BY ALIA BEARD RAU JULY 3, 2010
When it comes to immigration, the United States has come full circle . . . again.
As Arizona’s new immigration law pushes the issue into the national spotlight, decades-old arguments over government policy, economic needs and human rights are being raised in a politicized confrontation over what it means to be an American.
On one side, many fear illegal immigrants are taking their jobs, spreading violence and changing American culture. On the other side, many believe the tide of opposition will result in discrimination, racial profiling and the denial of constitutional rights.
As with previous immigrant waves, a chorus is rising among many citizens that something must be done. Politicians are responding with new laws. Immigrants are leaving.
Throughout America’s history, this pattern has repeated over and over: There’s a need for immigrant labor; immigrants arrive; residents become fearful; laws are passed trying to stem the flow or make life difficult enough that the immigrants will leave; immigrants leave; there’s a need for labor.
Historians say the cycle can be seen with the arrival of Irish immigrants starting in the 1820s, Chinese in the late 1870s, Germans and Italians at the start of the 1900s and Mexicans over the past 100 years.
“We go through it every 20 years or so,” said Arizona State University Mexican history professor Jaime Aguila. “It leads to a massive debate about what it means to be a U.S. citizen and what it means to contribute to the economy of the United States.”
John Skrentny, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego, said the unique characteristics of this latest wave – the increased impact on taxpayers and larger number of illegal immigrants – haven’t changed the cycle of response or the rhetoric.
Benjamin Franklin criticized Germans who lived among themselves, did not speak English or adopt American customs, Skrentny said.
“You hear that almost exact line of argument today,” he said.
Arizona’s responses to illegal immigration have included passing Senate Bill 1070, making English the official language, pushing for more border enforcement and requiring employers to verify employees’ legal status. The goal, SB 1070 authors have said, is to deter illegal immigrants from wanting to be in Arizona.
That goal is echoed in many of the laws passed by state and federal governments over the past nearly 200 years.
1820 to 1879
The first major immigration wave since the United States became a nation started in the 1820s and lasted until a recession in the late 1870s. The wave brought about 7.5 million immigrants, primarily from northern and western Europe. Specifically, about a third of those were Irish fleeing that country’s potato famine.
America, still booming from the Industrial Revolution, offered opportunity.
“When we look at history, you see that immigration goes up in times of economic prosperity and down when the economy is not doing so well,” said Michele Waslin, senior policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center. The influx spurred opposition from many citizens, who said Irish immigrants were taking Americans’ jobs and opposed the immigrants’ religion. Politicians demanded laws to make it harder for foreigners to become U.S. citizens.
In 1875, the U.S. passed its first restrictive immigration law. It prevented prostitutes and convicts from entering the country.
“Throughout history, it is the laws that really define who is legal and who is illegal,” Waslin said. “At different parts of U.S. history, different groups have been illegal depending on what law there was at the time.”
1880 to 1929
The second wave of immigration spanned the 1880s to the early 1920s, falling off drastically during the Great Depression. It brought more than 23 million immigrants, primarily from southern and western Europe.
The majority were from Germany early in the wave and Italy later. Germans were seeking religious freedom and available farmland, while Italians were fleeing overcrowding, low wages and high taxes.
Also during this period, there was an influx of Chinese workers in search of available jobs building the transcontinental railroad.
“Chinese were coming here, and a lot of Americans were feeling threatened by them economically,” Skrentny said.
He said Chinese were barred from certain types of jobs, so particularly in California, many started laundries.
“In San Francisco, people started to feel uncomfortable that all the laundromats were owned by Chinese people, and so they passed a law that said laundromats couldn’t be made out of wood . . . and then began enforcing this law only on Chinese people,” he said.
At the time, nearly all laundries were made of wood.
The 1880 ordinance was deemed unconstitutional in 1886 by the U.S. Supreme Court, but there were several other state and federal laws passed during this time that also targeted immigrants of Asian descent.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese laborers from coming to the U.S. It wasn’t repealed until 1943.
In 1913, California passed the Alien Land Law, which prevented Chinese, Japanese and Korean immigrants from owning property. Ten other states followed with similar laws over the next decade. In 1952, the California Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.
In 1917, Congress began requiring immigrants to take a literacy test and barred people living in most of eastern Asia and the Pacific islands from immigrating to the U.S. These also were later abolished.
Aguila said Mexican immigration was encouraged during this period, mainly because farmers needed laborers to fill the vacancies left by the men who were serving in World War I as well as the decline in Chinese laborers as a result of restrictive laws.
“The belief was that Mexicans were more suited to do agricultural labor than Chinese because Mexicans would come in as migrant labor and once the work was over, they would go back,” Aguila said.
Job opportunities resulted in an increase in immigrants from Mexico, and resentment toward Mexicans began to develop.
The U.S. Border Patrol was created in 1924 to help prevent illegal entry across the Mexican and Canadian borders.
1930 to 1964
During the Great Depression between 1929 and about 1939, there was enormous public outcry that Mexican immigrants were taking jobs unemployed Americans needed.
“That caused a huge backlash with people who felt that Mexicans were overrunning their neighborhoods. . . . They were scapegoated as occupying jobs,” Texas Tech University history professor Miguel Levario said.
The response was a joint local and federal effort called the Mexican Repatriation, which lasted throughout the 1930s. It included raids, roundups and the denial of jobs to Mexicans. As with Arizona’s SB 1070, the goal was two-pronged: to enforce the laws and use them as a deterrent to persuade immigrants to leave on their own.
Either forcibly or on their own, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Michigan to California returned to Mexico. Some who were forced out were U.S. citizens, though the exact number is unknown. “It didn’t do anything to alleviate unemployment,” Levario said.
He said the effort ended when farmers, employers and housewives began complaining that they were losing workers.
World War II again created a need for labor to fill jobs left by military personnel.
From 1942 through 1964, Mexican nationals were allowed to come to the U.S. through a temporary-worker program called the Bracero Program.
“By then, there are over a million Mexicans a year coming to the U.S. to work both illegally and legally,” Aguila said.
In 1954, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service decided it needed to do something to stop the increased inflow of illegal immigrants and started what it called “Operation Wetback” to try to deport Mexican nationals. Modeled after the Mexican Repatriation, it involved a joint effort of local and federal law enforcement in California and Arizona.
Efforts included sweeps of Mexican-American neighborhoods and random stops and identification checks of individuals who looked Mexican. Again, there were cases of U.S. citizens being deported along with illegal immigrants.
To discourage re-entry, deportees were taken to central and southern Mexico before being released.
In all, hundreds of thousands were returned to Mexico, either forcibly or on their own.
Levario said Operation Wetback lasted about a year before being halted because of budget constraints and complaints from farmers that they were losing laborers they needed.
1965 to today
The most recent wave of immigrants began in 1965 when Congress replaced a system of quotas based on country of origin with one that uses different calculations to allocate a certain number of visas to each country. Preference is given to individuals who have either special skills or relatives who are U.S. citizens.
Since then, more than 100 million legal and illegal immigrants have entered the United States, with the majority coming from Mexico in search of jobs.
Aguila said the new system gave Mexicans about 30,000 visas a year.
“The economy in the American Southwest was demanding half a million to a million workers,” he said. “Setting a cap of 30,000 for Mexico encouraged more illegal immigration.”
He said in about 1970, federal immigration-reform discussions began again. In 1986, Congress passed new regulations that, among other things, required employers to vouch for employees’ immigration status, granted amnesty to certain immigrants who entered the U.S. before 1982, made it a crime to knowingly hire illegal immigrants and created a citizenship path for certain agricultural workers.
Again politicians promised that would secure the border and end immigration problems.
Levario said enforcement efforts did result in a decrease in immigration numbers.
“But it’s just a temporary Band-Aid,” he said. “Like in the 1930s, once the economy improves, you’ll see another spike in the numbers.”
Aguila said federal efforts such as the war on drugs and the increase of border enforcement helped increase the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. by making it difficult for migrants to go back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico for work.
“Mexicans began to stay rather than go home and risk not being able to return when labor was needed,” he said.
In the past 20 years, the public backlash began to rise again.
Kansas attorney Kris Kobach, who helped write Arizona’s new immigration law, said this wave is the largest and longest-lasting the nation has ever seen.
And unlike with past generations, Kobach said, these immigrants are able to take more advantage of taxpayer-funded social services.
“That changes everything,” Kobach said. “The cost of illegal immigration to state governments and the taxpayers is so much greater than it ever was.”
In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, which prohibited illegal immigrants from using health care, public education and other social services. It was later deemed unconstitutional and never enforced.
“It was very similar to SB 1070, at least in its objective to make conditions so difficult for undocumented workers that they leave,” Aguila said.
Arizona’s immigration law makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally. It states that an officer engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest shall, when practicable, ask about a person’s legal status when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally.
The law goes into effect July 29. Five lawsuits have been filed in federal court challenging its constitutionality.