The plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But for millions of immigrants who have arrived on American shores, the promise of freedom remains illusory.
Most immigrants toil long hours for low wages doing the work most native-born workers won’t touch. There are daily reminders that immigrants should be grateful to live in the “greatest country on earth,” but also that they don’t fully belong.
The US government has always had a contradictory relationship to immigrants because the country’s employers needed laborers, but also needed to control them. As a colonial project and a new country, the US needed toilers — Black slave laborers, indentured servants and wage laborers.
Immigrants provided a constantly renewable source of cheap labor, which could be drawn in during boom times and expelled during lean times. The industries that relied on immigrant populations thrived on their labor, but preferred to ignore the “distasteful” needs that workers often bring with them — needs such as adequate wages and sufficient living standards to maintain health, safety and sanity.
In the words of playwright Max Frisch, known for his use of irony: “We asked for workers. We got people instead.”
A cruel part of that contradictory relationship is the country’s longstanding use of racist, class-based and political immigration restrictions. The US government has used the tactic of individual deportations as well as the periodic use of mass deportations, but it has always sought to control the flow of immigrant labor, and with it to control the economic and political aspirations of all workers.
Like all countries, the US has its own particular history of labor relations and systems of political and ideological control.
The nation was established through conquest over Native Americans, which required racist dehumanization to justify violent displacement. And the fortunes of early American colonists also depended on slave labor, which similarly required a set of racist ideas to explain away the seeming contradiction: If it’s self-evident that “all men are created equal,” why are some men owned by others? The answer: because “they” aren’t really men, they’re subhuman.
Politicians, employers and opinion makers racialized all groups, including immigrant groups, whenever it was expedient.
In the new American nation, the process of determining who can become a citizen was based not on the revolutionary ideals of religious and civil liberties and the fight against tyranny, but on political and economic needs. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization to immigrants who were “free white persons of good moral character.”
It was in the 1800s, though, that the US really begins to wrestle with the issue of immigration on a mass scale — a scale unseen in world history up to that time.
Thirty million immigrants came to the US in the 100 years between 1815 and the First World War in 1914 — a period in which population grew from roughly 8 million to 80 million. Prior to 1819, no records of immigrants were taken by state or federal governments. The first federal laws restricting immigrants’ access to the US targeted the poor and those with “impairments of physical and mental health.” Official restrictions on nationality and race would come later.
Anti-immigrant sentiment and vigilante activism first cohered in nativist groups like the Know-Nothing Party in the 1840s and 1850s. Its slogan was “America for the Americans.” In fact, most of the Know-Nothing program sounds very similar to the platform of white supremacist organizations in the 2000s such as the Minutemen or to the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his true believers today.
The Know-Nothings’ targets were Irish immigrants, who were generally poor and Catholic and who formed the first sizeable unskilled urban proletariat. The Know-Nothings were able to unite politically to elect governors and representatives, but the party was torn apart by divergent views on the question of the Civil War in the US
After the Civil War, which uprooted the institution of slavery but did not resolve the problem of racism and labor relations, immigration policies became a matter of public debate, and by 1891, the Federal Bureau of Immigration had been set up within the US Department of the Treasury.
Before this time, immigration policy had been set by individual states. Later, control of deportation moved to the Department of Labor and then to the Department of Justice, where the agency was called the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) resides within the Department of Homeland Security.
This constant change of departments overseeing immigration policy reflects the US’s conflicted relationship with immigrants.
In the wake of industrial mass strikes in railroads, mines and manufacturing in the 1870s as well as pressure from white labor organizations, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. The law extended and codified the existing scapegoating of Chinese workers. It prohibited immigration from China for 10 years and barred the naturalization of Chinese immigrants already in the country.
The Act did permit Chinese teachers, students, merchants and travellers for pleasure to enter the US, but they could not become citizens. The main thrust of the law was to prohibit the further influx of Chinese laborers, who for decades had been heavily recruited to build thousands of miles of railroads alongside other immigrant and native workers.
General immigration restrictions began at this time as well. Congress called for the exclusion of convicts, “lunatics, idiots or any person unable to care for himself without becoming a public charge.” A head tax of 50 cents for each immigrant who traveled by sea was enacted as well.
In the early 20th century, bigotry, racism and economic and political needs aligned to forge the most restrictive immigration laws yet. This was in part due to massive immigration. The first 14 years of the 20th century were the peak years of emigration to the US.
At the same time, the total population of the US was growing steadily. Many immigrants returned to their home country without finding success. Therefore, the percentage of foreign-born in the US did not significantly change. According to US Census statistics, the percentage of foreign-born in 1890 was 14.7 percent. In 1910, it was also 14.7 percent. And in 1920, the figure dropped to 13.2 percent.
So the anti-immigrant legislation of this period was not necessarily a response to the country being “overrun” by immigrants. As various historians have noted, these attitudes actually reflected the changing economic and political conditions within the US — and how the question of immigration was shaped by these changes.
In 1917, the Immigration Act was established. Literacy tests in English were given to all European immigrants. All Asian immigrants except Filipinos were barred.
Later, the National Origins Act of 1929 defined strict quotas for immigrants of each nationality to limit “less desirables.” This was maintained during the Second World War as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rejected shiploads of German and East European Jewish immigrants fleeing the death camps.
At the same time, the Western Hemisphere and the Philippines were exempt from quotas due to concern for labor shortages in the western US Mexican laborers were recruited to replace Chinese workers on the railroad and to work in agriculture alongside Filipino workers.
It’s worth examining the role of political parties to provide some background to the current political moment in terms of the deportation and criminalization of immigrants under Trump.
Two periods during the 20th century in which mass deportations took place under the Republican and Democratic Parties stand out.
Between 1920 and 1930, Mexicans were exempt from the “quota system.” More than a million Mexican workers crossed the border because they were recruited to work on the railroads and in agriculture. They were welcomed as cheap reliable labor.
When the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, however, unemployment shot up, and so did racist hysteria about “Mexicans taking jobs.” From 1929 to 1936, the US government, led by the state of California, deported or “repatriated” (meaning threatened with prison, foreclosure, job loss and violence to compel “voluntary” return) Mexicans and Mexican Americans who had never lived in Mexico.
Estimates are that between 500,000 and 2 million people, many US citizens, were forced to leave. These mass deportations were initiated under the administration of President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, but they were continued by Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt until 1936.
In 1942, to deal with farm labor shortages during the Second World War, Roosevelt approved the Bracero program, a joint program under the State Department, the Department of Labor, and the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) within the Department of Justice.
It was a guest worker program that supposedly guaranteed labor and human rights, but the program was rife with abuses. The “New Deal” did next to nothing for immigrant laborers.
Roosevelt’s successor, Democratic President Harry S. Truman, continued the guest worker program in 1951, despite well-known and widespread abuses of guest workers from Mexico. But Truman also called for a crackdown on “illegal” immigration — in other words, workers without guest worker contracts.
More than 127,000 were formally deported and more than 3.2 million left voluntarily rather than face deportation — a total of nearly 3.4 million during Truman’s administration.
It was this Democratic administration that paved the way politically and ideologically for Republican President Eisenhower to enact the pejoratively termed Operation Wetback in 1954 that increased the Border Patrol’s forces and gave it military equipment.
In the first year alone, more than 1 million mostly Mexican workers — undocumented, documented and citizens — were deported or repatriated in the first year alone. The operation was another government-sanctioned policy of mass deportations based on racial profiling of immigrant workers.
There were two other laws enacted in the late 20th century that were especially crucial in establishing the level of criminalization and repression of migrants that we see today: the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.
Both pieces of legislation were integral to developing and sustaining neoliberal economic and political policies in the US While US economic policy was pushing for open markets worldwide, such as NAFTA, the federal government aimed to control the movement of migrants often forced to leave their homes to find jobs that the “free market” had taken away from them.
While Democratic President Carter (1977-81) expanded the budget and personnel for patrolling the US-Mexico border, it was under Republican President Reagan that the ideological attack against migrants advanced significantly.
Reagan portrayed the US-Mexico border as the “gateway” to the three largest “threats” to the US: poor migrants, Central American subversives, and narco-traffickers. In this atmosphere, it’s a miracle that the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 was ever signed and implemented.
A coalition of labor unions, social justice and religious groups involved in the 1980s sanctuary movement advocated for migrant amnesty, leading to 2.8 million immigrants getting legal status and citizenship under IRCA. The amnesty bill was a boon to millions of migrant workers to get their long-deserved legal rights, and newly legalized migrant workers joined in labor organizing drives and campaigns for workers’ rights.
The miracle involved compromises, however — sanctions against employers who hired undocumented workers, leading to the new business enterprise of providing false Social Security numbers and the increased ability to fire and deport migrant workers at opportune moments; a dramatic escalation of the militarization of the US-Mexico border; and a further increase in the number of Border Patrol personnel.
Democratic President Bill Clinton cemented the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment and the legal repression and violence directed against migrant workers with Operation Gatekeeper in 1994. Clinton doubled the Border Patrol budget and number of agents, and nearly tripled the amount of border fencing and sensors to “restore integrity and safety to the nation’s busiest border.”
This program, implemented the same year that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, led to much more brutal conditions for the many refugees fleeing economic devastation caused by the new trade terms.
The border zone came to be characterized by desperate refugees preyed on by unscrupulous traffickers and corrupt border patrol officials alike. Rape, violence, harassment and migrant detention centers became business as usual along the US-Mexico border.
Operation Gatekeeper was directly responsible for more than 4,000 migrant workers’ deaths from 1994 to 2005.
In 1996, Clinton again mobilized anti-immigrant sentiment to advance his re-election efforts. He enacted a number of anti-immigrant laws, among them the Illegal Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
Ostensibly meant to “strengthen and streamline US immigration laws,” the law greatly expanded the type of crimes for which immigrants could be deported (such as shoplifting and driving while intoxicated), increased mandatory detention for deportees, increased (again) the number of Border Patrol agents, and introduced measures such as E-verify for employers to confirm workers’ legal status, as well as the notorious 287(g) program that authorizes local and state police forces to carry out immigration enforcement.
So much of what we have seen in terms of the worsening legal situation facing immigrants under George W. Bush and Barack Obama — Secure Communities, E-verify, and the proliferation of imprisonment and detention centers — has been facilitated by Clinton’s 1996 bill.
Combined with his Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which codified and extended the New Jim Crow, and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which ended “welfare as we know it,” the three major laws enacted under Clinton’s reign make it clear the Democrats were willing to go to great lengths to use racism and repression to control an increasingly overworked and impoverished population under siege.
Given the Democrats’ history of immigrant scapegoating and deportations, it should be no surprise that President Obama was no friend to immigrants. After all, he inherited a well-funded enforcement regime from Clinton and Bush.
The Obama administration made a priority of removing “criminal aliens,” which proved to be an efficient strategy that earned Obama his nickname “Deporter-in-Chief” for deporting 2.5 million immigrants between 2009 and 2015. This was a particular reading of the 1996 law that took advantage of the criminal justice pipeline.
Rebranding immigrants as “criminals” for committing minor offenses (or for felonies for which they already served time) proved much more popular than removing undocumented workers in workplace raids. Due to racism and the dehumanization of prisoners generally, immigrants with “criminal” histories had far fewer political defenders than other groups of immigrants such as undocumented college students.
“Crime-based” removals resulted in a disproportionate number of Latinx immigrants being deported because of racial profiling that lands more Latinx and Black Americans in prison. Under Obama, more than 95 percent of removals from the US were Latinx noncitizens.
Donald Trump initiated his presidential campaign by claiming that Mexico was sending its criminals to the United States, and he promised to deport Mexican immigrants en masse. As president, Trump issued two executive orders in January that expanded the Obama administration’s focus on removing “criminal aliens.”
He increased the geographic area from within 100 miles of the US border to the entire US for “expedited removal,” a process by which an individual immigration official can arbitrarily expel an immigrant without hearing or further legal review.
This will most likely have a disproportionate impact on noncitizens from Mexico and Central America who “fit the profile” of undocumented immigrant developed over the past centuries.
With his other executive order, Trump vowed to eliminate federal funding for any city or state that created sanctuary status — though a judge recently blocked this order while the courts consider its legality. Sanctuary cities were established by local governments to protect immigrants from collaboration between city and state officials and federal ICE officials, sometimes referred to as the “polimigra.”
Trump’s executive orders will continue to have a devastating impact on immigrant communities — by generating fear and desperation among the undocumented, documented DACA recipients, and mixed-status families that there is now no reprieve from federal immigration enforcement.
Trump based his political success on fomenting fear among voters by scapegoating immigrants and by using racist rhetoric that his followers have been emboldened to put into action.
It is urgent to organize in support of all immigrants during the Trump presidency and link this struggle to others facing his attacks. But it is important as well to remember the history of how we arrived at this moment. Both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for stoking anti-immigrant sentiment and implementing harsher and harsher legal mechanisms for the treatment of immigrants.
Organizing against Trump’s policies does not need to mean organizing for the Democrats as an alternative. Independently, we can and must build a better world without borders.