Most of us can remember the touching spectacle of Meg Whitman running for governor of California in all of her Republican splendor. In the home stretch of the campaign she was confronted by the fact that she had hired a nanny who didn’t have one of those little green cards. Such a heartbreaking sight to watch this paragon of traditional society and law and order sputtering around. Ms. Whitman’s difficulties neatly encapsulate the contradictions of the history of US immigration policy. How do you get cheap labor and maintain racial purity?
There is nothing whatsoever new about the debate over immigration in US society. Throughout the entire history of the country it has been a struggle between economic interests looking for a supply of cheap labor and essentially racist movements who claim to be protecting the interests of the “rightful” real Americans. Immigration, both voluntary and involuntary has been a central theme in out history. Our economic and political institutions have been and continue to be shaped by it. The notions of who qualifies as a “real” American has shifted over time as various of people have been identified as the alien threat of the moment. For all of the myth of the melting pot, there has never been a time when the Emma Lasuras poem on the Statue of Liberty represented a national consensus.
In the spirit of manifest destiny the dominant Anglo-Saxon US establishment had taken control of the North American continent by the middle of the 19th C. They found themselves with more space and resources than they really knew what to do with. Thus began the revolving search for cheap help that continues to this day. People came in large numbers from Europe and Asia. The African slaves were mostly confined to the south and remained there after they were at least technically no longer slaves. There was ongoing debate about European and Asian immigrants that periodically erupted into violence. There was the recurring strain of racism that saw differences from the WASP establishment as marks of inferiority. During economic downturns there were populist uprisings blaming the newest immigrants for the shortage of jobs.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first legal restriction placed on immigration. In 1907 the so called gentleman’s agreement to cutoff Japanese immigration was negotiated. These actions curtailed the supply of labor to the expanding economy of of the West. Industries such as agriculture, mining and railroads turned their eyes south of the border in a search for replacements. The pressures of WW I raised the level of nationalism and xenophobia. The Immigration Act of 1917 cutoff all immigration from Asia. The first red scare following the war was added to the brew of racist hysteria resulting in the Immigration Act of 1924 which imposed draconian restrictions on immigration from the more threatening sections of Europe. The golden door to was officially closed to the huddled masses from across the sea.
No quota was placed on immigration from Mexico and the various industrial interests managed to get most of the administrative difficulties placed in the path of immigrants waived. Mexican workers were seen as an ideal source of cheap docile labor that could easily be shoved back over the border when they weren’t needed. At the same time black workers from the South began to migrate north to fill the cheap labor gap that had resulted from the greatly diminished flow of European immigrants.
In 1929 what can be seen as a first version of immigrant amnesty was passed as the Registry Act, it provided for full legalization of status for immigrants who had been in the US since 1921. With the arrival of the depression the tide turned and workers became a surplus commodity. The various forms of racist hostility that had previously directed toward immigrants from Europe and Asia were now focused on Mexicans. The American Federation of Labor decided that they were the enemies of the American working class. More radical unions came along and attempted to organize agricultural workers in California. There was a series of brutal and nasty strikes, with not a lot gained in the way of labor rights. The Wagner Act of 1935 that opened the door to union organizing in northern industrial states, specifically excluded agricultural workers from its provisions. They was done at the behest of the Jim Crow oligarchs.
With the arrival of WW II the tide turned again. Suddenly there was a severe shortage of labor particularly in agriculture at a time when the US needed to maximize its food producing capacity. Locking up all the Japanese farmers in concentration camps added to the problem. This led to the establishment of the bracero program of contract labor of workers from Mexico. As implemented by the US government it was a form of virtual indentured servitude. It brought a large number of contract workers to the US under controlled conditions. However, the demand for labor attracted others on undocumented status. The pendulum had swung back to a relatively open door. With the end of the war which had created the emergency justifying the bracero program, the agricultural interests were able to use their political muscle to get it continued. Border enforcement was kept light, particularly during harvest season and the flow of undocumented migrants continued to grow. Undocumented workers were attractive to employers who didn’t even have to make a token pretense of following the government regulations of the contract program.
This pattern of schizophrenic immigration policy has continued to the present day. It has really been in existence in some form since the beginning of the nation. Having Mexican workers as the primary focus of the conflict has been in effect for almost a century. It seems improbable that there is any way to resolve the forces of racism and greed which continue to propel it.