Joshua Freeman’s recent opinion piece, “Arrive Legally In Order to Receive Rights,” Daily Nexus, May 8), shows us that discrimination facing poor, mostly Latino immigrants is incredibly deep and complex. Freeman, a child of immigrants who tells us that he was “leaning more on the side of the Republicans on May Day,” represents an important part of the anti-immigrant/anti-worker constituency. His opinion piece is an example of how historic amnesia — or ignorance — and a unique personal experience can combine to lead individuals to support fundamentally flawed legislation.
House Resolution 4437 is not the first time the United States has tried to exclude certain groups from immigrating. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 effectively cut off immigration from that country, even though the Chinese had been instrumental in building California’s riches. It coincided with violent riots against Chinese communities all along the West Coast that razed many Chinatowns and displaced innumerable families. Filipino immigrants came to California in search of education and work not long after our military forces destroyed their nascent nation. The response to them was more violence and more exclusionary legislation. By 1917 the Congress had virtually prohibited all Asian immigration and naturalization because Asians were deemed racially ineligible for citizenship. In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of Chicanos were deported to Mexico — many were full U.S. citizens, and indeed many had been living here since before it was the U.S.A. World War II saw the mass internment of Japanese immigrants and citizens. These are just several examples of a much larger history of exclusion and persecution based on racial animosity toward immigrants or those branded as something other than “American.” I refrain from describing the treatment visited upon Native Americans and African-Americans, but it only damns the historic treatment of citizenship and race even more.
For most of our nation’s history we have not had elaborate immigration restrictions. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act changed this in a way that was thoroughly racist. It established a quota system that privileged Western European newcomers over others and sought to construct a white Anglo-Saxon nation by governmental fiat. All legislation since has been shaped by racial ideologies and geopolitical goals, even if it is articulated in colorblind language. There has never been a fair way to immigrate to the United States. Race, class, gender, religion and other axes of inequality have always proscribed the rights of citizenship from “undesirables.”
The particular history of Latinos in the United States is especially sad and sour for those who have sought to make their lives here, or even just to work in “el Norte.” Manifest Destiny, essentially a militaristic, imperial doctrine, displaced untold numbers of Mexicans and Chicanos from their lands and communities. After the United States took its final form, the rise of a Latino agricultural proletariat was codified through the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. War provided the land upon which U.S. agribusinesses expanded. It sought laborers from south of the border, but only because massive factory farming could exploit these men with pittance wages and horrific working conditions. Programs like the Bracero, also known as “Operation Wetback,” have had seemingly conflicting goals, both bringing in Latino workers and deporting them in mass numbers. Bush’s proposed guest worker program is a modern day Bracero, while HR 4437 more resembles the Chinese Exclusion Act recreated for Latinos. The constant ebb and flow of racial animosity and willing exploitation is confusing, and can only be understood with a historical perspective. Freeman’s opinion adds yet another twist to the story. That a child of an immigrant could support legislation like HR 4437 is surprising. I can only conclude that he and others like him simply do not know their history. I do not mean to be patronizing; I only fear that opinions like his will hurt many millions of our fellow Americans simply because he has not attempted to reach beyond his circumstances and ponder the hardships and struggles of others.
Darwin Bondgraham is a graduate student in sociology.