Let’s face it. The United States is indeed a nation of immigrants, but throughout our history, we’ve consistently tried to filter that generous impulse through a racist screen.
The Dred Scott decision (1857) made it clear that we did not consider “any person descended from Africans” a citizen. This changed with the Fourteenth Amendment, but that same amendment was interpreted for decades as excluding Native Americans from U.S. citizenship.
The Page Act (1875) restricted the entry of Chinese women, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) went further to ban all Chinese immigrants. That same year, the Immigration Act of 1882 created our first federal immigration bureaucracy and determined which sorts of immigrants might be kept out as “undesirable.”
Various national origins were added to that list of undesirables in the years that followed. Japanese immigrants were restricted in 1907, and nearly all Asian immigration was banned in 1924. The Immigration Act of 1924 also set up quotas that resulted in reducing immigration from Eastern Europe and Africa. We deported over a million Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression, many or most of whom had birthright citizenship. We turned away boatloads of imperiled Jewish refugees during the early years of World War II. (For a poignant view of what became of one boatload, see twitter.com/Stl_Manifest.)
Finally, in the 1960s, America rethought its discriminatory policies and got rid of the national quota system. We vowed to shelter refugees from conflict zones. We took in many Cuban and Southeast Asian exiles over the next decades. We focused on family reunification and skilled labor and established H-1B visas for temporary workers in specialty occupations. We ended up with lots of working immigrants from Mexico, South and East Asia, and the Caribbean. In response, anti-immigration platforms sprang up in groups from the John Birch Society through the Tea Party.
Fast-forward to today’s nativism, which finds us firing tear gas at Central American families seeking asylum. Just as we are currently retreating from the Civil Rights accomplishments of the 1960s, we are backpedaling furiously from the humane, nondiscriminatory Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of that era. That is no coincidence.
If we honestly want to limit refugees today, it seems to me that we can start by doing two things. We can help Central and South American countries establish crops or manufacturing possibilities that can compete with the lucrative and violent drug trade. We can fight climate change so that people in Africa and the Middle East have sufficient water. What we must not do is allow our racism to block desperate people whose skin tone does not match our own.
In this gift-giving season, it’s nice to be able to put your money where your outrage is. There are many, many worthy recipients. Here are just a few that I like.
• Outraged by WHITE SUPREMACISM? Give to the Southern Poverty Law Center, donate.splcenter.org/• Outraged by FAMILY SEPARATION? Give to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, raicestexas.org/donate/• Outraged by the CRIMINALIZATION OF IMMIGRANTS? Give to the Immigrant Defense Project, immigrantdefenseproject.org/donate/• Outraged about CLIMATE CHANGE? Give to Mothers Out Front, mothersoutfront.org/donate• Outraged by MASS INCARCERATION? Give to the Dream Corps, thedreamcorps.org/donate• Outraged about LGBTQ HATE CRIMES? Give to the Human Rights Campaign, give.hrc.org/page/31622/donate/1Alternatively, you can keep your money local and donate to Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, Tompkins County Showing Up for Racial Justice, the Multicultural Resource Center, Sustainable Tompkins, or the Dorothy Cotton Institute. May you enjoy a Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Blessed Kwanzaa, and let us work diligently toward a better New Year.
Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. See the committee website at tcdemocrats.org.
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