What We Talk About When We Talk About Immigration (Part I)

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by Sara Mayeux

Often in the national conversation on immigration--which has lately devolved into more a of a fist-fight--you hear some version of an argument that today's "illegal aliens" should all be deported, because "my great-grandparents" came here "legally," assimilated into the "melting pot," learned English, and "built this country," while Mexicans are sneaking over the border, retreating into ethnic enclaves, imposing Spanish on the rest of us, and, apparently, not "building this country." Vernacular pundits make such pronouncements every day on Internet comment threads throughout the land--often invoking Ellis Island, although for almost half of that facility's history, the government used it not to welcome but to detain and deport Europeans, but nevermind. Pat Buchanan thinks the Mexicans are literally invading.

My goal for today is not to poke holes in these accounts; the holes are already there (see, e.g., this podcast). Rather, I want to borrow a tack from cultural historians, who are less interested in whether popular narratives are "accurate" and more interested in why they feel "true" to so many--that is, in why the particular narratives take hold that do. What work do those mythical Legal Aliens Who Built Our Country do for those who believe in them so fervently? 
But I do want to begin by summarizing some points of departure between popular beliefs and the scholarly consensus, just so we are all on the same page (sorry if this is old news). First, many European-Americans continued to speak only their native language for two or three generations. I find odd the notion that there's some value to having subsequent waves of immigrants from different continents all follow the same pattern--that this is possible, plausible, or desirable. But even if you accept the premise, Mexican immigrants have not been so radically different from their predecessors as some pundits (and while we're at it, more scholarly folks like Samuel Huntington) have claimed. The "invasion" thesis is also hard to swallow in light of social science findings that "the rate of undocumented migration has not increased in over two decades" and that "rates of migration between Mexico and the United States are entirely normal for two countries so closely integrated economically."

Second, and the nub of our collective amnesia about the history of immigration policy, is the supposition that until Mexicans started jumping over the Rio Grande, everyone came into this country "legally," and if they didn't, they were dealt with. First, of course, immigration was hardly regulated at all until the 1870s and '80s (and even then, mostly just if you were Chinese). Second, as the immigration historian Mae Ngai explains, for as long as the U.S. has been restricting immigration, "we have had provisions for both deportation and legalization." Soon after the U.S. imposed the 1920s quotas on European immigration (Western Hemisphere immigration was not subject to quotas until the Hart-Celler Act of 1965), it also introduced procedures for helping the undocumented avoid deportation and regularize their status. Moreover, as Ngai found when she combed through INS archives, Europeans (as long as they were not political "radicals") historically benefited most from after-the-fact legalization mechanisms. It's only since 1996 and the passage of IIRIRA that the U.S. has elevated deportation into its go-to policy response to undocumented migration, while also making it harder for many to enter the country legally.

In other words, while your great-grandparents may well have arrived through Ellis Island, it's also quite possible that they snuck in without papers, continued to speak their native language, yet also got a job and built strong community and family ties in this country, and later sought discretionary relief from deportation so they could continue to live here, their new home. Sound familiar? 

Some will wonder why I'd bother engaging with arguments made by people they see as fringe xenophobes, but it's essential to do so because they have successfully framed a lot of mainstream discussion. Even commentators sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants tiptoe around this history; perhaps out of reluctance to provoke the vocal defenders of those mythical Legal Builders, they often concede that today's illegal immigration is unprecedented or that Arizona had to act when the feds wouldn't. William Finnegan recently wrote an effective piece in the New Yorker critiquing the fact-free quality of this debate, and noting that illegal immigration has actually declined in recent years. But Finnegan nonetheless allows that "the problem of illegal immigration has been left to fester for decades." 

I'm not sure that's right. To me, it seems that if we now have 11 million undocumented men, women, and children within our borders, it's not because the federal government hasn't acted. To the contrary, it's the fairly predictable result of relatively recent actions the federal government has taken, (1) to make it more difficult than it has ever been in our history for undocumented immigrants, even those with longstanding family and community ties in the U.S., to regularize their status, (2) to push them further underground by heightening the risk of deportation, and (3) to militarize the border, which keeps the undocumented in the U.S. just as effectively, maybe more so, as it keeps them out. In Douglas Massey's summary from the podcast linked above:

If we had done nothing at the border since 1986, spent no additional money, just kept the border patrol's budget and activities pretty much on the same growth path that they had experienced before, we would have had at least half the undocumented population we observe now and it would have been much more confined to California, Texas, and Illinois rather than being a fifty-state phenomenon. 

So it's worth interrogating what cultural and political work the myth of the Legal Builders might be doing. One answer might be that lazy history serves as a veil for bigotry--that, as Ngai suggests, "anxiety over migrant illegality" is "a proxy for racism against Latinos." Finnegan summarizes what might be called the economic hypothesis: that "anti-immigrant backlashes" coincide "with unemployment, popular anxiety, and a fear of displacement by strangers." 

Another possibility, and a more intriguing one, I think, is that obsessing over transnational migration serves as a convenient way to deflect any reflection about the burdens that all of us impose upon the land. In that vein, maybe it's no accident that the anti-immigration backlash has become especially ugly in Arizona and Nevada, which both experienced spiraling population growth in recent decades on top of a desert landscape that requires heavy-duty irrigation, among other interventions, to support modern American life. In 2007 alone, Arizona experienced net migration from other states of 287,000 people, most of them white. 

So, ever-insightful commentariat: What do you think we're really talking about when we talk about immigration? All of the above, none of the above, some combination? I'd be especially curious to hear from readers in Arizona, since admittedly, I'm just speculating here.

A CAVEAT: I anticipate that some commenters will point out that some of the articles I've cited above date from before the most recent wave of drug-related violence and organized crime in Mexico. But since these broader narratives about immigration are not new, I don't think that undermines my general points. To the contrary I think the even more hysterical punditry we've seen most recently is building off of an assumed platform that even in "normal" times, the situation was already out of control.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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