On Friday, revelers will gather and march in festive parades throughout the country to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. This tradition predates the founding of the United States and its longevity speaks to the rootedness and prominence of the country’s Irish American population.
But the pageantry and pride on display on St. Patrick’s Day speak to something more than a shared ethnic identity. They are tied to the Irish immigrant experience, which is a crucial part of Irish American culture. Irish Americans have long used St. Patrick’s Day parades to demand opportunities for immigration from their native land, and one of these campaigns even opened doors for immigrants from across the globe. Its success is a reminder that immigration doesn’t need to be a zero sum game, especially because the inclusion of diverse communities of immigrants has long been a boon for the United States.
We see our history of racism against Black Americans as distinct from our immigration policy, but the two are deeply intertwined.
Black History Month is an important time to consider the deep roots of racism and inequality in the United States and to highlight the power of the long — and continuing — struggles for civil rights and freedom. But seldom do we consider how the U.S. treatment of immigrants is part of this story. While American mythology paints the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” the United States has tended to lionize and welcome mostly White immigrants.
The erasure of Black immigrants from our history has allowed a whitewashed version of this history to endure. This has enabled U.S. officials to treat Black immigrants from Africa and the Americas as illegitimate — as temporary workers rather than permanent immigrants, as economic migrants rather than asylum seekers or as people whose very presence has been criminalized.
Policies of inclusion — like the Diversity Visa lottery — are rare but significant because they cut against such long-standing erasure and exclusion. They also point to how the struggles for immigrant rights and for Black freedom are interconnected.
After a massive failure of presidential leadership — ignoring preventive measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, which has both necessitated the unprecedented closure and collapse of the economy and soaring unemployment and contributed to 45,000 American deaths and counting — President Trump returned to the playbook that got him to the White House. On Monday night, he used the pretext of the pandemic to tweet that he intended to suspend immigration to the United States, before announcing further details.
The scope of the policy is hazy, with officials reportedly scrambling to write an executive order giving legal and practical boundaries to the president’s most recent rantings. The president’s tweets often presage real policy change, though what he says doesn’t instantly become law; reporting suggests that the draft executive order may be more narrow than initially touted. Yet by announcing a total moratorium on immigration, he may have incited panic as well as signaling his core values and vision.
Of course immigration is not a vector for the spread of the coronavirus, which is already circulating within the country. And xenophobia only exacerbates the problem in dangerous ways. The president’s rhetoric has already been linked to rising hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans, and continuing to cast foreign-born and nonwhite people as bringers of disease may further fan these flames. A full immigration ban could possibly limit the ability for the United States to recruit needed health-care and agricultural workers or make it impossible for families to reunite at a time when we especially need the people we love.
So why suggest an immigration ban? Because times of crisis create opportunities for anti-immigration advocates to cast blame on outsiders and transform policy in ways they have long sought, to arrest what they perceive as “demographic change” and the loss of a white America. Trump’s emergency measures therefore could outlive his presidency.
As Jews and Catholics from Southern and Eastern Europe overtook protestants as the bulk of immigrants coming to the United States in the early 20th century, nativists, alarmed by the portended demographic change, sought to regulate the race and national origins of immigrants. They believed that Jews, Italians and others, as well as Asian immigrants, were biologically and culturally inferior to Protestants from Northern and Western Europe and they wanted to protect American “whiteness” from “inferior” racial stock.
In the 1920s, nativists won, passing restrictive laws that curtailed immigration with a system of per-country quotas that remained in place for the next 40 years.
In the 1960s, policymakers rejected race-based restrictions to create a more equitable system. But shifting geopolitics led to an unexpected outcome: Over the next decade, immigrants came increasingly from beyond Europe, from Latin America and Asia, and later African countries. Like previous generations of immigrants to the United States, they found some combination of opportunity and discrimination, and poured their talents, gifts and hard work into their communities to create better opportunities for themselves and their children.
But like their predecessors in the early 20th century, nativists in the 1970s bristled at the arrival of these immigrants. As the writer Peter Brimelow would put it, late 20th-century immigration was “Adolf Hitler’s posthumous revenge on America.” Because postwar liberals had been so intent on eliminating racism and xenophobia from U.S. policy, they’d inadvertently enabled immigration that was destroying “the American nation” as Brimelow understood it, that is to say, primarily white and Protestant.
A newly invigorated nativist movement launched from unlikely roots: the environmental movement, with its focus on limiting population growth. John Tanton, with support from a small circle of like-minded thinkers and funders, founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 1979. Rather than reintroducing a quota system, Tanton and his fellow reformers believed that they could focus on the numbers and push policymakers to dramatically cut immigration, which would naturally cut immigration of nonwhite people.
Tanton drummed up public support by focusing on unauthorized immigration. Policy changes, notably the end of the Bracero program in 1964, had increased the number of unauthorized immigrants, as people who once came legally now lost their governmental stamp of approval. Yet, Tanton recognized that vilifying these workers as “illegal” would frame the byproduct of this policy shift as an issue of individuals’ immorality and law breaking. He cultivated relationships with stakeholders who cared primarily about this issue, like the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol labor union.
But Tanton understood that as long as legal immigration continued, people of color would continue to become Americans. In a 1979 proposal, Tanton and FAIR’s first executive director Roger Conner were clear that its goal would be “to reform policies governing legal immigration, conforming them to today’s demographic, resource, political and social realities.”
Tanton was especially worried about the shift in American demographics, and different birth rates of people of different races. “As our native birthrate falls, immigration will account for an increasing proportion of our growth,” Tanton warned. Later he worried that the present majority, presumably of white Americans, would be overwhelmed by more fertile groups: As he wrote in a 1986 memo, “will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile?”
FAIR and the other organizations founded or funded by Tanton, including the Center for Immigration Studies, Immigration Reform Law Institute and NumbersUSA, tended to frame their policy preferences in terms of numbers. They understood well that “restricting” immigration by the numbers instead of “excluding” based on race would achieve their goals and disproportionately limit and exclude the migration of nonwhite people without running afoul of the race-neutral language that tended to fly in Washington.
It almost worked.
In the 1990s, fearmongering about unauthorized immigrants fueled a policy debate about drastically restricting immigration. Proposed provisions to punish undocumented people were uncontroversial. And while even policymakers who supported harsh and punitive laws tended to distinguish that they supported legal immigration, some were swayed by FAIR’s argument that perhaps too many immigrants were being admitted legally and there should be a complete — if temporary — moratorium on legal immigration.
Was the age of American immigration over? It seemed possible; in 1995, the bipartisan Jordan Commission issued a report calling for cuts to annual immigration and the elimination of several categories of family immigration and the Diversity Visa lottery. Republicans controlled Congress, and immigration hard-liners had significant power in the relevant immigration subcommittees.
Yet they didn’t succeed. The resulting 1996 legislation fueled a steep rise in immigrant detention and deportation, ensnaring legal as well as unauthorized immigrants, and creating a system that has left millions of people vulnerable. Additionally, fearmongering that what Brimelow called an “unprecedented demographic mutation” would make Americans “become alien to each other” managed to gain adherents, especially on the far right. It also seeped into a political discourse that treats immigration and demographic change as innately threatening.
But Congress opted not to cut legal immigration. No cuts, no moratorium. FAIR’s proposals to end birthright citizenship also went nowhere.
President Trump’s administration has imposed serious restrictions on legal immigration through executive action, without congressional approval. Informed by the Tanton network’s recommendations and proposals, the Trump administration has used executive power to ban travel from specific countries, to reduce the number of refugees resettled, to all but eliminate the right to seek asylum, to cut legal immigration by slowing visa processing and by imposing new regulations making it easier to reject applications from families that have used certain public benefits.
Trump’s latest tweet suggests he hopes to realize Tanton’s vision and cut immigration to zero. He’s even borrowed a page from FAIR and is framing the cut as temporary, which restrictionists realize puts the onus on advocates to restore immigration later, a presumably tough lift in our divided, inert system.
Even if Trump’s tweets are a form of political theater, they come with real costs. This hardening idea about who can be American has nothing to do with keeping Americans safe from the coronavirus. Instead, it will only make all of us more vulnerable as racism and xenophobia thwart support for a humane, comprehensive response to the covid-19 pandemic.
Seeds of discontent are growing in both the United States and in Puerto Rico. But while a democratic revolution blooms in the streets of Puerto Rico and produces real results — the governor finally agreed to resign — no equivalent appears on the horizon in the U.S.
Indeed, many Democrats and critics of the Trump presidency put their faith in Robert Mueller’s investigation to achieve justice. Yet while the investigation produced indictments and damning evidence against the president, without the political will to initiate impeachment hearings, it is unlikely to create political change or provide accountability. Those tuning into Mueller’s testimony this week to see democracy in action should have looked to Puerto Rico instead.
As the crowd at President Trump’s Wednesday rally chanted “Send her back!” after his torrent of accusations against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), it was clear that Trump had unleashed something malignant and dangerous across America.
The ugly rhetoric and calls for violence against immigrants and people of color on display Wednesday aren’t new. Yet they have become particularly potent in recent years because the president has not just encouraged them but also worked to transform white nationalism into actual policy.
So, perhaps it is appropriate to note that on the day Trump’s rally erupted into disturbing anti-immigrant chants, it was reported that John Tanton, the guiding force of the contemporary anti-immigration movement, had died. His legacy was clearly on display at Trump’s most recent rally, but it didn’t start there. Tanton helped Americans embrace nativist policies over the past 40 years by framing immigration as a threat to white America.
The right to seek asylum has long been enshrined in domestic and international law. And yet a new rule proposed by the Trump administration would make it all but impossible for most people to apply for asylum at the southern border. The administration’s policies of separating families and indefinitely detaining asylum seekers, as well as its draconian decision to send asylum seekers to Mexico to await their hearings, are the latest chapters in the administration’s attempt to rewrite the nation’s immigration history and dismantle its asylum laws.
But there is hope for immigrant rights advocates. These critical human rights protections exist because people fought for them — and that is the only way they will be reinstated. The refugee rights movement of the 1980s persisted even in the face of powerful nativist forces. By recognizing the ways people succeeded in ensuring rights protections in the past, we can draw inspiration for the critical battles for immigrant rights ahead.
The Trump administration has announced sweeping changes to the asylum system, blocking people who enter the U.S. between ports of entry from seeking asylum. AFSC has spoken out against the government’s cruel attempt to limit the ability of individuals taking refuge in our country to seek asylum.
Here is what you need to know:
What is asylum?
Seeking asylum is a life-saving legal right under international and U.S. law. A person already in the country or arriving at a port of entry can seek this humanitarian protection in the United States if they have suffered persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution at home on the basis of one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, and political opinion.
The difference between refugees and asylum seekers is that refugees apply for status from outside the United States (or another country) whereas asylum seekers are already in the United States or arriving at its borders when they apply.
The United States has a mixed record when it comes to resettling people fleeing persecution – famously it turned away a ship of mostly Jewish refugees seeking protection from the Nazis in 1939.
But since adopting the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States has been obligated to welcome refugees, bringing the country in line with international standards, specifically the 1951 U.N. Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which the United States ratified in 1968. The 1980 Act also created a statutory right to seek asylum. Since the 1980s activists and advocates have pushed to make the right to seek asylum more robust in the United States.
The president continually portrays migrants and migration – including the families traveling here as part of the migrant caravan – as a threat to the United States. Reporters, analysts, and even advocates may be unwittingly reinforcing this framing – and undermining humane treatment for all people. Here’s how you should talk about the migrant caravan to avoid reinforcing this harmful framing:
1. Migrants are people who move – and they have human rights.
Always use inclusive language that doesn’t “other” migrants and that emphasizes our shared humanity and rights. Most of us move from where we were born; movement is a common part of the human experience.
2. Avoid water metaphors – people do not constitute a flood, flow, or wave.
The media commonly uses water metaphors to describe migrants and migrations, but this language is corrosive. Floods and tidal waves are mortal dangers – hard to contain – and using these terms to describe migrants helps reinforce the migration threat narrative. Migrants are people seeking a better life for themselves and their families – not flows of water.
In Oregon, nativists have placed a measure on the ballot to overturn a 31-year-old sanctuary policy, one that restricts the use of state and local resources to enforce federal immigration laws and protects community members from profiling based on their perceived immigration status. If it passes, the message to immigrant communities across the state will be clear: You are neither safe nor welcome here. What’s more, the message could resonate across the country, spurring repeal of similar policies elsewhere.
The debate over these “sanctuary” policies limiting cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration authorities often misconstrues what they actually do. Sanctuary laws like Oregon’s simply protect members of our communities, some long-standing, from racial profiling, detention and deportation. But anti-immigrant activists, emboldened by President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and policies, have branded these policies as dangerous to Americans, part of a multi-front attack on immigrant rights.
The Trump administration is working quietly on a new plan to detain families and immigrant children indefinitely. A new proposed regulation would replace a court agreement called the Flores settlement that has offered limited protection to immigrant children in custody — and it’s critical that we do all that we can to stop it.
In recent months, millions of people across the country were outraged as the administration ripped children from their parents’ arms, expanded immigrant detention, and sped up deportations. Communities responded with protests, support for immigrant families, and calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and create policies that respect the dignity and rights of all people. The public outcry surprised the administration, which apparently assumed that no one would care about the fates of immigrant children and families.
That’s why it’s important to keep the pressure up. When we show that we care, we get results: reunited families and some limits on Trump’s cruelty – although today hundreds of families remain separated.