By: Catherine Besteman, Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, Tricia Redeker Hepner, Carole McGranahan, Nomi Stone, and Marnie Thomson
The Racist Gift of Immigration and Citizenship Bans, Again
How can we understand Donald Trump’s executive order banning the entry of immigrants from Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Iraq, as well as all refugees? As an act of national security, the ban makes no sense. Rather, I read them as a racist gift to the white Christian alt-right that formed President Trump’s initial core base. The United States has a history of bans and color bars to entry and citizenship, about which we are rightfully embarrassed in hindsight. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to only white immigrants, a law that remained on the books until 1952. Entry to the US remained open to anyone, however, until the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and then the Johnson Reed Act of 1924, which imposed the first comprehensive control over immigration. The Act placed a cap on the number of people to be admitted, set national origins quotas based on the 1890 census for entry, and barred anyone ineligible for citizenship from entry. By using the 1890 census, the national origins quotas intentionally favored immigrants from northern Europe and restricted Jewish immigrants because of anti-Semitism and fears of Communist influence.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court declared ineligible for citizenship everyone from Japan to Afghanistan, with the exception of the Philippines, then a US territory, thus creating a new racial category of “Asian” to be universally banned. When comprehensive immigration reform in 1965 removed national origins quotas and bans, it was heralded as a rejection of racist barriers to entry and a victory for American values of justice, human rights, and fairness. A dog whistle to those lusting for white Christian hegemony, the bans are an initial step to return America to a time when Muslims were barred from entry and immigration to the US was controlled by and for whites only. Continue reading
Ever since the pioneering work of Mary Douglas on risk back in 1992, anthropologists have understood that there is a difference between what is actually dangerous and what people think is dangerous. Scientists can measure the probability of you being struck by a bolt of lightning or getting hit by a car. But our fears are not based on extensive scientific study, nor are they the results of our own idiosyncratic psychology. They are shaped by the culture we live in and the history we’ve collectively experienced. The sad thing, anthropologically, about Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration is that it does not make Americans safer, just makes some Americans feel safer. The tragic thing about the order is that forces others to suffer for the sake of our own false sense of security.
This is Part III of an interview with Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. Her 2011 book, Labor and Legality, explores the work and social lives of undocumented busboys in Chicago. Since 2011, Gomberg-Muñoz has been conducting ethnographic research with mixed status couples as they go through the process of legalization; a book manuscript based on that research is in the works. Part I of the interview is here. Part II is here.
RA: And so, while Obama’s latest action does have some positive aspects, the underlying problems persist, right? This seems to be a long-running theme in US immigration policy: we end up with one partial solution after another, but the underlying problems are still there. Meanwhile, we have all of these migrants stuck in various liminal states — whether legal, social, political, or cultural. Sometimes this means prison. Sometimes it means they live the “shadowed lives” that Leo Chavez detailed years ago. Often it means many of these people live in incredibly marginalized conditions. Every election cycle, politicians on both sides often talk about the need to “fix” the immigration system, but that never seems to happen. It’s almost as if it’s this massive, unsolvable problem. What’s your take on this? Why are these problems with immigration so persistent? And, coming from this as an anthropologist — as opposed to an economist or political scientist — what can be done to move things forward?
RGM: The first thing to note is that immigration is not a “problem” for everyone. In fact, many people benefit not only from migration but also from the massive enforcement apparatus that has been built up around it. Continue reading
This is Part II of an interview with Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. Her 2011 book, Labor and Legality, explores the work and social lives of undocumented busboys in Chicago. Since 2011, Gomberg-Muñoz has been conducting ethnographic research with mixed status couples as they go through the process of legalization; a book manuscript based on that research is in the works. Part I of the interview is here.
Ryan Anderson: Earlier you made reference to the historically race-based nature of the U.S. immigration system. Race is an issue that many tend to avoid here in the U.S. — and this is definitely the case when it comes to immigration. Immigration debates often focus on crime, economics, competition over jobs, pressure on social services, taxes, and, of course, upholding the rule of law. It’s almost as if many people bend over backwards to deny that race has anything to do with our current policies. What’s this avoidance and denial all about?
Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz: I think that many people are unaware of the central role that race has played in shaping the U.S. immigration system. For example, the very first major citizenship policy in the U.S. limited citizenship to “free white men of good moral character,” while the first immigration policy, 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibited immigration of Chinese nationals. The first comprehensive immigration bill, passed in 1924, was designed to curb immigration of “filthy” and “unassimilable” Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Asians were deemed ineligible for lawful immigration and U.S. citizenship until 1952. It was not until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that overt racial biases in U.S. immigration policy were eliminated. Continue reading
Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz is an assistant professor of anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. Her 2011 book, Labor and Legality, explores the work and social lives of undocumented busboys in Chicago. Since 2011, Gomberg-Muñoz has been conducting ethnographic research with mixed status couples as they go through the process of legalization; a book manuscript based on that research is in the works.
Ryan Anderson: For decades many of the debates about immigration in the US focus on legality. Politicians and pundits often speak in terms of following — and breaking — the law. But in your work you talk about the “illegalization” of migrant workers. What do you mean by this?
Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz: Migration is only “illegal” when laws prevent mobility. Historically, U.S. immigration policies have encouraged migration of workers deemed essential to the U.S. economy, a long-standing practice of labor importation punctuated by deportation and restrictionist campaigns in times of economic downturn. For example, Mexican migrant workers were imported to the United States by the millions in the mid-20th century to help fill labor shortages brought about by World War II and an expanding U.S. economy. Laws were created, negotiated, and adjusted to allow U.S. employers access to these workers; a contract worker program was instituted, and Mexicans and other Latin Americans were exempted from the quotas that limited immigration from elsewhere in the world at the time.
In the 1960s, the laws changed. An explicitly race-based U.S. immigration system was altered to prioritize family reunification, and Mexican workers became subject to numerical restriction for the first time ever. Over the next four decades, widespread demand for Mexican migrant labor persisted, while free trade policies undermined the ability of millions of Mexican farmers and workers to make a living in Mexico. Not surprisingly, numerical restrictions did not ultimately curb the migration of Mexicans to the U.S., but they did make it far more difficult for Mexicans and other Latin Americans to migrate legally. In this context, barriers to lawful immigration have produced unauthorized migration by “illegalizing” long-standing patterns of migration at a time when workers needed them most. Continue reading