by Marcel Akhame, columnist
American immigration policy faces a wide variety of challenges, beginning with how we discuss immigrants and their experiences. For instance, the almost exclusive focus on Latinx immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, has led to xenophobia and inept immigration policy. Second, the American ‘melting pot’ framework often fails to recognize the varied experiences and conditions faced by the entirely multi-ethnic group of people residing in the United States, further harming the creation of effective immigration policy.
Of the ten nationalities that faced the most deportations in 2018, nine were Latin-American. With these numbers and the close proximity of the U.S. to South and Central America, it is clear why much of the undocumented immigration discourse and policy center Latinx immigrants and border crossings. (Just look at the rhetoric around the border wall that the Trump administration failed to complete before losing reelection this year.) Unfortunately, this focus on border crossings by Latinx migrants fails to recognize that visa overstays have outnumbered border crossings every year since 2007. This means that, as a country, we are overlooking the true circumstances of most undocumented migrants, who are more likely to be from nations outside of Central and South America. I discuss these facts and figures not to redirect xenophobia from one group of immigrants to another—as a matter of fact, I am a Nigerian immigrant, and wholeheartedly believe that all immigrants make our country great. It is paramount that as a country we understand the nature of undocumented migration, as this understanding has significant implications for the effectiveness of our immigration policy.
Furthermore, the idea that all immigrants share the same experiences and deal with similar conditions is patently false. Presently and historically, the United States has treated some immigrant groups as “undesirable,” subjecting them to xenophobia and racism while welcoming other “desirable” groups of immigrants with open arms. This has led to alternate experiences, with some immigrants more easily assimilating while others struggle for a slice of the proverbial American pie.
Some immigrant groups have been originally seen as undesirable and over time come to be (broadly) accepted as desirable. Initially, Chinese-Americans were seen as undesirable and were barred from immigrating to the United States through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first law in American history to place broad restrictions on certain immigrant groups. Presently, Chinese-Americans (and other Asian-American groups) have come to be seen as desirable due to the model minority myth that characterizes Asian-Americans as a polite, law-abiding group that has largely achieved success through a combination of innate abilities and hard work. Though seemingly beneficial at first glance, this classification actively harms Asian-Americans, as some Asian-American groups do struggle in America but are largely ignored. Many Asian-Americans also struggle with a long history of enduring American racism (such as the Japanese internment camps of the early 1940s).
Another example that illustrates the varied immigrant experiences in the U.S. is the wave of Irish and German immigrants who settled in the United States between 1820 and 1860. They were initially considered so undesirable that the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party was formed in backlash to their arrival. But within a few decades, these groups of immigrants (and other Europeans) came to be seen as desirable (and white). The many privileges that accompany whiteness drastically altered the experience of European immigrants in the United States. Undocumented white immigrants are rarely questioned about their immigration status. They also rarely experience xenophobia or have travel bans placed on their countries of origin. These experiences vary drastically from those of other marginalized immigrant groups, especially those from Latin America.
When Mexican immigrants first began immigrating to the U.S. in large numbers during World War II to fill agricultural labor shortages through the Bracero Program, they were largely seen as desirable and necessary. But following the conclusion of the program, nothing was done about the still-existing labor shortages that had forced the program’s creation. As a result, unauthorized immigrants began coming into the U.S. seeking job opportunities. Over time, economic changes in the U.S. and the many countries south of it increased the presence of these unauthorized immigrants, who then began to be seen as undesirable to many Americans.
The often-overgeneralizing discourse on undesirable American immigrants, both documented and undocumented, has largely been racist and xenophobic at the worst of times and false at the best. This has led to incompetent immigration policy that inefficiently spends our tax dollars while harming immigrants, particularly those deemed as undesirable. We as a nation must ask ourselves one question: what attitudes differentiate the experiences of certain immigrant groups, and how does this affect United States immigration policy?
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