Saturday, October 29, 2016

American History 101: The History of Immigration in America and Why we have Illegal Immigrants Today


A contentious subject in America and American politics to be sure.  Every election cycle, it is one of the top five issues that are discussed, and this election is no different.  And in case you are wondering, the candidates all have slightly different views on this subject.  Donald Trump wants to simply deport those who have come here illegally, and build a wall between the United States and Mexico that is patrolled heavily and will use deadly force to enforce our imperfect, and inconsisent laws on immigration.  Hillary Clinton simply wants to open our borders and allow everyone in... then just let them be citizens.  Gary Johnson has discussed a common sense immigration plan that will allow those who are here a clear path to citizenship, while offering the same clear and sensible path to citzenship to anyone who wants to come to America -- that will make people legal, tax paying citizens while still enabling American border patrols to deport those who wish to flaut our laws.

** Please note that for the purposes of this discussion, the blacks in America are considered citizens and not immigrants, because they legally were.  I fully understand that in the 1880's and forward were still heavily discrinminated against, and not remotely seen as equal to white Americans.

All that being said, immigration is not a new issue at all.  It has been an issue since the 19th century when Chinese immgrants came to America to get in on the gold rush and become rich.  This was the first real iteration of the idea that "if you come to America you will become rich" and that the "streets of America are paved with gold."  The reality for 19th century immigrants to America, whether they were Chinese, Irish, Italian or other, was that the streets of America were not paved at all, instead they were constructed of dirt and rocks, and filled with horse crap, human waste and garbage that was coupled with disease, heart ache and hard work.  This happened on both ends of the country and Americans were universally enganging in racism and discrimination against the newcomers who were doing no more than trying to escape oppression, austerity and starvation in their home country only to be faced by what were arguable more difficult conditions here in America.  What was the difference? The difference in America was opportunity and pure, rich natural resources.  The stories of quick riches and bountiful land were true.  People did come to America and get rich panning for gold, and huge tracts of land were available to almost anyone who was willing to farm it.  Farming proved to be a road to death, starvation and austirety for many -- but the opportunity was enough for many to give it a go.  

Chinese farm laborors - 1920's
The path to poor immigration policy, and racist law making began in America in 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which has a list of specific laws that prohibitied the immigration of Chinese nationals.  This was in response to the massive injection of Chinese to the west coast in order to take part in the gold rush.  The issues stemmed largely from Chinese, doing nothing more than what Americans and immigrants from other countries were doing, staking claims to mines and rivers and the local law doing nothing to eject them from these areas so "Americans" could mine or pan for the gold.  In reality, the white people had no right to those areas any more than the Chinese, but the white folk felt that the because the Chinese looked different, they should be removed.  This is clearly wrong, but the American goverment did not share that opinion -- and so the Chinese became the first group of immigrants who were legally discriminated against by federal law.  This law stayed in effect until 1943.

Unfortunately for those seeking their fortune in America, American government did not see this policy has bad nor did it stop with the Chinese moving forward.  The Immigration Act of 1891 gave the Federal Government full control over immigration into the United States, and Ellis Island opened for "business" in 1892 as the unofficial hub of
Ellis Island Inspectors
immigration into the United States.  The act of 1891 gave the powers of a police force to federal employees to make immediate and unsupervised decisions on who is allowed in the country.  And they could do so based on country of origin, what they looked like, how they spoke, if they liked them or not -- or even based on bribery.  If an immigration agent saw something they liked in the few possessions a family of immigrants from Ireland, they had the power to deny them entry into the country unless the family gave it to them.  Using Ellis Island as the central point of immigration into the country, the Federal Government was now able to more easily enforce its restrictive immigration and naturalization policies.  The Immigration Act of 1917 extended the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 by extending all banned immigration from the Chinese to most Asian countries, and introduced a literacy test for all immigrants above the age of 16.  In 1921 and 1924 the federal government assigned quotas on immigration coming from Europe by combining immigration data with United States Census data to "count the people" thanks to the newly found efficiencies introduced by IBM and the Hollerith Counting Machines.  (For a more complete history on IBM, Hollerith and how American automation cost millions their lives read: IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black).  One notable exception that will play into later legislation was the in the 1924 law, Canadians and Latin Americans were exempt from the quote system.  

In fact, during the "Roaring 20's", the United States looked to Mexico for its primary source of cheap, easy manual labor.  However, during this decade it became obvious to Mexico that the Mexicans in America (legally) were the victims of heavy racism, discsimination and violence as Americans chose to try and drive Mexicans out because they looked different and did not speak the language.  This was ignited largely by American returning from World War I and finding that they had no jobs because of Mexican labor, and the massive number of Mexican immigrants in such a short period of time.

All of this would change in 1929 when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression ensued.  We will not discuss the impact of the Great Depression in depth here, but millions of Americans lost their jobs, their homes, their money, their possessions and their lives almost overnight.  Unemployment was not just an issue, it was a systemic disease that caused starvation, homelessness and violence as Americans fought for their very existence.  Without writing a book on it, I cannot over-state how rampant austerity in American became.  The government had to address the Mexicans who immigrated (legally) to America during the previous thirty years and were working on American farms and in American factories.  One way in which the American government sought to curb unemployment was with new Immigration policy.  Between 1929 and 1935 the United States government sent back almost 80% of the Mexicans who came to America to Mexico, through a negotiated agreement with the Mexican government.  This helped appease angry Americans who felt the government was not doing enough to put food on the table of American homes.

If you think the immigration policy of the United States was bad before the Great Depression... just wait until you read what the United States and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did.  If you think they did what they had to in order to address immediate issues, and make the people happy... you are not wrong...

As the Great Depression in the United States wore on, year after year, immigration began to wane.  By the mid-1930's, America was only deporting around 9,000 Mexicans each year and that continued into the 1940's.  But as America went to war (again) it quickly became clear that there simply were not enough American men to keep America running.  American women were pressed into working for their country, and to support the war effort -- but it was not enough.  Farmers quickly saw that women were not going to work in the fields performing "stoop labor".  In response to the plea of the American farmer, and to ensure that there was going to be food on American tables, the United States reached out to their old friend Mexico and said, "Send us your workers!"  Mexico responded by saying, "Uh, I don't know..."  Mexico was well-aware that their people were mistreated by Americans, and then kicked out of America when America saw them as a problem.  In addition, the United States draft would draft alll males in America above the age of 17, it did not require citizenship.  Mexico wanted to make sure that their people
weren't abused, did not fight an American war and that Mexico somehow benefitted from Mexicans workign in American jobs.  The negotiated deal would come to be known as the Bracero Program.  It was a system by which Mexico would identify and send north qualified and hard-working individuals.  In return, America would authorize them to work in America for a set amount of time, make guaranteed wages, with guaranteed protections and at the end of their term they could re-apply to work in America.  Mexico saw this is a win-win.  They could send workers to America, guarantee them work, solve their own unemployment issues and the workers would send back money to Mexico that would be injected into the Mexican economy -- and then when their term of service was up, they would bring back American automation and expertise to Mexico.  What could possibly go wrong?  This was an immediate disaster.  Americans did not welcome the Mexicans in and allow them to work in factories to help the war effort.  Instead, they gave them jobs in the fields working short-hoes to grow crops.  There was no passing of information to the workers, and the wages were lower than imagined.  In addition, because of the ensuing illegal immigration that I will detail below -- over 750,000 Mexicans fought for the United States in World War II.  But, the jobs were guaranteed and the were not overworked or mistreated (based on the stipulations of the agreement).  Unfortunately, the center of American immgration was in New York.  Mexicans were coming north through Texas and California.  There was no control over who was coming in -- even though there was an agreement in place.  And illegal immigration skyrocketed as soon as the ink was dry on the paper, and Mexicans realized how much work there was in America.  American farmers responded by hiring the illegals over the Braceros because they could pay them less and work them 80 hours per week without blinking twice.  And so the illegal immigration and migrant worker issue was created.  

This practice continued throughout the war, and in 1945 when World War II was over and American G.I.'s returned and tried to resume their lives, they found that they could not.  And that is where the idea that Mexican immigrants are taking American jobs came from.  Because it was true, at the time.  What became clear by 1950 was that even as some Bracero contracts were not renewed on American farms that actually paid attention to the law, Americans did not want or take those jobs.  In California alone there were approximately 50,000 unemployed Americans and over 70,000 open agricultural jobs in 1965.  Farmers could not find Americans willing to work in the fields, they preferred unemployment.  Because of this, the American government was slow to act on the illegal immigration issue -- even at the insistance of the American people.  The farmers continued to pressure the government, telling them that without the illegal workers, there would no farm produce.  And the federal government reacted by shuffling its feet, passing legislation with no teeth.  The Bracero Program (that still provided labor at a cheaper rate than American labor demanded) continued until 1965.  The Bracero Program provided over 66,000 Mexican laborers at its wartime height in 1944 -- the program was providing over 437,000 Mexican workers at its peacetime high in 1959.  The program was set to be put for renewal every two years, and ultimately was simply not renewed at the end of 1965 -- and as a result, Texas and California lost almost 180,000 workers overnight.  This caused the shortage of workers mentioned above and was highly criticized for not being phased out to help the American farmer.  As a result, the American farmer has little recourse beyond hiring the unregulated and highly available illegal immigrant worker from Mexico.  And this mess was created by FDR, the negotiation of the Bracero Program and unregulated illegal immigration from Mexico.

Today, we have the bevy of bad, band-aid legislation that sought to pacify those who looked for a way to curb illegal immigration.  It is obvious to everyone that the past 60+ years of American immigration law has been a complete failure.  It has done little more than enable illegal immgration in order to prop up more bad legislation that has tried to prop up American farmers.  It has looked the other way as hordes of immigrants flaut the unenforcable American border laws and then deported people in an unfair system of immigration control that puts citizenship out of the reach of the average Mexican.  Meanwhile, the illegal immigrants continue to come to America, make slave wages and work slave hours and send that money home to Mexico to help their families live good lives, and inject money into a poor economy.  Not only do none of those funds come back to America, but the illegal immigrants continue to receive more and more benefits of being in America including free medical care and education for their children, plus the benefits of the Anchor Baby laws.  The longer a family can stay in America illegally, the more children they will have in America as citizens.  And even if the parents are deported, the children are able to stay and then send money back to their parents in Mexico.  For illegal immigrants, it is a great scenario... and today the United States still has no control over immigration.

So what to do?  If we take our lessons from history, we can see that opening the borders and letting people come in however they want does not end up in a net positive result for America or its people.  We see that closing our borders and attempting to poorly regulate immigration, only results in people doing whatever they have to in order to stay in America and skirt our laws.  What we have never seen is a well designed, comon sense immigration policy that is designed to help intergrate immigrants from all over the world into American society.  We have never seen an easy path to citizenship that not only is attractive to people looking for the "American Dream", but also benefits America with productive workers who pay taxes and contribute by more than the sweat of their backs.

Bruce holds a degrees in Computer Science, Biblical History and American History from Temple University, Liberty University and American Public University.  He is a member of the Historical Studies Honor Society and the Saber and Scroll Society.  He has worked in educational technology for over 20 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Be on the lookout for Towering Pines Volume Two: The Sound and the Fury which is currently a work in progress.

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