor, which is what they wanted … But sometimes this ideological side — what I refer to as matters of the heart and identity — sometimes that comes to the fore in such a way that even elites can’t ignore [it]. So you might find elites sometimes supporting exclusionary immigration policies even when it probably went against their own economic interests.
That makes me think immigration reform is bound to win. Not only do elites have economic interest in cheap labor, but the “heart” of America is, at least on the surface, so devoted to ideas of pluralism and diversity and the melting pot and so on, that a more ideological argument against reform — the kind you hear from Tea Party types who worry immigrants are moochers who are changing the national character — won’t be able to have mainstream appeal.
Right. Economic and also demographic imperatives … What do I mean by demographics? I’m sure you’re more than aware of the shifts that have happened in the U.S. with the growth of Latino and non-majority populations … so this is sort of a fact on the ground. What’s going to happen is that the political structure is going to have to come to terms with that. The Republicans are kind of between a rock and a hard place because … to make overtures to Latinos is going to take some time at this point, and we all know that the political game is sort of a two-year game … So on the one hand, Republicans want to please Latinos; but on the other hand, they have … the Tea Party crowd that is against immigration, and they’re the crowd you want to please for your short-term game. But on the other-other hand, they know that the long-term game is one in which they will have to engage the Latino electorate. I think that was already clear in the last election; it will be more clear as time goes on. So what do they do? I think that’s the dilemma for Republicans at this point.
Right, and the Democrats are all too happy to exploit this internal contradiction by trying to make the most controversial opponents of immigration reform — like Rep. Steve King or Sheriff Joe Arpaio — the face of the GOP on the issue. Anyway, to take a step back from the nitty-gritty of politics and look at the issue of immigration — and how liberal democracies haven’t lived by their supposed values in that regard — I wanted to ask you what this discovery meant to you on a more personal or philosophical level? Was it just kind of surprising and unexpected and interesting, or was its effect on you more significant?
It really kind of shook my assumptions about how much [racist immigration policy] was something that was just sort of an historical interest or something … that really [shook] the way I think of what’s going on today. What exactly do I mean by that? If you think of some of the very strong racist or borderline-racist rhetoric that’s out there — or even more insidiously, some of the rhetoric that purports not to be racist but is making the same kind of selections, and using the same kinds of rationales to make distinctions among people — if you think of [that] today, and the way that [it’s] sort of the very violent flailing of people who are losing privilege … I was really struck by the immediate postwar [era] in that sense.
Great Britain and Canada … now purport to be these multicultural paradises, and the U.S. [claims] to be a post-racial place; all of those [self-descriptions] really contrasted with the way that they went kicking and screaming into a period of doing away with these exclusionary laws. And they did it mostly, I think, because there were outside, big political constraints, and they wanted something [else] more than they wanted to … keep their privilege. But I don’t think that they fully comprehended the long-term consequences of, for example, opening up migration to a greater diversity of people … The U.S. is a clear example of [this] transformation, so that now you have constituencies of those very people who for over a century had been excluded, [and] they have become major political players. That really shook my world in the sense that it made me rethink now and the past; those two came into a conversation that I had not paid enough attention to.
Click here to download the survey In Their Own Words: A Nationwide Survey of Undocumented Millennials by Tom K. Wong with Carolina Valdivia