Fixing Immigration Requires Historical Understandings & A Sense of Humanity

Americans need to be intellectually honest (rather than want to laugh) when empirical and historical evidence concerning immigration realities are provided.

Immigration is intertwined and implicated with our history of excluding citizenship to immigrants of color and with our global economic trade agreements such as NAFTA. Thus, it should surprise no one that The Pew Hispanic Center finds that nearly two-thirds of the over 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have been here for over a decade.

Historical and economic policies are not separate from current immigration realities.

As Americans we must use empirical and historical evidence to form a complicated and nuanced understanding of immigration rather than resort to the disrespectful treatment of prominent scholars, simply because one does not agree with their analysis. If one feels the personal need to be mean-spirited it would be better directed towards Congress, as it is their lack of political will that has created the de facto system of immigration we have today. Congress needs to make immigration policy reforms committed to the political process via deliberation, compromise, political courage and leadership—regardless of whether the outcome pleases everyone. However, for some it is easier to attack academics that have devoted their careers towards critical thinking, developing ideas, and fostering learning and understanding in an effort to make the world a more knowledgeable and with that, better place.

Or one could educate themselves on the historical and empirical realities of immigration in America. For example, In Major Problems in American Immigration History, Professor Mae M. Ngai demonstrates that the study of immigration has evolved from the European model of assimilation to examining where we are today—discussing the major issues surrounding groups who have never had the same opportunity to assimilate because of racist laws and a xenophobic citizenry.

However, for many people it is much easier to fear America’s changing demographics, ignore our white racial frame, and use an ahistorical argument about American exceptionalism by attacking academics with statements such as we would not want “the USA to look just like the third world these people left.” These types of views lacking in substance or empirical evidence are everywhere and do not further efforts at reform or get us closer to a civil dialogue of understanding. One prominent example is evidenced in Patrick Buchanan latest book, Suicide of a Superpower, where he even has a chapter called “The End of White America.” Rather than an honest account of how in every Naturalization Act from 1790 to 1952, Congress included “white person” as a prerequisite for naturalization and that basic laws of citizenship did not apply to racial minorities until 1940 (look it up), Buchanan instead espouses an intellectually dishonest argument intended to instill and deepen distain in whites towards non-whites as they become the minority (oh no!). In short, Buchanan argues that Latinos with greater allegiances to Mexico and their own culture will ruin America’s future. This nativist argument is about economics, xenophobia, and racism. This argument is nothing new and unfortunately, it has many followers.

While European immigrants have also historically confronted hostility, particularly Southern and Eastern Europeans, they never faced the kind of legal racial restrictions on naturalization experienced by people of color. For example, Ngai states,

“…the Immigration Act of 1924 comprised a constellation of reconstructed racial categories….At one level, the new immigration law differentiated Europeans according to nationality and ranked them in a hierarchy of desirability. At another level, the law constructed a white American race, in which persons of European descent shared a common whiteness that made them distinct from those deemed to be not white.”

Ngai goes on to state,

“This distinction gave all Euro-Americans a stake in what Matthew Jacobson has called a ‘consanguine white race” and facilitated their Americanization…[while the] racialization of the latter groups’ [Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, etc.] national origins rendered them unalterably foreign and unassimilable to the nation.” (p. 387-388).

Unfortunately, the consequences of these laws remain with us today.

The lack of critical analysis around the historic and current racial considerations of immigration and racial exclusion, however, comes at a great cost to us as a nation. Where is our sense of humanity? Who would choose to leave their young children for years to work for next to nothing in a country that does not accept them? Who would chose to watch their children cry of hunger at night because their stomach’s ached from lack of food? Who would chose to leave their elderly parents knowing they may never see them again? Whatever solutions Congress eventually comes up with we ought to be a better nation than to lose the humanity of the situation.


  1. folkaart

    “Where is our sense of humanity?” Maria Chavez

    True, we should learn some humanity from our southern neighbors. Hereis Mexico’s answer to the illegal alien problem. Based upon their standards, 99 percent of the Mexican and Central American illegals in the USA would not qualify to be here.

    “– The Mexican government will bar foreigners if they upset “the equilibrium of the national demographics.” How’s that for racial and ethnic profiling?

    – If outsiders do not enhance the country’s “economic or national interests” or are “not found to be physically or mentally healthy,” they are not welcome. Neither are those who show “contempt against national sovereignty or security.” They must not be economic burdens on society and must have clean criminal histories. Those seeking to obtain Mexican citizenship must show a birth certificate, provide a bank statement proving economic independence, pass an exam and prove they can provide their own health care.

    – Illegal entry into the country is equivalent to a felony punishable by two years’ imprisonment. Document fraud is subject to fine and imprisonment; so is alien marriage fraud. Evading deportation is a serious crime; illegal re-entry after deportation is punishable by ten years’ imprisonment. Foreigners may be kicked out of the country without due process and the endless bites at the litigation apple that illegal aliens are afforded in our country (see, for example, President Obama’s illegal alien aunt — a fugitive from deportation for eight years who is awaiting a second decision on her previously rejected asylum claim).

    – Law enforcement officials at all levels — by national mandate — must cooperate to enforce immigration laws, including illegal alien arrests and deportations. The Mexican military is also required to assist in immigration enforcement operations. Native-born Mexicans are empowered to make citizens’ arrests of illegal aliens and turn them in to authorities.

    – Ready to show your papers? Mexico’s National Catalog of Foreigners tracks all outside tourists and foreign nationals. A National Population Registry tracks and verifies the identity of every member of the population, who must carry a citizens’ identity card. Visitors who do not possess proper documents and identification are subject to arrest as illegal aliens.”

    • Maria Chavez Author

      Your email does not address mine. The people that are coming over to the U.S. have no power or say in the kind of government Mexico is. They are not the group of elites who influence any of the policies you list. In fact, they are the product of many of Mexico and the U.S.’s policies. They are the ones caught in the middle of two countries who do not share commitments to them, the poor.

      Your list of points about the problems with the Mexican government could be extended, in fact. It also strengthens my argument that we should do all we can to make rigorous policies to politically and socially incorporate undocumented immigrants and their citizen children by providing English classes, encouraging naturalization and doing many other humane and ethical things to instill the values that lead to good social capital and good citizenship.

      These are American values. We just don’t seem to want to apply them to people of color. So, perhaps if you learned as much about our problems with immigration as you seem to have learned about Mexico’s you’d understand.

      • folkaart

        We should encourage Mexicans to stay in their homeland and improve Mexico. That’s a far more rational thing to do than to encourage them to flee. Why should they come hear and learn English and abandon their own culture and country? Do you find fault with the Spanish language or their culture and feel it should be eliminated?

  2. folkaart

    “However, for many people it is much easier to fear America’s changing demographics, ignore our white racial frame, and use an ahistorical argument about American exceptionalism by attacking academics with statements such as we would not want “the USA to look just like the third world these people left.” These types of views lacking in substance or empirical evidence are everywhere…”

    Here is some evidence for you. The fear (and racial bias) is more than justified. Whites as a group will not tolerate this kind of uncivilized behavior forever. Virtually all of our urban areas are now plagued with stealing and violence by blacks and Hispanics thus making any real kind if integration impossible. It’s not the dark skin we don’t like, it’s the behavior that goes along with it.

    Mexico comes to Arizona

    Flash mobs, a new black thing.

  3. Maria Chavez Author

    It is unfortunate that your responses seem to only think out of the white frame, uncritically, and you use much of the conventional media lines as your evidence, which are also based on the white racial frame.

    It is sad to see just how successful and powerful the propaganda from the conservative elite and the media about people of color and immigrants are. The truth, supported by empirical data as I and many other scholars have noted, is very hard to counter against these powerful forces.

    At this point, perhaps a poem by William Stafford can help bridge the gap.

    A Ritual to Read to Each Other
    By William Stafford

    If you don’t know the kind of person I am
    and I don’t know the kind of person you are
    a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
    and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

    For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
    a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
    sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
    storming out to play through the broken dyke.

    And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
    but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
    I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
    to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

    And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
    a remote important region in all who talk:
    though we could fool each other, we should consider—
    lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

    For it is important that awake people be awake,
    or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
    the signals we give—yes, no, or maybe—
    should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

  4. Shelby


    I would like to repsond to your comment:

    “Whites as a group will not tolerate this kind of uncivilized behavior forever. Virtually all of our urban areas are now plagued with stealing and violence by blacks and Hispanics thus making any real kind if integration impossible. It’s not the dark skin we don’t like, it’s the behavior that goes along with it.”

    The FBI reports that out of 10,177,907 arrests mad in the U.S. in 2010, 7,066,154 arrests were of White individuals, 2,846,862 arrests were of black individuals, 145,612 arrest were of American Indians and Alaskan Natives, and 119,279 arrests were of Asians and Pacific Islanders. Based on your logic, Whites should also be intolerant of the behavior of White people. Crime is inherent in every race just as good quality citizens are inherent in every race.

    You argue that it is not the dark skin we don’t like, however, your original post was solely about Hispanics, in this later post you throw in “blacks”. Why do you fail to acknowledge white crime, Asian crime, and Native American crime? Your statement defines all crime by color. What you fail to understand is that there are good and bad people of every color. If crime is your concern then you need to look at what insitutional changes must occur in order to reduce crime as opposed to believing that crime will be remedied by solving the “immigration problem.”

    As mentioned by Maria Chavez, in order to impact immigration you need to look at economic policy. Most immigrants come to the U.S. for economic reasons, they have families to provide for. Their country, as a produc of poor economic trade agreements (NAFTA), has failed to provide them with the economic opportunities that would allow them to support their family. What would you do?


    • Seattle in Texas

      No doubt. And that’s just looking at the stats at face value…not taking into account the unequal distribution of policing, arrests, etc., and abuse of personal discretion on part of the officers throughout the nation 🙁 But so true, good and bad in all groups and whites are not by any means populations of all virtuous perfect angels….

      It’s about color–because while folkaart used the “urban” example, when folks of color move into white surburban neighborhoods, the folks of color run into things like the Henry Louis Gates situation, or the young man in Houston who was shot in his own drive way for being mistaken as a burglar to his own home, or the example provided by Dr. Chavez a while back of the Latino man who was moving in to his new home on Mercer Island and was thought to be the yard worker rather than the new home owner. But then, thinking about the rural? I am further aware of some AI families having similar problems back up in the PNW at least. So it’s not even that whites don’t want to desegregate because of the reasons folkaart listed, at least in the middle+ SES, in many cases they make it difficult for those of color who do try to move into white populated areas and live the American Dream, as promised if they do, and successfully accomplish, X, Y, and Z.

      And what about Black populations living in rural areas? That doesn’t fit into the “urban” criminal racist stereotypes at all. If Blacks were inherently criminal, as folkaart tries to project, it would seem nobody of color would be living in rural areas…but in history, segregation forced people by racial groups to be more largely concentrated in different geographical areas. And if Blacks are inherently criminal, then why were they good enough to live in the same home/property as whites during slavery, or to bring into the homes and businesses for cleaning, nanny’s, etc., during Jim Crow? Whites don’t mind the free or cheap labor when they are benefiting, but when it comes to giving back all of the sudden the people they kept most close they criminalize?

      But Blacks and Latinos don’t have to commit no crimes to be targeted–DWB all the time and I have no idea how many civil rights violations occur on a daily basis in this nation. Even more the more affluent–as with that attorney who was driving his BMW through Oregon some years back and got pulled over by a State Patrol and he treated the driver as if he were a criminal driving stolen car. Or a first generation Mexican professor whose a U.S. citizen and every time he and his brother would drive down to Mexico to see their family they not only got pulled over much, but when they got to the border, every single check on the U.S. side consisted of a several hour check that included everything in their car being removed and thrown on the side of the road left for them to pick up, etc. Many stories and experiences.

      And what’s most saddening about the undocumented situations is that half want them here because they are profiting big on the exploitation in so many ways and it improves the quality of life for all citizens while the other half want them gone even though they’re not willing to go fill their shoes and endure the same wages, living conditions, etc. Which, leads the heart of the issue too often being ignored in the debate–the heart being the serious human rights questions and issues this nation wishes not to address. Some quick solutions could be dual citizenship as Dr. Steinberg noted in an earlier post, amnesty, but apparently such things are too difficult to confront in “the greatest nation in the world”. It’s beyond me how some groups of human beings can easily reduce other human beings to mere disposable blank objects, without a second though or blink of an eye, whether it be the pro-side whose exploiting and making great profits and/or appreciating the extended comforts or the anti-immigrant side who too is benefiting from the added comforts, but just ungrateful…. It’s an issue that needs to be fixed and there’s no excuses on why it can’t be, or shouldn’t be, like yesterday.

  5. wrightjf

    One of the main subtopics of concern within the nativist camp in the US is the supposed decline of the English language, due to the new waves of immigrants (primarily Latinos). In their view, immigrants today (unlike European immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) simply do not have the same work ethic or desire to adopt American values as previous generations of immigrants. They accuse new immigrants of huddling into ethnic enclaves, not learning English, and holding greater allegiance to their native cultures. This, however, is another racially fueled claim that simply does not stand up on its own empirically.
    A recent publication by the Cato Institute ( in 2010 used early US census data and information from Pew Hispanic Center to tackle two anti-immigrant views. The first focused on the most visible immigrant group today (Latinos) and their willingness and abiility to speak English. Although only 35% of the 1st generation reported speaking English well or pretty well, the percentages for the 2nd and 3rd generations increased dramatically (91% and 97% respectively). Furthermore, the vast majority of Hispanics (around 90%) voiced the belief that learning English is necessary for success in the US. So why have some local legislators (particularly in the South) been attempting to pass laws declaring English as the one and only official language? Hispanic immigrants are learning English- in fact it is Spanish that is usually dropped by the 3rd or 4th generation. English is not a dying language: it is the international language of business and science. More people in China use English than in America. This English only legislation is simply pandering to white nativist fears.
    The old, “good” immigrants of the past did not assimilate or learn English any faster. In a sample of three towns in Wisconsin, nearly a quarter of adults only spoke German in 1910, 30 years after the majority of German immigrants had come to the US. So why did some of these old immigrants receive the benefit of the doubt even though they were assimilating slower than Latino immigrants today? They were white and from Western Europe.

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