Should I be this worried?
Victor seems to be asking three separate questions. First, how do Americans feel about immigrants? Second, how do those feelings resonate historically? And finally, am I safe? I reached out to a few experts—a historian, a criminologist, and a pollster—and asked them to respond to what Victor has to say.
AMERICA HAS FORGOTTEN ITS IMMIGRATION HISTORY
A historian reminds us that the idea of a “nation of immigrants” has some big caveats.
Victor’s statement seems to be based on two assumptions. First, that this “nation of immigrants” has—until now—welcomed immigration, and, second, that American concerns about illegal immigration are a fairly recent development. The historical record challenges both assumptions.
Immigration was encouraged throughout much of American history because people were needed to cultivate the land and to work in mills, factories, mines, railroads, and shipyards. But this doesn’t mean immigrants were always welcomed in the communities where they settled.
Efforts to restrict immigration and bar certain immigrants from citizenship began in the 1870s, when Congress passed a series of laws to limit the entrance of people considered undesirable and incapable of assimilating to American norms: Asians, southern and eastern Europeans, and others considered intellectually or morally deficient and “likely to become a public charge.”
The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, the most draconian of these laws, established numerical quotas based on national origin, created a border patrol, and eliminated the statute of limitation on deportations. This expanding restriction and surveillance of immigration led to a new way of thinking about immigrants—as legal or authorized versus illegal or unauthorized.
However, race and national origin also shaped how Americans came to view illegal status. Between 1924 and 1965, for example, Europeans who entered illegally were much more likely to be forgiven—and have their deportations suspended—than Mexicans and Asians.
The hard-fought achievements of America’s immigrants are rightfully celebrated, but these stories often downplay or obscure the many legal and social obstacles immigrants had to overcome in a nation that needed their labor and yet feared them.
This historical reality offers little consolation to those who are experiencing discrimination and violence today. One thing is clear, however: The political rhetoric coming out of Washington—and the willingness of many citizens to believe that rhetoric—reveals how little we actually understand about our immigration history.
—María Cristina García, Howard A. Newman professor of American studies, Cornell University
SOUTH ASIANS ARE GENERALLY SAFE
A criminologist warns that the media often blows anti-immigrant crimes out of proportion.
I would caution Victor not to fall prey to a media narrative that divides Americans and immigrants by race, religion, and ethnicity. He expressed concern for his safety as a South Asian of Indian descent, but, in reality, rates of crime against South Asians are very low.