The Myth of the Unassimilable Mexican

Trump’s election has unleashed a flood of animus against Mexican Americans. Within 24 hours of the election, Mexican-Americans across the nation (along with many other racial, ethnic, religious, and LGBTQ groups) were being verbally and even physically attacked. I personally heard several first-hand accounts. A novelist friend of mine tweeted a criticism of Trump and a stranger threatened him with deportation. Similarly sad, demeaning and outright terrifying stories are erupting all over social media and archived by groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The hostility percolates down to the most intimate levels. A lovely man and a positive role model for my son teased him that he was not patriotic enough to use a piece of equipment with an emblazoned American flag but not to worry, they would not deport him. At my friend’s child’s school, 8-year-olds teased their Mexican-American classmates that they could be deported. Parents tsk-tsked but said it was just “kids being kids.” Many perpetrators don’t think they are racist or insist they are just joking. But the message is clear: “you don’t really belong here.”

 

(image source)

 

What we are seeing is the reanimation of longstanding stereotypes—what I call “racial scripts”—that present Mexicans as unassimilable, criminal, even diseased.

We like to describe ourselves as a melting pot nation, based on the idea that immigrants can learn our language, appreciate our culture, and adopt our values and ultimately “become” American by way of assimilation. This had been the case for white ethnic immigrants before, even those who faced much discrimination, such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews.

But Mexicans have had citizenship available to them for nearly 170 years, since the Mexican-American War ended. So why aren’t they seen as fully assimilated into US culture? Why can Donald Trump still call them “bad hombres,” rapists, criminals, drug dealers, and disease carriers?

Presumably much of this animus derives from concerns about the undocumented. The Pew Foundation estimates that there are over 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. of whom Mexicans comprise about 53 percent. But we can’t characterize all immigrants as lawless marauders simply because they’re undocumented. Those with criminal records are already being deported. Some of President Obama’s critics call him “the Deporter in Chief” because he’s already deported 3 million immigrants—more than any other president before him.

Many take the position that being undocumented alone qualifies migrants as criminals—they are “illegal.” But being undocumented is also part of our country’s history. European immigrants who came to the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries faced few immigration restrictions. And even when these restrictions were violated, relatively short statutes of limitation limited the power of deportation.

When these laws did change in 1924, the federal government instituted a variety of mechanisms to help make mainly European immigrants “legal,” including suspending deportations and allowing immigrants to pay a small fee to register when they arrived in the United States, providing them access to measures that would ensure their assimilation, while not making these accessible to Mexicans.

Mexican immigrants enjoyed no such opportunities. Instead, they faced increasing regulation through the Border Patrol, established in 1924. Health screenings at the border used race, not symptoms, as the organizing principle. Other forms of control worked outside the law. Like African Americans, thousands of Mexicans were the victims of lynch mobs well into the 1900s, a legacy documented in community and archival records.

"mexicans keep going" sign

(image source)

In the 1920s, like now, employers opposed immigration quotas because they limited the availability of low-wage labor. But even this supposed openness to Mexicans nonetheless cast them as alien workers, not as immigrants arriving to the American melting pot. As historian Mark Reisler put it, Mexican Americans are “always the laborer, never the citizen.”

During the Great Depression, when Mexican labor was no longer needed, U.S. repatriation practices sent an estimated one million Mexicans back to Mexico, including some U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.

All these practices led to ways of seeing and categorizing Mexicans that reduced them to a type—creating “racial scripts” that characterized Mexicans as “illegal” and diseased.

These scripts persisted even as Mexican-Americans became a permanent and visible part of U.S. society. After the mid-1940s, Mexican-Americans’ second generation numbers eclipsed those of the immigrant generation. Yet, American citizens of Mexican descent were segregated from mainstream America. They could not freely choose where to live because of racial covenants and discriminatory government lending practices that shunted them into segregated neighborhoods.

Children attended “Mexican” schools and were only allowed to swim in public pools the day before the pool was drained. They sat in the segregated section of movie theaters, were not allowed into many restaurants (along with “negroes” and dogs), and were buried in segregated cemeteries—a practice that extended even to veterans.

Many people believe that we of the twenty-first century are past the overt racism and racialization that has plagued the U.S. from its earliest days. Some commentators believe the Civil Rights Movement and affirmative action ameliorated the worst of the U.S.’s past wrongs. Thus, they argue, there is no longer a need for a conversation about righting past wrongs. Along these same lines, some people argue that mainstream America’s racial sensibilities have shifted to the point where, as a group, we have become “colorblind.”

Even if as individuals we could succeed in willing ourselves to not see race, or at least to not act on our perceptions, the long reach of past racism in areas such as government lending, private real estate practices, zoning regulations, unequal access to healthcare, and disproportionate exposure to toxic environments is now institutionalized. This kind of structurally embedded racism affects nearly every aspect of our everyday lives, advantaging some of us and disadvantaging others with respect to how and where we live, work, learn, and play, as well as positively or negatively affecting our ability to accrue assets, manage our health, and sustain a good quality of life.

Once these racial scripts are in place, they are extended to all Mexicans, regardless of citizenship status, generations in the United States, educational level, income, language ability or even skin color. One only has to remember when Trump derided US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel who presided over the Trump University class action lawsuit, as unable to be biased because, as a Mexican, the judge had an “inherent conflict of interest” given Trump was “building a wall” along the US-Mexico border, never mind that the judge was born in Indiana.

These scripts filter down to all of us, until someone can “joke” that my fourth-generation American son doesn’t deserve to carry American flag decorated gear. We would all agree that right thoughts lead to right words lead to right action. We must ask ourselves what scripts we are acting out and what they will lead to, regardless of our intent.

 

~Natalia Molina is Associate Dean, Division of Arts & Humanities, and Professor of History and Urban Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Professor Molina’s work lies at the intersections of race, gender, culture, and citizenship. She is the author of award-winning books, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Script and Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, both published by the University of California Press.

Trump’s Bête Noire: Citizenship of Us-Born Children of the Undocumented

Undocumented immigrants’ children born in the US have become Trump’s latest foe. He does not believe that these US children hold valid citizenship despite the fact that since they were born in the US they receive citizenship automatically, a right granted by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Donald Trump

He put it as follows:

I don’t think they have American citizenship and if you speak to some very, very good lawyers — and I know some will disagree — but many of them agree with me and you’re going to find they do not have American citizenship.

In his usual rambling manner, he does not name any of the “very, very good lawyers” nor does he elaborate his reasons for saying that these children are not US citizens by birth. Trump is not one to quibble over “details”: The children are not citizens because he says so, because the “incompetent idiots in Washington are wrong” as always.

An article in the Washington Post outlines the flaws in Trump’s proposal:

He leaves out what is perhaps the most important detail: Such change would be very difficult as it would require the repeal of the 14th Amendment, which would take require the approval of 75 percent (or 38) of the state legislatures, an unlikely event. There have been 11,000 attempts to amend the Constitution in the entire history of the United States, and only 27 succeeded.

Even Trump sycophant Ted Cruz admits the difficulty of changing Constitutional amendments. According to birthright supporters, ending it would have catastrophic consequences:

Supporters of birthright citizenship say there are a number of reasons it should be maintained. It’s part of the Constitution. Attempts to restrict it have historically been motivated by racist fears of immigrants and their children. Ending it would be a bureaucratic nightmare. The most extreme consequence would be a massive group of stateless people — neither citizens in the U.S. nor in foreign countries.

These warnings do not seem to have much on an impact on other Republicans, particularly the candidates for the Presidential nomination:

This week, several of Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals, including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, echoed his call to end automatic citizenship for the American-born children of undocumented immigrants, repealing a constitutional right dating from the Civil War era.

Public opinion about birthright citizenship is mixed. A Wall Street Journal /NBC poll found that 43% of Republicans in the sample said that the U.S. should work to find and deport people who have come to the U.S. illegally. However, a survey of a sample of 2,002 adults conducted by the Pew Research Center in May, 2015, found that 72 percent of respondents believed that

Undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in the country legally, if certain requirements are met.

Public opinion may be divided, but the effects of the anti-birthright campaign have been dire. Some children in Texas are unable to secure the birth certificates they need to enroll in school:

At issue is the health service agency’s Vital Statics Unit, which is responsible for issuing birth certificates, and its refusal to honor various foreign identifications from immigrant parents. Many Mexican immigrants receive identification cards commonly known as matriculas, which are issued by Mexican consulates to citizens living and working in the United States. But officials [in Texas] have increasingly come to refuse these, making it harder for parents living in the U.S. illegally to obtain birth certificates for their children.

To sum up: Trump is stirring up more anti-undocumented immigrant rhetoric through an attack against a Constitutionally-given right, birthright US citizenship. Trump, always the sophist, contends that children of undocumented immigrant born in the US were never citizens, an idea he claims is supported by “very good lawyers,” whom he fails to identify.

In fact, the only way to eliminate birthright citizenship is to repeal the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, something practically impossible because bringing about such repeals are very difficult, as shown by thousands of attempts have failed in the past. The “bottom line” is that Trump is stirring up a controversy that has no practical purpose. The only result is that undocumented parents find it very difficult to obtain the birth certificates their children need to enroll in school. How Trumplike: Being a loose cannon and disregarding its consequences.

No citizenship? No worries, Uncle Sam needs you. (Pt.1)

Prolonged occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have created enlistment problems for the U.S. military. Extended tours, increased numbers of these tours, and a crunch to meet enlistment quotas are a few examples of troubles facing the military. In response to this dilemma, politicians and various branches of the military have taken up innovative enlistment practices to fix what could be broken. This scenario has translated into recruitment aimed at specific targets. After all, it’s not just anyone who serves the armed forces.

Uncle Sam
( Creative Commons License photo credit: Nevada Tumbleweed )

Who comprises America’s frontline?

Jorge Mariscal (2007) contends that “disenfranchisement” is the most apt word to describe why youth enlist, particularly from communities that are predominantly poor and comprised by people of color. These groups find themselves in unique, vulnerable positions. With few education and career options, less access to the legal system, and even fewer guaranteed social rights, many view the military as a stepping stone to making the best out of a bad situation. For many, it is a path to upward mobility. For some, it is the only path.

Such vulnerability to enlistment raises critical questions about sacrifice for this country. Namely, who has to? As reported by Segal and Segal (2004)[pdf], 200,000 new annual enlistees must be enrolled for the military to maintain its current size. Nearly all these recruits are either black or Latina/o, recent high school graduates, have parents with little education, or do not have immediate plans of entering college.

Being all that you can be given a Latina/o ethnicity

When it comes to U.S. militarism, some sacrifice more than others. One of the largest-growing groups vulnerable to enlistment includes Latina/os. Since 1985, the percentage of Latina/os in the military has nearly tripled – surpassing more than 11 percent of the military (see Lundquist 2008).

It is further worth noting the placement of Latina/os within the military. Much like blacks, they occupy lower statuses. Latina/os are much more likely to occupy infantry positions, and therefore see combat during these times of war and occupation; also, they are underrepresented nearly threefold in officer positions comprising only four percent of all military officers (Segal and Segal 2004)[pdf]. As these trends show, Latina/os are increasingly relied upon to perform the dirty work of U.S. militarism.

While the general Latina/o population faces numerous vulnerabilities in terms of military recruitment, a particular segment of this group faces unique, and perhaps more dire, circumstances.

No citizenship? No worries.  Uncle Sam needs you.

Though conservative narratives might have you believe Latina/o non-citizens abuse social services and “take ‘Amurkan’ jobs,” quite the opposite is true. Their contributions yield solutions to military problems. (This is very much a parallel situation to Social Security: Latina/o non-citizens bail out services they will not receive benefits from.) Despite such whitewashed narratives, this group plays a vital role in today’s military. And policymakers are well aware of this.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, policies have been created and revised to enlist non-citizens. Take the No Child Left Behind Act for example. This legislation has extended a helping hand to recruiters by placing certain stipulations on schools receiving federal funds. Such schools are required to release student information to recruiters, unless parents sign a little-known, little-publicized form specifying otherwise.

Shortly after the passing of NCLB, President George W. Bush issued an executive order[pdf], that further opened the borders for non-citizen enlistment. It provides an expedited path to citizenship by declaring non-citizens eligible for naturalization after one day of active-duty service.

Congress joined in the action with the passage of the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act[pdf]. This law reduced the peacetime waiting period from three years to one in effort to streamline the application process to citizenship.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security revised several requirements for prospective enlistees, expanding the possibility of who could be recruited. Now, the military can waive requirements of citizenship or resident status if such an enlistment serves broadly defined interests of national security.

Taken together, these policies have helped expand the number of non-citizen enlistees[pdf], as reported by the DHS. Since 2001, the number of non-citizen service members filing for naturalization, receiving naturalization, or being denied naturalization has increased more than 700 percent.

It should be noted, however, that these figures are not broken down by nationality. But according to data reported by the Center for Naval Analysis (2005) [pdf], Latina/o non-citizens undoubtedly comprise most of these numbers. Seven of the top ten birth countries for non-citizen service members are Latin American, with Mexico being home for most.

Perhaps Lieutenant Colonel Margaret Stock (2009)[pdf], best summarizes the current situation:

“Over the past eight years, Congress [and other federal entities have] amended military-related enlistment and naturalization rules … encouraging recruitment of immigrants into the U.S. armed forces. Without the contributions of immigrants, the military could not meet its recruiting goals” (p. 4).

Tomorrow, part two on the vulnerability of Latina/o non-citizens to military recruitment.

~Kasey Henricks, Ph.D. Student, Department of Sociology, Loyola University Chicago (The author wishes to thank Ana Moreno, Stephanie Coward, and Dave Campbell for their critically helpful comments on earlier drafts.)