Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Keeping the Riff Raff Out Becomes the Law of the Land

Typical Anti-Oriental Immigration Cartoon

After spending his first term presiding over the most aggressive arrest and deportation policy in American history resulting in the lengthy detention without trial of tens of thousands and the brutal separation of countless families, President Barak Obama has reignited the national debate about illegal immigration by making comprehensive immigration reform a signature priority of his second term.
His apologists claim that the unprecedented crackdown was necessary to show that he would not tolerate “law-breaking” and establish credibility with his critics on the issue.  If that’s the case, he failed.  No matter how many deportations he could point to, how many raids, how high and long his improvements to the ugly Border Fence so beloved of anti-immigration zealots, it was never enough.  He was always portrayed as a virtual throw-the-border-open-and-let-the-swarthy-hoards-invade-us kind of guy.
On the other hand the collapse of the American economy and our national hemorrhage of jobs cut to a trickle the flood of immigrants over the Mexican border that had so alarmed many.  Tough Federal enforcement and near lunatic state laws in Arizona, Alabama, North Carolina, and elsewhere have actually driven many back to their nations of origins, resulting in widespread labor shortages and billions of dollars in economic loss.
In other words, as so often happens in American politics, we a fighting over yesterday’s problem.
And then there is the politics of the issue, which center on the inevitable demographic slide of White Americans into minority status.  Even with the flood of immigrants largely stanched, the growth of families already in the country are inevitably changing the color palette of the population.  That terrifies man whites, especially older ones, and drives them into the arms of those who promise to restore a glorious past in which everyone knew their places and kept to them.
Despite the harshness of his immigration enforcement, Latinos and other immigrant communities overwhelmingly  supported the President and the Democrats in general because they promised reform, actively campaigned in those communities and treated them with respect, and because, well, the Republican Party has morphed into a virulent and vicious racist lynch mob in service to the most extreme elements in society.  Even former bastions of Latin support for the GOP, Florida’s Cuban Exiles, and fervently anti-abortion Catholics have abandoned them.
The few panic stricken Republicans who have suggested the current anti-immigration absolutism is suicidal and the business factions who once called the shots in the party and who rely on plentiful immigrant labor have been viciously beaten back by the howling mob.
Perhaps it is instructive to look back at an immigration law that the hard core looks back at fondly as the model for the future.
On February 5, 1917 Congress over rode President Woodrow Wilson’s veto making the Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, the law of the land.  It was the most restrictive legislation yet enacted and banned immigration from most of Asia and the Pacific Islands.
China was not included only because the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 already barred entry from that country and the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan in 1907 restricted immigration from there.  The act was aimed at potential new reservoirs of immigrants like Korea and especially India which was then exporting cheap labor to every corner of the British Empire and which were beginning to trickle into the States.
Wilson, not known for his racial enlightenment, had vetoed the measure not over its sweeping anti-oriental provisions, but because it also required immigrants to be literate.  He feared that would choke the supply of cheap labor to American industry.
Besides illiterates, the act banned a laundry list of other “undesirables” including idiots, feeble-minded persons, criminal, epileptics, insane persons, alcoholics, professional beggars, the mentally or physically defective, polygamists, and anarchists. 
Widely derided as racist by most historians, today the Act is held up as model legislation by the Minute Man movement, Tea Baggers, and other anti-Hispanic immigration “reform” advocates.

1 comment:

  1. See Leon J. Kamin, 'The Science and Politics of I.Q.' for more on these scurrilous laws.