The “Immigrant Problem”: A Historical Review and the New Impacts under Trump

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

• • •

by Marla A. Ramírez*

Despite the widespread rhetoric that depicts the United States as a country of immigrants and a land of opportunity for all, and despite the fact that people from all over the world have made the United States their home since the nation’s infancy, immigrants have not been easily accepted in the country. Since the nineteenth century, different ethnic and racial immigrant groups—Southern and Eastern European, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican immigrants—have been classified as irreducible “others” and as a threat to the nation’s safety, racial purity, and cultural values. In many cases, laws have been enacted to deport specific ethnic and racial groups and prevent future immigration from certain regions. For instance, the Act of 1881 required federal inspectors to examine immigrants—who at the time were mainly Europeans arriving though Ellis Island—and deny entry to “undesirables.” Immigrants who were diseased, morally objectionable, or whose immigration fares were paid by someone else were denied admission into the United States. Only a year later, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902, effectively banning Chinese immigrants and making them ineligible for US citizenship for 61 years. This law was finally overturned in 1943. Filipino and Mexican immigrants have also been labeled as “inassimilable”: during the Great Depression, Mexicans and later Filipinos were perceived as highly dependent on public assistance, blamed for the economic ills of the country, and removed in mass regardless of their legal status.

Fear of immigrants and the insistence to scapegoat them for the problems of the country is nothing new. In this sense, Trump’s immigration discourse resembles and recycles weary immigration narratives that date back to the early twentieth century. In 1931, for instance, Jane Perry Clark, a political scientist and immigration consultant to the U.S. Federal Government, conducted a study on the mass deportations during the years leading up to the Great Depression and concluded that:

Deportation of aliens whose presence in the United State is believed to be undesirable is not new, but it has become increasingly emphasized as a panacea for our economic difficulties, particularly unemployment. “Send them unnaturalized aliens out of the country!” is the cry. “Let them go home so that our citizens can have their jobs!” (Clark 1931, 119)

Donald Trump delivered an almost identical anti-immigrant message to his supporters during his presidential campaign by promising to “establish new immigration controls to boost wages and to ensure that open jobs are offered to American workers first.” This rhetoric continues to create a hierarchy of “valued” citizens based on whiteness as well as gender, race, and class backgrounds.

Historically, anti-immigrant narratives have resulted in “good vs. bad” immigrant models. The “good” or “ideal” immigrants are those who immerse themselves in US culture, are not dependent on public assistance, have no criminal record, and have secured upper socioeconomic mobility. However, as several immigration scholars have argued (see further readings below), the “ideal immigrant” image is unrealistic given the structural barriers of inequality and racism that prevent immigrant minority groups from achieving upper mobility and inclusion. The “bad” or “undesired” immigrant, by contrast, is the opposite of the mythical ideal immigrant, and often categorized as criminal. As a result of such discourses, historically the imagined “ideal” immigrant has been welcomed, whereas the real “undesired” immigrant has been denigrated and deported.

It is in this respect that Trump’s presidency might signal the emergence of something new. Trump, indeed, has taken this anti-immigrant discourse to a new level by targeting both the socially constructed “good” and “bad” immigrants. He promised that if elected president, he would immediately terminate President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA grants deferred action (low priority for deportation) and a temporary work permit that is renewable every two years to eligible applicants. DACA recipients represent “ideal” immigrants because they are mostly undocumented immigrants who arrived to the United States as children, have good moral character, value US culture, and in many cases hold college and advanced degrees. At the same time, Trump has also targeted the perceived “undesired, criminal” immigrant by promising to deport 3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records. The concept of criminal records has been broadly defined in this area, and people with traffic violations, for instance, have been placed on deportation under the Secured Communities program that Trump promises to enforce nationwide.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign popularized a narrative that vilifies all immigrants, specifically targeting Mexicans and Latinas/Latinos, and makes little or no difference between the socially and historically constructed “ideal” and “undesired” immigrants. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he stated on June 16, 2015, during his now infamous presidential candidacy speech in which he also classified Mexican immigrants as a threat to US society and blamed them for bringing drugs, crime, and rape into the country: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” His proposed solution, as is well known, is the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Moreover, Trump’s immigration discourse, while not new, is not entirely consistent with historical approaches to immigration. Trump has scapegoated immigrants not only for the economic ills of the nation, as seen in the past, but also for most, if not all, the nation’s problems. “We will enforce all of our immigration laws,” emphasized Donald Trump on August 31, 2016 during his step-by-step immigration plan speech in Phoenix, Arizona—a speech that was delivered only a few hours after a surprise meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. In his immigration speech, Trump outlined 10 steps to fix what he referred to as a “terrible, terrible, problem,” and justified his proposal by stating: “We’re in the middle of a jobs crisis, a border crisis, and a terrorism crisis like never before. All energies of the federal government and the legislative process must now be focused on immigration security.” The promise that unemployment, drug trafficking, and terrorism will be solved by mass deportations is not only false and unrealistic, but also dangerous, as it incites Trump supporters to physically and verbally attack people who are perceived as undocumented immigrants. Such attacks have already been reported and documented (see, for example, here and here).

We will not know exactly what effects Trump’s presidency will have on immigrant communities until he is in office, and probably not until some years after his term is over. What we already know is that so far Trump has backed up on some of his immigration promises. For example, Trump initially promised to build an impenetrable wall along the US–Mexico border to be paid by the Mexican government; as of January 6, 2017, however, he is proposing that the U.S. Congress, and by extension all taxpayers, including undocumented immigrants who do pay federal income taxes, pay for the wall. After public criticism, he retracted in a tweet by stating that Congress will pay for the wall first and then Mexico will reimburse the U.S. government for the expenses (though he has not explained how the Mexican government will be made to reimburse the United States for these expenses).

Trump Twitter

What we also do know is that immigrant communities and allies have historically fought—and will continue to organize and resist against—oppression, hate, and exclusion. The constitutional rights and protections guaranteed by the US constitution to all people living in the United States, regardless of immigration status, income, race, ethnicity, gender, age, or sexual orientation, have been fought for by different generations; today, we must continue to strategize to protect equal rights for all. Immigrant organizers and allies have fought (and we should continue to fight) to:

  1. Demand due process in deportation proceedings.
  2. Launch “know your rights” workshops nationwide to inform people about their rights when interacting with immigration officials.
  3. Establish sanctuaries for immigrant, queer, and Muslim peoples. The more cities and college campuses become sanctuaries, the harder it will be for Trump to follow through with his campaign promise to block funding for sanctuary cities.
  4. Organize congressional visits, meetings with representatives’ local offices, and phone banks to push against exclusionary legislation.
  5. Educate others in the workplace, school, and through social media about our country’s immigration history and the myths around immigration debates.
  6. Listen to the concerns others face to discuss and propose solutions that center on inclusion and reject hate.

The above is not a comprehensive list, and I am sure that immigrant communities and allies will certainly develop new strategies not included here. As an immigrant myself, I am not fearful of the effects of the Trump administration. I am, instead, inspired by the power of the people who across the history of this country have come together to further inclusivity and respect across differences.

• • •

References and Further Readings
Arredondo, G.F. 2008. Mexican Chicago: Race, Identity, and Nation, 1916–39. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Clark, J.P. 1931. Deportation of Aliens from the United States to Europe (New York: Columbia University Press.
Ruiz, V.L. 1998. From Out of the Shadow: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Suárez-Orozco, M.M. 2000. “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Assimilation but Were Afraid to Ask.” Daedalus 129(4): 1–30.

• • •

* Marla Andrea Ramírez was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve. She joined San Francisco State University in Fall 2016 as an Assistant Professor of Sociology. She specializes in oral history, Mexican migrations, mass forced removals, immigration law and policies since the 20th century, gendered migrations, and the “Mexican Repatriation” Program.

• • •

One thought on “The “Immigrant Problem”: A Historical Review and the New Impacts under Trump

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *