"... our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness..." declared Thomas Jefferson in his “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.”
Yet the United States has exhibited a shameful history of xenophobia.
Erika Lee in 'America for American, traces the vitriol that greeted each set of newcomers. First, it was Germans (“strangers to our laws and constitutions,” “the most ignorant . . . of their own nation”); then Catholics (“mass of alien voters,” “foreign criminal or pauper”); Chinese (“moral and racial pollution,” “filthy, vicious, ignorant, depraved, and criminal”); Jews, Irish, Italians, and other Southern and Eastern Europeans (“as bad as Negroes,” “moral cripples”); Mexicans (“low-grade Spaniard, peonized Indian, and negro slave mixe[d] with negroes, mulattoes, and other mongrels, and some sorry whites”); Japanese (“enemy within our gates”); then Muslims (“the greatest Trojan horse,” adherents to “a religion that promote[d] the most murderous mayhem on the planet”); and finally, Mexicans again (“criminal aliens”).
Eighteenth-century German migrants, for instance, initially faced a torrent of abuse. But Anglo settlers came to recognize them as uneasy partners in continental conquest. Westward expansion served as a “safety valve” for the “social problem” of increased European immigration and helped lessen the scourge of wage dependency in favor of the pastoral independence mythologized by Jefferson. In fact, recruiters “directly encouraged and facilitated migration with promises of free land, economic opportunity, religious toleration, and political liberty.” The political imperative to turn a continent peopled by native nations into a laboratory of white self-governance, then, permitted the transformation of Germans into equals.
The bulk of early German migrants may have been perceived as lesser whites, but their Protestantism made them white enough. Chinese men, on the other hand, had both the wrong skin and a deviant culture. Settlers saw them simultaneously as covetous of white women and as sexually transgressive for engaging in "women's work" (like cooking and laundry).
Lee doesn’t shy away from describing the illiberal deeds of liberals, but one emerges with the impression that their xenophobia was not a feature, of their politics. Yet Bill Clinton drastically militarized the border patrol, expanded the grounds for deportation, and passed legislation that deprived immigrants of social services. Bill Clinton’s senior advisor Rahm Emanuel stressed that the president could “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” Whenever liberals complain of Trump’s treatment of immigrants, remind them that formal removals of undocumented immigrants increased dramatically under Obama.
Daniel Denvir’s 'All-American Nativism' provides a useful complement to Lee’s book. Denvir focuses on the1965 Hart−Celler Act which although provided some opening of immigration from places like Asia and Africa by allocating roughly 20,000 visas per Eastern Hemisphere country each year, but for the first time put a cap on and effectively criminalized long-standing Western Hemisphere migration patterns from places like Mexico that had much higher rates of entry (the earlier bracero program had allowed as many as 400,000 guest workers from Mexico into the United States each year). Denvir calls particular attention to the pivotal role played by liberals in creating these immigration restrictions.
In his telling, liberals’ genteel embrace of nativist policy comes from a fundamental contradiction—the desperate need for exploitable labor and the impossibility of undocumented labor’s political freedom. Self-interested U.S. citizens recoil at the thought of not just increased migration but potential immigrant power. Democratic leaders attempted to outflank Republicans in hopes of gaining approval from “moderate” constituencies and cooperation from recalcitrant congressional colleagues. Even at the moment of the passage of Hart−Celler, Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy accepted nativist framings of racial order, promising that the “the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.”
Centrists have joined the nativist wing of the GOP to rail against illegal immigration as a way to make the case for legal migration. Looking right, liberals have seen a faction of business elites clamoring for cheap labor and a faction of nativists barely concealing their call for ethnic cleansing. Rather than fighting for the rights and liberties they supposedly hold dear, liberals have mostly sided with the business class. The liberal embrace of conservative positions hasn’t led to compromise but has allowed the right to push for even more.
Denvir astutely draws on the history of the Great Migration to explain the development of nativist logic in the twentieth century. The massive movement of black Southerners to Northern and Western cities “created a model for resisting immigration: a template of white identity politics organized for territorial defense against the fiscal, criminal and demographic threats posed by racial others.” Under formal (which is to say legal) American apartheid, white Americans required the labor of black workers but rejected their political freedom. That tension has carried on into the postindustrial present: the United States cannot function without undocumented immigrant labor and it cannot function with their freedom either.
In the United States and around the world, in other words, billions are compelled to sell their labor power at an unsustainable price. These are the social conditions that produced the recent politics of popular revolt against established elites. They are also the root of the precarity that often drives migration.
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