Monday, November 08, 2010

They keep on coming ...*

Peter Schrag has written the book I wish I'd had available when I was very suddenly thrust into doing political defense of immigrants nearly two decades ago. I knew I'd entered a hornet's nest; it wasn't hard for me to choose a side: who could support denying medical care or education to a child? (The voters of the state of California in 1994 tried, but that's another story.)

Aside from some vague references in American history classes to a "melting pot" and years of living in California where in the 1990s about one third of everyone was foreign born, I didn't have any strong awareness of the history and trajectory of immigration policies and immigrants in this country. Now that's all readily available, intelligently laid out in Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.

From the time of the first European colonists, some people in this country -- usually landowners and large employers -- have encouraged newcomers to migrate here to do necessary work. Other people, already here and working hard, have viewed newcomers as competition. Newcomers are more easily absorbed if they are religiously, culturally and racially similar to the previous wave of immigrants -- and experience resistance to their arrival in proportion to their differences. This pattern has repeated itself cyclically from the Massachusetts colony up through the present day. According to Schrag, immigration acquired an ideal status with the founding of the United States that still frames the experience.

In revolution we became Americans by choice, no longer Englishmen. From that moment on, becoming an American was far removed from the classic determinants of nationality and citizenship -- nativity, ethnicity, religion. It was and would continue to be an affirmative act, something previously unknown in the world and in many places still unknown.

Anyone who has registered new voters outside citizenship ceremonies, as I have, has seen the excitement generated in that "affirmative act."

But from the nation's beginnings, immigration has also intersected with the country's original sin: white supremacy. Racial categorization of individuals served to control persons with inferior status from the earliest colonial times, first during European colonists' failed efforts to enslave Native inhabitants and then through successful importation of bound Black Africans. Race served its purpose so well it has always been a feature of how current residents understand new arrivals, sometimes with what later seem almost comic results. Hardly anyone's ancestors were considered "white" (rightful members of the dominant category) when they got here. Schrag gives a run down:

.. the questions, confusion, and controversy about race that began even before the 1787 convention -- at first just about the black-white/north-south dichotomy, then about a growing multiplicity of ethnicities -- have long since crept into countless national policy areas, including, for the past 150 years, questions about immigration. Who qualified as White -- not just in the one-drop-of-blood sense -- but in determining whether Arabians or Armenians or Syrians or Punjabis or Filipinos or Hawaiians were white and thus eligible for naturalization? Was the Mexican white or, as part (or maybe largely) Indian, something else? (Under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Mexicans in the territory taken from Mexico after the war in I848 could choose to become Americans, so essentially they became white.) Was a person who was half white and one-fourth Chinese and one-fourth Japanese white? From the last decade of the nineteenth century to the I940s, federal courts confronted more than fifty such questions. ...

[There were] ... suits in which the courts ruled repeatedly that the Chinese weren't white, that the Japanese weren't white, that Hawaiians weren't white, that Filipinos weren't white, and that Burmese weren't white. There were also decisions that Armenians were white. ... In 1919 two courts ruled that Asian Indians were white (one other court, in 1919, ruled they probably weren't). After 1923, the courts ruled that Asian Indians, sometimes "Hindoos," weren't white, and in 1925 that Punjabis weren't white. Four pre-1917 decisions had ruled that Syrians were white, and three that they weren't. Then came rulings that Koreans weren't white; that Afghanis weren't white, followed in 1945 by a decision that they were; and that "Arabians" weren't White, again followed by a Board of Immigration Appeals ruling in 1941 that, because European civilization had originated in the Middle East, that they were white. By the late 1930s, Mexicans were considered white for most official poses.

Talk about a country tying itself in knots! Though earlier generations' conundrums over the "race" of immigrants are easy to mock, people's lives were constrained, disrupted and sometimes destroyed by the policies rooted in these decisions -- as they still are by our current immigration policies.

I'll take up Schrag's discussion of where we are today in my next post.

* The headline refers to California Governor Pete Wilson's nativist political ads showing shadowy figures leaping fences that helped him win office in 1994. Republican Teabagger Sharon Angle revived the meme in losing to Senator Harry Reid in Nevada in 2010.


The Mom Chef said...

Bravo! This is a fantastic post and I think I'll be finding me that book soon! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As a French immigrant, I think I'm pretty white, but I do have Armenian blood running through my veins too so I'll stay incognito (unless that's another term for covered in a white sheet). Thanks again.

Darlene said...

Racism in one form or other has been a part of the American story from the beginning. The Chinese were treated abysmally as were other ethnic groups as they emigrated to our country.

I don't know the answer to teaching tolerance to the masses, but we must not stop trying.

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