Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Illegal Immigration: The Beginning, The Illegal, and the Argument

     Sometimes in order to understand where we are; we have to go back to where we came from.    

Courtesy of Photoworld
A law was signed in 1882 banning nearly all immigration from China into the U.S.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was, in many respects, the beginning of illegal immigration which saw a new wave of migrant workers entering the United States.  The composition within the U.S. had undergone many changes, as people entered its borders from various backgrounds, cultures and walks of life. 
      Before 1882, hardly any regulation existed within the states. There was no need for passports. Immigrants came to the U.S. by way of Castle Garden in New York.  Illegal immigration was a distant thought and anyone was free to enter the U.S.  During that time, Chinese, as well as Mexican, Australian, European and South American immigrants headed for San Francisco to try their luck during the Gold Rush of 1848. By 1853, over half of San Francisco’s population was foreign-born.  
      As the Chinese population grew, so did work on the U.S. railroads. The Transcontinental  Railroad saw strikes by white factory workers on the East Coast. Many more Chinese moved to California.  San Francisco factory workers fought for more pay, but, in turn, were replaced by Chinese immigrants.  Americans were angered by the jobs being lost to the Chinese and soon, laws began to be put in place that reflected these sentiments.  A miners’ tax, that subtly targeted Chinese miners, was assessed soon after.
      A very weak economy and a growing number of jobs being lost and, subsequently, filled by immigrant workers, turned up the heat in the already, very volatile climate in the United States.  Riots sprang up in San Francisco and, frighteningly enough, 1877 proved itself to be a deadly year for many Chinese workers.  10,000 Americans burned buildings in Chinatown and docked boats were also burned in the riots.  At that time, four people were killed and fourteen others injured.  The Chinese had no rights when it came to testifying in criminal and civil cases in California and there was no recourse of action for the violent acts that were being committed against them.  In the aftermath, many Chinese migrants returned to China.
      In 1881, one California senator moved to halt Chinese immigration in its entirety for the next 20 years; he introduced a bill that was shot down by then President Chester Arthur; in protest, Americans burned President Arthur in effigy.  (Its interesting to note, that in the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, was an agreement between the U.S. and China promising “the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance” and guaranteeing that “Chinese subjects . . . residing in the United States, shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities, and exemptions in . . . residence, as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation.”  Needless to say, the U.S. needed to renew its pledge within the agreement and the Burlingame Treaty was amended in 1880, due to increasing political pressure from the Western States.)  One year later, a watered down version of the senator’s bill was introduced, which banned Chinese immigration for 10 years, allowing only teachers and students to come to the U.S; others including criminals, were barred.  Once the bill was made law in the subsequent years, the price the U.S. would pay, was yet to be seen.  All Chinese residents had to register for certificates and could not bear witness in court cases. The Chinese fired back through protests; they brought legal challenges up in court, refused to patronize American businesses and prevented U.S. ships from unloading cargoes in Shanghai and Canton. 
      After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, many birth and citizenship records were destroyed during a fire, which made it impossible for the government to tell who was a citizen and who was not.  In China, fake papers were created and names of fictitious children were registered in the U.S.  The name, “paper sons” was adopted, allowing Chinese immigrants to migrate to the United States. Between the years of 1943 and 1965, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act were both repealed, which lead to a greater influx of Chinese immigrants.  As history would have it, the Chinese Exclusion Act affects much of our policy on immigration today.  
      During the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was initially passed, somewhere around 1883, the number of Chinese migrant workers began to dwindle; roughly 30 years prior to the Exclusion Act, the cultural face of migrant workers slowly began to change and a new wave of peoples had begun to be ushered in.       
      In 1846, the Mexican-American War was fought, which ended with Mexico surrendering to the U.S. by way of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848.  Within the terms of the treaty, states like California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico; parts of Utah and Nevada, were relinquished by Mexico to the U.S.  After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, in yet another unsuccessful turn of events, Mexico’s government could no longer provide the kind of financial support its citizens needed to survive; many Mexicans fled to the U.S. where they found a growing number of opportunities available, as many American men were overseas fighting in World War I.
      During this time, Mexican immigrants were also being recruited and brought to the U.S. to work and live.  Many remained in positions obtained, laboring for years and under “unspoken terms”.   As long as no one complained, it is said, the migrant worker, “…proved particularly useful during World War I”.  Many of these migrant workers were skilled in areas of trade such as painting, plumbing, machinists and the like.  This was especially beneficial for the U.S.
Courtesy of Dorothea Lange / Gelatin silver print
       What would benefit the U.S., would bring a bittersweet reality for the migrant worker.  In 1942, The U.S. Border Patrol was birthed and with it, the term “illegal alien” was born. Many of these workers were subject to harsh labor and lack of constitutional protections, as they were recruited to work on railroads, being paid a fraction of what such labor entailed. 
      In 1942, The Bracero Program allowed temporary guest workers to work in the U.S.; labor protections excluded.  Mexican workers had to prove they had indeed secured employment within the states in order to be eligible for visas.  Thus, the issue of hiring immigrants for cheap labor is also one for which the U.S. takes responsibility.  Soon after, the U.S. became one of the most thriving agricultural countries in the world.
     Today, we continue to see the lack of any kind of reform or any lasting attempt to close the border; this could be attributed to many U.S. businesses benefiting tremendously, for more than a century, from undocumented workers.  Amnesty was granted to 3 million illegal immigrants in 1986 by Ronald Reagan. Corporations continued to push for undocumented labor and since 1986, about 11.2 million illegal immigrants are believed to be in the U.S. today.  Many feel that granting citizenship to those that have come here and been utilized for work, would be in order, to close the door, at least on this aspect of the issue. Securing the border also rates high on the list.       
      There have been a litany of arguments for and against illegal immigration since the beginning of immigration and the debate continues to confound and anger many, on the left and the right, caught in its midst.  The problem many on the right are having isn’t so much with immigration itself, but whether or not it is legal.  A very interesting case to be made against illegal immigration, poses the question: (and by the way, it seems that most people on the other end of the spectrum are not in FAVOR of illegal immigration; perhaps in some ways the issue has a tendency to pull on the heartstrings of those on the left and this makes it difficult to imagine just deporting immigrants, breaking up families and squashing the dreams of many who have tried to make a better life for themselves and their families-just to clarify) why would so many risk putting families and loved ones in jeopardy by crossing the border into the U.S. illegally? There are consequences to any action outside of the law and as a nation of laws, we must uphold that. Many families here illegally, are thrust into poverty and are forced to live sub-standard lives because opportunities are limited without proper documentation. Many find themselves involved in gangs; committing crimes or putting their lives in jeopardy, as well as others.  A growing trend of Islamic terrorism is said to be on the rise, as extremists from Yemen and Afghanistan find their way into the U.S. illegally, holding on to their identity instead of acclimating into the culture of the U.S.;  i.e. learning the language or attempting to become U.S. citizens. Some even argue that we will, through amnesty or even immigration reform, in a way, be encouraging and supporting illegal immigration.   
      Others argue that since many areas in the West, were built off of the backs of migrant workers (or natives at one time), amnesty should be considered for illegal immigrants. Some that side with the left, say that since there has been an unspoken agreement between the government, corporations and undocumented workers; there has also been a hesitation to close the borders.  Some argue that the attempt to deport 11.2 million undocumented immigrants would lead to less immigrants on the path to citizenship, more availability by corporations to take advantage of this labor, less protections and more money in the pockets of big business and their political caretakers.  Others would argue that so many illegal immigrants come here because of the opportunities to make a better life for their families or that economically, Mexico, their home country, is systematically structured to accommodate the mass exodus of its peoples to foreign lands. Its' economy depends upon the monies being sent back by immigrants from these new countries.      
      It seems that since the dawn of America’s rising, immigration has existed as well. Both the immigrant; whether from China, Mexico, etc., as well as the United States, have depended more on each other than we would care to give mention to.  If it weren’t for Chinese, Mexicans and even other immigrant workers, a much different story would be written in the books about many of our railroads, fields factories, and households. Would we, as a nation, be as prosperous and developed as we are just by our hand alone?  One should take a look at the countries that each of these immigrants have fled.  Imagine the success and prosperity these lands would have if they could hire workers to build their railroads or till their fields, build their homes or even care for their children. On the other hand, many immigrants, even at a very young age, dream of living in America; the land of milk and honey. They see the richness of our culture and way of life. Many see an opportunity to not only provide for their own families, but, to also give back to their own communities in their native land. They envision the chance to live in a Democratic society; where every American has the freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The things that we sometimes take for granted, are things that many give up all they have for; risking their lives and those of their children, to take hold of.  

      Immigration is not a new topic; there are many similarities weaved into the debate today that have taken place over a century ago. It is extremely important to dig deeper to find out what fuels the controversy over immigration. It may just provide a different perspective on an age old argument. Its interesting to find that nothing has really changed much since the beginning stages and why it would truly be historic to break this cycle of dependency we’ve grown accustomed to.  Still, it may be even more important to know exactly where we’ve come from, to know where we are headed.

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