MLive and Immigration
As the push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform continues over the next few months, there will no doubt be an increase in coverage on an issue that is quite contentious.
MLive has recently done a series of articles on immigration in West Michigan, profiling certain individuals to demonstrate the diversity of people who make up the immigrant community.
The series began with an article about a young man who is undocumented and has been involved on the front lines of immigration justice. The series is important since it not only puts a human face on immigrants it presents some of the complex aspect of immigration policy, which underscores the need to change the existing policy.
Today, MLive posted an editorial on the same topic, entitled, We Need Immigration Reform in the United States to embrace its legacy as the ‘golden door.’
The MLive editorial acknowledges that the current immigration policy is broken and that it needs to be fixed. “The system we have now is not working and doing nothing only makes the problem worse for people on all sides of the issue” This is an important acknowledgement, not only because it is a social justice issue, but because this is one issue that gets a tremendous amount of negative and hateful commentary on MLive.
However, there are some claims made in the editorial that are worth discussing, since I believe they are either misleading, and in some cases, not based in fact.
The claim I take issue with mostly is the notion that the US has a “legacy as the golden door.” It is true that many immigrants have been able to come to the US since the nation was founded, but there has not always been an open door policy despite the beautiful words that adore the Statue of Liberty.
It should be noted first that the US as a nation was founded on the theft of land from native Nations that were hear before Europeans began to colonize the Americas. Secondly, the nation’s economy was also driven by the forced labor of enslaved African people who were brought to the US against their own will. These are not marginal acknowledgements, rather they are central to our understanding of what the country was founded on. We cannot simply say we are a nation of immigrants, without acknowledging the genocidal policies towards Native people and the history of slavery.
When it comes to immigration policy, the US has never had a consistent stance on when and how people were allowed to migrate to the US. One of the earliest immigration policies was the Chinese Exclusion Act, put in place near the end of the 19th Century. The Chinese Exclusion Act was a racist policy that was implemented after the US business community used the labor of Chinese immigrants to build the railroads and develop much of the agriculture along the west coast. Once the labor of the Chinese was not needed and White Supremacy dictated that they were not welcomed, an unjust immigration policy was put in place.
All throughout the 20th Century there has been a constant revision of US policy towards Mexican immigration, some of it based on White Supremacist notions, but primarily based on economics.
Mexicans have been allowed at times to come to the US more freely, such as when the US implemented the Bracero Program, where Mexican labor was deemed necessary by the Capitalist class, especially during WWII. Once the war was over, Mexican labor was no longer needed in the same way and the Bracero Program was ended.
Agricultural work has been done by migrant workers for much of US history and this has also influenced US immigration policy, since so much of the food that is consumed here is predicated on immigrant labor, often undocumented immigrant labor. Much of this history is well documented in a book co-authored by Mike Davis and Justin Akers Chacon, No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S-Mexico Border.
Another aspect of US immigration policy is that it is often dictated by US foreign policy. US foreign policy influences domestic immigration policy in two fundamental ways: US military activity and trade policy.
With military or geo-political policy, the US is often responsible for the displacement of thousands of people because of either direct military intervention or because of military and financial support for repressive dictatorships abroad. One example would be US policy in the 1980s in Central America.
The US was engaged in war with the revolutionary government of Nicaragua in the 1980, mostly by providing weapons and advisors to the counter-insurgency forces known as the Contras. At the same time the US was also providing massive amounts of military aid and advisors to the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala to prevent those countries from overthrowing oppressive systems.
During the 1980s there were thousands of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees that came to the US fleeing the political violence and repression primarily conducted by the US-backed governments. However, the US government would not recognize these refugees as political refugees, since it would be an admission that US policy in both El Salvador and Guatemala were repressive. This did not prevent thousands of refugees from these two Central American countries from coming anyway, even if it meant they came without legal documentation.
With economic policy, the results are often quite similar. Lets use Mexico as an example. Since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed by the US, Mexico and Canada, there has been a significant increase in Mexican migration to the US. Much of the driving force for this increased migration has been due to NAFTA’s negative impact on small farmers and workers in Mexico. Millions of small farmers have been forced off their land since NAFTA policies have made it difficult to compete with large multinationals and a glut of cheap, often subsidized, US food products being imported into Mexico. Thus, NAFTA has been a major ingredient to increased Mexican migration to the US.
Recognizing that people come to the US to flee US-supported violence and US economic policies is much different than this notion that the US is the land of opportunity that compels immigrants to come here. Again, these are not marginal issues and in fact are central to the current debate about immigration.
Therefore, it is important that we not only acknowledge these aspects of US immigration policy, but that we speak honestly about this country’s immigration policy and why so many people take the risks to come here, even without documentation. We can appreciate the MLive editorial’s intent to support immigration reform, but we should not accept the generalized commentary about the history of US immigration policy.