The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
“Undocumented Immigrants” is on Time’s shortlist for Person of the Year 2012. Many of the editors’ picks in the past few years have been abstract, collective entities–last year was the year of the Protester, and 2006 was the year of You. Why should undocumented immigrants be the Person of the Year 2012? Time writes:
An invisible population stepped forward on June 15, 2012, to stake its claim to the American Dream. On that day, President Obama declared that certain undocumented immigrants — a group simply labeled “illegal” by many — would not be subjected to deportation, under broad-ranging conditions. Suddenly the logjam of immigration reform shifted, as more than 1 million undocumented young people who had been in the country for the past five years found themselves with new opportunities. What is more, the sympathies of other groups of people who have undocumented relatives — and thus are mindful of their plight — may have clearly shifted to a President on a campaign for re-election, as evidenced by the preponderance of Hispanic and Asian-American voters casting their ballots for Obama.
I’m glad that Time made a shout-out to Asian Americans in this blurb, and featured undocumented Filipino American journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas so prominently in their June 25 issue. While the mainstream media often portray unauthorized immigration as a Latino or Mexican issue, not all undocumented migrants are from Mexico or Latin America. According to Department of Homeland Security estimates for January 2011, 10% of undocumented immigrants in the US were born in five major Asian sending countries: China, the Philippines, India, Korea, and Vietnam. That adds up to just shy of 1.2 million people.
That shocking figure does not include people coming from other Asian countries, and some people of Asian descent born in Latin America. Many Latin American countries have long-settled populations of Asian people. There are also many contemporary migrants who use Latin America as a stepping-stone to the US. The high-profile case of San Francisco student Steve Li brought this issue into the limelight. Li’s family was scheduled to be deported, but to different places; US immigration authorities were prepared to send him to his birthplace of Peru while the rest of his family were deported to China.
A number of recently-published books, media articles, and an infographic provide some interesting and useful information about China and Chinese Americans, summarized below:
China’s One Child Policy
Throughout the last couple of decades, there has been much discussion about China’s One Child Policy that was implemented back in the 1970s to “encourage” Chinese families from having, as the name suggests, just a single child as a way to slow China’s population growth. However, most Americans know little about the details, especially as there are increasing calls for China to change the policy. Fortunately, Good Transparencies has created an infographic that visually illustrates the main highlights of the One Child Policy (click on the thumbnail below for a larger version):
Over the past 30 years, China’s red-hot economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, reshaped the global economy and given rise to a new power on the global stage. But that breakneck growth has also created an expanding wealth gap, major environmental problems, widespread corruption, a growing imperative to innovate and popular pressure for political reforms. . . .
But as this phase of China’s economic development draws to an end, a new phase has begun. Call it China 2.0. . . . China’s leaders worry about growing too fast. Premier Wen Jiabao said in March the expansion is “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable.” To address that, the next five-year plan incorporates reforms already under way and charts a roadmap designed to keep the economy from veering off the track. . . .
The goal is to keep the economy growing, spread wealth from the industrial coastal cities to inland provinces and rural areas, encourage more domestic spending, spur innovation and deliver expanded social services to sparsely populated areas that lack them.
Eating dogs and cats–which is an age-old delicacy in China–could soon be against the law. Currently, dog and cat meat is viewed as promoting bodily warmth. But if the law passes, people who eat either animal could face fines of up to $730 or 15 days in jail. Organizations involved the practice would face fines up to 100-times as much.
“I support this proposal. Whether you judge this as a question of food security or emotions, there is absolutely no necessity in China for people to eat dogs and cats,” said Zeng Li, the founder of the Lucky Cats shelter in Beijing. . . . The law has been in the draft stage for over a year and will be submitted to higher authorities come April. But draft legislation can take years to approve. . . .
The economic impact of this law would be small as China’s affluent don’t partake in the delicacy. In fact, such traditions have received much scrutiny from affluent, pet-loving, urban middle class. And online petitions against dog and cat consumption have attracted tens of thousands of signatures.
Every week a new book title announces an “irresistible” tilt east, the emergence of “Chimerica” and a not-too-distant future when China “rules” the planet. The mainstream media, and especially the business press, are gripped by the narrative of China taking over the world. . . .
But the coverage of China’s global inroads has been profoundly short on context, particularly when it comes to how China is—and is not—surpassing the U.S. as a global power. There are plenty of stories of a Chinese-sponsored infrastructure project or a Chinese company cutting a deal to feed its “insatiable thirst” for raw materials, while Western involvement of similar or greater magnitude is lucky to make a headline at all.
Meanwhile, a close look at the key economic metrics and the subtler shades of power, such as cultural influence and humanitarian aid, reveals that while China is indeed one of the great powers in the world now (late last month it officially overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy), its influence is mixed, and often undercut by America’s.
Cutting-edge programs like those at the immersion charter school Yu Ying in Washington, D.C., and reports of Chinese-language courses popping up in heartland America would all seem to suggest that Americans are on the fast track to learning Chinese—and ultimately understanding China. . . . You’ll be hard-pressed, the reasoning goes, to find anyone who doesn’t think grasping the language of the world’s fastest-growing economy is a good idea.
But the sad fact is that Americans are not learning Mandarin, the main tongue spoken in mainland China, in droves. Just take a look at the numbers. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, in 2008 only 4 percent of middle and high schools that offer foreign-language instruction included Mandarin. That’s up from 1 percent in 1997.
While that initially seems like respectable growth, the same survey reveals that 13 percent of schools still offer Latin and a full 10-fold more schools offer French than Mandarin. How is it that one a dead language and the other a language primarily used to impress your dinner companion can trounce one spoken by 1.3 billion natives and many millions more expats and immigrants abroad?
The US administration seems to be trying to convince its public of another untruth: that China is the true cause of America’s economic woes — and that China possesses “weapons of mass economic destruction.” What is that weapon of mass economic destruction? The humble yuan, which the US says has been manipulated to hurt the American economy. . . .
Economist Paul Krugman recently said China’s trade surplus with the US had grown in the past decade even without the yuan rising sufficiently against the dollar. Before America’s economic 9/11, however, its consumers seemed happy to get affordable Chinese goods year after year and its businesspeople were busy making profits from lucrative partnerships with Chinese companies. . . .
China’s stimulus for its economy has created opportunities for Western countries’ exports, too. . . . China would readily buy more advanced technologies from America, but Washington is reluctant to sell them. . . . . Hopefully, [Americans] will see through their politicians’ desperate attempt to shift the blame for the country’s problems to China in order to cover their own failures.
U.S. Army veteran Joaquin Lim sensed something was amiss with the troop that had popped up at civic events in Southern California’s Chinese-American communities. At a flag raising ceremony honoring a Chinese holiday, the Walnut city councilman stopped one of the recruits and asked to see his military ID. “There were actually typos on the ID card,” Lim said. “Right away, I knew something was wrong.”
Those suspicions came into the spotlight Tuesday when authorities arrested the so-called “supreme commander” of the U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve unit and charged him with duping Chinese immigrants into thinking they had truly enlisted in the American armed forces.
Prosecutors say Yupeng Deng, 51, recruited 100 other Chinese immigrants . . . at the cost of several hundred dollars, to help improve their chances of obtaining green cards and U.S. citizenship. . . . The case — which was investigated by the FBI and Department of Defense — highlights the vulnerability of immigrants desperately seeking to belong in a new country and naive to the norms of a society in which, for example, military recruits don’t pay to enlist.
skilled immigrants are leaving the U.S. in droves. This is because of economic opportunities in countries like India and China, a desire to be closer to family and friends, and a deeply flawed U.S immigration system. It doesn’t matter whether we call this “brain drain” or “brain circulation”– it is a loss for America. Innovation that would otherwise be happening here is going abroad. . . .
Surprisingly, 72% of Indian and 81% of Chinese returnees said that the opportunities to start their own businesses were better or much better in their home countries. Speed of professional growth was also better back home for the majority of Indian (54%) and Chinese (68 percent) entrepreneurs. And the quality of life was better or at least equal to what they’d enjoyed in the United States for 56% of Indian and 59% of Chinese returnees.
In the 1980s, a wave of Chinese from Fujian province began arriving in America. Like other immigrant groups before them, they showed up with little money but with an intense work ethic and an unshakeable belief in the promise of the United States. Many of them lived in a world outside the law, working in a shadow economy overseen by the ruthless gangs that ruled the narrow streets of New York’s Chinatown.
The figure who came to dominate this Chinese underworld was a middle-aged grandmother known as Sister Ping. Her path to the American dream began with an unusual business run out of a tiny noodle store on Hester Street. From her perch above the shop, Sister Ping ran a full-service underground bank for illegal Chinese immigrants. But her real business—a business that earned an estimated $40 million—was smuggling people.
As a “snakehead,” she built a complex—and often vicious—global conglomerate, relying heavily on familial ties, and employing one of Chinatown’s most violent gangs to protect her power and profits. Based on hundreds of interviews, Patrick Radden Keefe’s sweeping narrative tells the story not only of Sister Ping, but of the gangland gunslingers who worked for her, the immigration and law enforcement officials who pursued her, and the generation of penniless immigrants who risked death and braved a 17,000 mile odyssey so that they could realize their own version of the American dream.
Mulan, the warrior maiden who performed heroic deeds in battle while dressed as a male soldier, has had many incarnations from her first appearance as a heroine in an ancient Chinese folk ballad. Mulan’s story was retold for centuries, extolling the filial virtue of the young woman who placed her father’s honor and well-being above her own. With the publication of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in the late 1970s, Mulan first became familiar to American audiences who were fascinated with the extraordinary Asian American character. Mulan’s story was recast yet again in the popular 1998 animated Disney film and its sequel.
In Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States, Lan Dong traces the development of this popular icon and asks, “Who is the real Mulan?” and “What does authenticity mean for the critic looking at this story?” Dong charts this character’s literary voyage across historical and geographical borders, discussing the narratives and images of Mulan over a long time span—from premodern China to the contemporary United States to Mulan’s counter-migration back to her homeland.
As Dong shows, Mulan has been reinvented repeatedly in both China and the United States so that her character represents different agendas in each retelling—especially after she reached the western hemisphere. The dutiful and loyal daughter, the fierce, pregnant warrior, and the feisty teenaged heroine—each is Mulan representing an idea about female virtue at a particular time and place.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a historic act of legislation that demonstrated how the federal government of the United States once openly condoned racial discrimination. Once the Exclusion Act passed, the door was opened to further limitation of Asians in America during the late 19th century, such as the Scott Act of 1888 and the Geary Act of 1892, and increased hatred towards and violence against Chinese people based on the misguided belief they were to blame for depressed wage levels and unemployment among Caucasians.
This title traces the complete evolution of the Exclusion Act, including the history of Chinese immigration to the United States, the factors that served to increase their populations here, and the subsequent efforts to limit further immigration and encourage the departure of the Chinese already in America.
As I’m sure almost everyone has heard about, a couple of weeks ago the Arizona legislature passed a new law (SB 1070), signed by the Governor, that allows local police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being an unauthorized immigrant. In making being in the state without authorization a crime, Arizona police can then arrest and begin deportation proceedings against those who cannot properly document that they are legal immigrants.
As many critics of the law point out, the law basically legalizes racial profiling against Latinos, anyone who looks Latino and more generally people of color since it is highly unlikely that this new law can be carried out without the police resorting to racial profiling against the racial/ethnic group most often associated with the issue of unauthorized immigration: Latinos. In other words, it is highly unlikely that Whites will be stopped in large numbers by police and told to prove that they’re in the U.S. legally.
My family and I had plans on visiting Arizona this summer, seeing some friends, and camping at the Grand Canyon (it would have been my daughter’s first visit to the Grand Canyon). But along with many people in the U.S. and around the world who condemn this law, including many Asian Americans, we decided to act on our opposition to this new law by canceling our trip and are now boycotting Arizona. My daughter was disappointed but certainly understands and supports the reason behind it.
Others have written very detailed and convincing critiques of Arizona’s law and I don’t want to just echo what they’ve already said. Instead, I would like to reemphasize some points made by Debra J. Saunders at the San Francisco Chronicle. She points out that while it’s natural and generally for critics of Arizona’s law to focus on Republicans for condemnation, Democrats are not completely free of blame either:
President Obama called the Arizona law “misguided” and said he favors “commonsense comprehensive immigration reform.” It’s all lip service. President Obama reneged on his 2008 campaign pledge to push immigration reform – with a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens – during his first year in office because, well, it’s political poison.
At a Cinco de Mayo event last week, Obama had a new promise – “to begin work this year” on an immigration bill. In Spanish that translates into: Adios, amigos. Of course, not all Latino voters want to relax immigration laws, but to the extent that they do, they have guaranteed that the Democratic Party will take their votes for granted.
Meanwhile, why should Republicans stick their necks out for a demographic that abandoned John McCain in the 2008 presidential election? He risked his political ambitions by pushing for a federal bill with a pathway to citizenship in 2007 and then, according to an Edison/Mitofsky exit poll, McCain won a lousy 31 percent of the Latino vote- down from George W. Bush’s 44 percent in the 2004 presidential contest.
Obama helped kill that bill, and he won 67 percent of the demographic.
When it’s in their interests, Democrats ditch their pro-illegal immigration corner. In 2003, the Democratic California Legislature passed a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Voters revolted and recalled Gov. Gray Davis, who signed the measure. In a craven act of cowardice, the Legislature quickly voted to rescind the bill it had passed.
In 2009, the Obama administration deported 5 percent more illegal immigrants than the Bush administration deported in 2008. As part of his immigration reform proposal, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, is pushing for a national ID card for all American workers – the very type of documentation that critics of the Arizona law have said will turn Arizona into the “Your papers, please” state.
Saunders’ last point about Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer deserves particular attention. A few months ago, Schumer and South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham laid out their “blueprint” for comprehensive immigration reform (this was before the Arizona law as passed). As printed in the Washington Post, some of their provisions directly mirror the anti-immigrant sentiment that prompted the Arizona law:
We would require all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card. . . . We would bolster recent efforts to secure our borders by increasing the Border Patrol’s staffing and funding for infrastructure and technology. More personnel would be deployed to the border immediately to fill gaps in apprehension capabilities.
Other steps include expanding domestic enforcement to better apprehend and deport those who commit crimes and completing an entry-exit system that tracks people who enter the United States on legal visas and reports those who overstay their visas to law enforcement databases. . . .
For the 11 million immigrants already in this country illegally . . . they would be required to admit they broke the law and to pay their debt to society by performing community service and paying fines and back taxes. These people would be required to pass background checks and be proficient in English before going to the back of the line of prospective immigrants to earn the opportunity to work toward lawful permanent residence.
Regardless of their political ideology, almost everyone generally agrees that as it stands, our current immigration system and policies are broken and need to be fixed. For years, conservatives have argued for an strict “enforcement first” approach that focuses on keeping unauthorized immigrants from entering in the first place and deporting as many as possible those already in the U.S. (or at least making life so miserable for them that they voluntarily leave the country).
Historically, Democrats have supported a more forgiving approach to immigration reform that, while acknowledging their unauthorized status, also recognizes the contributions that they make to the economy through sales, income, and other taxes that they pay and in making labor-intensive industries such as agriculture and construction more globally competitive, to name just a few.
The enforcement would be more far-reaching than anything in place now — or anything proposed by the administration of President George W. Bush. It begins with “zero tolerance” for immigrants trying to enter the country illegally, by tightening border enforcement and by barring them from taking jobs in the United States.
“It shows how far the Democrats have moved in terms of tougher and tougher enforcement,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies immigration. “Across the board you see language that would be very comfortable in a proposal written by Republicans.”
This change in direction by the Democratic Party is not an encouraging sign for supporters of addressing the issue of unauthorized immigration in a more holistic manner (recognizing the humanity of the people involved, the economic reasons many decide to enter the U.S. in the first place, the diversity of the unauthorized immigrant population to include not just border crossers but visa overstayers, and the contributions they make to the U.S.). In fact, while there are still some Democratic politicians who share these beliefs, I would say that as a rule, we can no longer rely on the Democratic party or Democratic politicians to be a staunch ally in terms of supporting a humanistic and holistic approach to comprehensive reform. And as much as I hate to say it, this includes President Obama.
Granted, much of the change in attitude among Democratic politicians toward a stricter “enforcement-first” approach is due to the practical realities of wanting to appeal to their mostly White constituents to get reelected (itself a reflection of the emerging White backlash movement). Nonetheless, for many liberals like me, seeing the Democratic Party distancing itself from their traditional support of true comprehensive immigration reform feels like a kick in the stomach and a betrayal.
At least when it comes to the issue of immigration reform, many within the Democratic Party seem to be making choosing what’s convenient over what’s right.
We all know that immigration — legal and unauthorized — has been a hot-button topic for a while now. This is the case even before President Obama has even seriously tackled the question of immigration reform. One of the key points of contention has been whether immigrants contribute more to American society than they receive in social services.
In recent weeks, a few new studies try to shed some more light on this question and in the process, inject a little objectivity and data into an otherwise emotionally-charged debate. The first report comes from the non-partisan Fiscal Policy Institute and as described at the Immigration Impacts blog at the Immigration Policy Center, the economic contributions of immigrants constitute a net benefit for their communities:
The report studies the 25 largest metro areas (by population) which produce nearly one half of the total gross domestic product of the country. It shows that in the country’s main metropolises, the share of the immigrant population stacks up neatly against their share of economic output. For example, immigrants are responsible for 20% of economic output and make up 20% of the population in these 25 metropolitan areas. In other words, immigrants pull their own weight.
From the report: . . . “From the Pittsburgh metro area, where immigrants make up 3 percent of the population and 4 percent of economic output, to the Miami metro area, where immigrants represent 37 percent of all residents and 38 percent of economic out¬put, immigrants are playing a consistently proportionate role in local economies.”
The overall impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy is small. According to [Economics Professor Gordon Hanson, the report’s author], “Illegal immigration produces a tiny net gain to the U.S. economy after subtracting U.S.-born workers’ losses from U.S. employers’ gains. And if we account for the small fiscal burden that unauthorized immigrants impose, the overall economic benefit is close enough to zero to be essentially a wash.”
Enforcement against illegal immigration is expensive. The U.S. spends approximately $15 billion annually enforcing immigration laws. A simple cost-benefit analysis indicates that the high level of spending on enforcement is not justified. . . .
MPI policy analyst Marc Rosenblum and Jeanne Butterfield of the National Immigration Forum largely agreed with Hanson, but took the argument a step further, making a strong case for legalization . . . Rosenblum pointed out that the net fiscal impact of illegal immigrants improves over time—immigrants are not only workers, but consumers, entrepreneurs, and investors, and their contributions improve over time.
This particular report basically confirms earlier research that show that legal immigrants constitute a notable net gain for American society and its economy and that taken together, unauthorized immigrants also contribute more both in the short term (through paying sales taxes, income taxes, overall purchasing power, and entrepreneurial activities) and long term (by becoming productive citizens and not having to rely on public assistance).
Finally, at New America Media, a third article on the contributions of immigrants points out that as the laws currently exist, legal immigrants are prohibited from using Medicaid (the federal healthcare program for low-income Americans), even though they pay federal taxes that help to fund such programs and that in essence, recent legal immigrants are subsidizing healthcare for everyone else:
Currently, legal immigrants, who work and pay taxes that contribute to our health care system will continue to be ineligible to receive federally-funded Medicaid services for five years. In this case, we are not talking about those who make at least 133 percent of federal poverty level and could access affordability credits like everyone else for purchasing insurance in the exchange. We are talking about immigrants with the lowest incomes. It is unreasonable and saddening that under the current health reform proposals, the people who really need it will not get it.
I am under no delusions that these reports and data will change the mind of hard-core or extremist opponents of immigration (legal and unauthorized) anytime soon. Rather, for those who are willing to consider valid, reliable, and nonpartisan research, these studies are useful in wading through some of the political ideology and seeing what the actual numbers say.
With that in mind, the time for comprehensive immigration reform has come. By comprehensive, it means that we need to focus on more than just reinforcing our border with Mexico. Instead, it also means overhauling our immigration detention system, which, a new bipartisan report finds, has a long and documented history of bureaucratic lapses, with the detainees routinely denied basic rights such as being told why they are being held.
It also means providing unauthorized citizens already in country with a path toward eventual citizenship and access to opportunities to achieve social and economic mobility, such as the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act (currently being debated in Congress) that would allow young immigrants without legal status who demonstrate “good moral character” to apply for citizenship.
Both a revelation and a call-to-action, Immigrant, Inc. explores the uncommon skill and drive of America’s new immigrants and their knack for innovation and entrepreneurship. From the techies who created icons of the new economy — Intel, Google, eBay and Sun Microsystems — to the young engineers tinkering with solar power and next-generation car batteries, immigrants have proven themselves to be America’s competitive advantage . . . [and] will create the American jobs of the future — if we let them.
That last part seems to be the key — immigrants have much to contribute to American society and our economy, if only we let them do so, rather than trying to get rid of them.
In a recent post, I described how economic tensions seem to be making many Americans not just more stressed out, but also more likely to lash out against those around them, particularly if they are immigrants. While that post focused on individual-level tensions and hostility, a recent Time magazine article discusses the case of Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican from an indigenous background, who recently had her daughter taken away from her because she does not speak English, a case that unfortunately highlights this same kind of anti-immigrant sentiment on the institutional level:
Cirila Baltazar Cruz comes from the mountainous southern state of Oaxaca, a region of Mexico that makes Appalachia look affluent. To escape the destitution in her village of 1,500 mostly Chatino Indians, Baltazar Cruz, 34, migrated earlier this decade to the U.S., hoping to send money back to two children she’d left in her mother’s care. She found work at a Chinese restaurant on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
But Baltazar Cruz speaks only Chatino, barely any Spanish and no English. Last November, she went to Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula, Miss., where she lives, to give birth to a baby girl, Rubí. According to documents obtained by the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, the hospital called the state Department of Human Services (DHS), which ruled that Baltazar Cruz was an unfit mother in part because her lack of English “placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future.”
Rubí was taken from Baltazar Cruz, who now faces deportation. . . . [A]dvocates for Baltazar Cruz had charged that the problems sprang from faulty translation at Singing River. Baltazar Cruz was later joined [at the hospital] by a Chatino-speaking relative but the hospital declined his services and instead used a translator from state social services, an American of Puerto Rican descent who spoke no Chatino and whose Spanish was significantly different from that spoken in Mexico.
According to the Clarion-Ledger, the state report portrayed Baltazar Cruz as virtually a prostitute, claiming she was “exchanging living arrangements for sex” in Pascagoula and planned to put the child up for adoption. Through her advocates, Baltazar Cruz adamantly denied those claims. . . .
The social-services translator also reported that Baltazar Cruz had put Rubí in danger because she “had not brought a cradle, clothes or baby formula.” But indigenous Oaxacan mothers traditionally breast feed their babies for a year and rarely use bassinets, carrying their infants instead in a rebozo, a type of sling. . . .
In such cases, says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Bauer, a lack of interpreters is a key factor. When a mother can’t follow the proceedings, “she looks unresponsive, and that conveys to a judge a lack of interest in the child, which is clearly not the case,” she says.
The article goes on to note that Cruz’s advocates also argue that for several centuries now, new immigrants to the U.S. who were not fluent in English have safely and successfully raised their children. So the question becomes, why is this case different and why is Cruz in danger of losing her own child now?
Unfortunately the answer is, because American society’s level of acceptance and even tolerance of new immigrants — particularly if they are unauthorized and lack English fluency — is basically at an all-time low. On top of this general sentiment and as I noted earlier, the economic recession makes Americans much more economically (and therefore emotionally) defensive, insecure, and threatened.
In this particular case, we also have another sociological dynamic — the retrenchment of a “traditional” American identity. In other words, the reality has been that in the past, in order to be considered an American, you basically had to be White, plain and simple. Non-Whites weren’t even given the opportunity to become accepted as American and this country’s history is littered with examples of systematic exclusion — the Cherokee Nation, Chinese exclusion, Jim Crow segregation, etc.
But in the last few decades and as American society has become more demographically diverse and multicultural, the definition of what it means to be an American was gradually expanding to become more inclusive such non-White and immigrant groups. However, it was also inevitable that such a change would be subtly and explicitly opposed by “traditional” Americans.
As such, we can see that in this particular case, the mother’s lack of English fluency implicitly violated the authorities’ code of “Americanness” and was enough to disqualify her from not just remaining in the country, but from raising her own child as well. An equally tragic part of this episode is our society’s misguided and naive attempt to be colorblind and to ignore and in fact, deny that these racial dynamics even exist.
Unfortunately it looks like things will get worse before they get better for many immigrants in this country.
President Obama’s first 100 days in office have certainly been momentous and ambitious. While most of his attention has been focused on the economy and the recession, he and his administration are still planning major initiatives in the near future on other policy issues. As many observers point out, this includes the always controversial issue of immigration reform:
Mr. Obama will frame the new effort — likely to rouse passions on all sides of the highly divisive issue — as “policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system,” said the official, Cecilia Muñoz, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House.
Mr. Obama plans to speak publicly about the issue in May, administration officials said, and over the summer he will convene working groups, including lawmakers from both parties and a range of immigration groups, to begin discussing possible legislation for as early as this fall. Some White House officials said that immigration would not take precedence over the health care and energy proposals that Mr. Obama has identified as priorities. But the timetable is consistent with pledges Mr. Obama made to Hispanic groups in last year’s campaign.
He said then that comprehensive immigration legislation, including a plan to make legal status possible for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, would be a priority in his first year in office. Latino voters turned out strongly for Mr. Obama in the election. . . . But with the economy seriously ailing, advocates on different sides of the debate said that immigration could become a polarizing issue for Mr. Obama in a year when he has many other major battles to fight.
Opponents, mainly Republicans, say they will seek to mobilize popular outrage against any effort to legalize unauthorized immigrant workers while so many Americans are out of jobs. Democratic legislative aides said that opening a full-fledged debate this year on immigration, particularly with health care as a looming priority, could weigh down the president’s domestic agenda.
In preparation for intensifying the national debate about immigration reform and as the New York Times reports later, the policy positions are starting to come together, as illustrated by a major agreement between the country’s two largest labor unions on forming a united position on how to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country:
John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Joe T. Hansen, a leader of the rival Change to Win federation, will present the outlines of their new position on Tuesday in Washington. In 2007, when Congress last considered comprehensive immigration legislation, the two groups could not agree on a common approach. That legislation failed.
The accord endorses legalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the United States and opposes any large new program for employers to bring in temporary immigrant workers, officials of both federations said. . . .
But while the compromise repaired one fissure in the coalition that has favored broad immigration legislation, it appeared to open another. An official from the United States Chamber of Commerce said Monday that the business community remained committed to a significant guest-worker program. . . .
In the new accord, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Change to Win have called for managing future immigration of workers through a national commission. The commission would determine how many permanent and temporary foreign workers should be admitted each year based on demand in American labor markets. Union officials are confident that the result would reduce worker immigration during times of high unemployment like the present.
Based on March 2008 data collected by the Census Bureau, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that unauthorized immigrants are 4% of the nation’s population and 5.4% of its workforce. Their children, both those who are unauthorized immigrants themselves and those who are U.S. citizens, make up 6.8% of the students enrolled in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.
About three-quarters (76%) of the nation’s unauthorized immigrant population are Hispanics. The majority of undocumented immigrants (59%) are from Mexico, numbering 7 million. Significant regional sources of unauthorized immigrants include Asia (11%), Central America (11%), South America (7%), the Caribbean (4%) and the Middle East (less than 2%). . . .
They are especially likely to hold low-skilled jobs and their share of some of those occupations has grown. In 2008, 17% of construction workers were undocumented, an increase from 10% in 2003. One in four farmworkers is an unauthorized immigrant. . . . The 2007 median household income of unauthorized immigrants was $36,000, well below the $50,000 median household income for U.S.-born residents. In contrast to other immigrants, undocumented immigrants do not attain markedly higher incomes the longer they live in the United States.
The Pew report does not take a political position in regard to undocumented immigration and instead, as good social science should do, provides anyone who is interested with valid, reliable, and objective information and data to more accurately support whatever position they have on the issue.
As I’ve recently written about, it’s shaping up to be another fierce battle between those who take an “deportation only” approach versus those who see the bigger picture and advocate “comprehensive reform.” I just hope that within this debate that opponents of legalization for undocumented immigrants refrain from demonizing and dehumanizing the people involved and instead, see the issue as an institutional and structural one, more so than an individual-level one.
Presuming that President Obama and his administration follow through on their plans to put the issue of immigration reform on the front burner of American politics, there will be plenty to say about this issue in the coming months.
Update: Shortly after I published this post, the swine flu began making headlines all around the world, particularly here in the U.S. Since it apparently originated in Mexico, unfortunately but predictably, we are now seeing a racist backlash against Mexico and Mexicans, as described by MSNBC:
“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!” And Thursday, Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended after calling Mexican immigrants “criminalians” during a discussion of swine flu and saying that emergency rooms had become “essentially condos for Mexicans.”
That’s tepid compared to some of the xenophobic reactions spreading like an emerging virus across the Internet. “This disgusting blight is because MEXICANS ARE PIGS!” an anonymous poster ranted on the “prison planet” forum, part of radio host and columnist Alex Jones’ Web site. There is even talk of conspiracy. Savage speculated that terrorists are using Mexican immigrants as walking germ warfare weapons. “It would be easy,” he said, “to bring an altered virus into Mexico, put it in the general population, and have them march across the border.”
You don’t need me to tell you that undocumented immigration is one of the most controversial and emotional issues in American society today. It is an issue that cuts across and divides members within a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group. In fact, some of the most heated arguments that I’ve had about undocumented immigration has been with other Asian Americans.
Many critics of undocumented immigrants argue that the only realistic or effective solution is mass deportation of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country. Scholars call this approach the “enforcement only” approach. On the other hand, others believe that in order to “cure the disease” rather than simply treating the symptoms is through the “comprehensive reform” approach.
Such proposals include securing points of entry at the border and criminal punishment for the most dangerous undocumented immigrants but just as important, emphasizes ways to deal with the undeniable need for immigrant labor within the U.S. economy, settling the status of the undocumented immigrants already in the country in a fair and humane way, working with sending countries on policies that reduce the push their citizens feel to come to the U.S.
Many Americans might assume that law enforcement officials around the country, particularly in the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, are more likely to support the “enforcement only” proposals. But as Seth Hoy at the Immigration Policy Center writes in their blog Immigration Impacts, many in the law enforcement community are pleading for comprehensive reform:
In a recent Washington Post editorial, Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris asserts that focusing his attention on real criminals rather than economic migrants has not only lowered the city’s crime rate, it has also enabled police to maintain a closer relationship with the communities they serve. For Harris, who likened border enforcement to bailing an ocean with a thimble, “the answer is not in Phoenix. The answer is in Washington.”
Don’t give me 50 more officers to deal with the symptoms. Rather, give me comprehensive immigration reform that controls the borders, provides for whatever seasonal immigration the nation wants, and one way or another settles the status of the 12 million who are here illegally — 55 percent of whom have been here at least eight years. For those whose profession it is, law enforcement sometimes seems like bailing an ocean with a thimble.
No one disagrees that violence, drug cartels and human smuggling on the border are real problems that warrant real and sensible solutions, but conflating drug smugglers with economic migrants is not effective or helpful. Effective border enforcement needs to be carried out in consultation with border communities—communities whose resources are currently being diverted from arresting actual violent criminals to “chasing bus boys around the desert.”
Most state and local police departments will tell you that in order to do their jobs effectively, they rely on community policing policies which encourage immigrants to step out of the shadows, report crimes and access police protection. According to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a committee made up of police chiefs from across the country, cooperation from the immigrant community keeps crime rates lower.
Without assurances that contact with the police would not result in purely civil immigration enforcement action, the hard won trust, communication and cooperation from the immigrant community would disappear…Such a divide between the local police and immigrant groups would result in increased crime against immigrants and in the broader community, create a class of silent victims and eliminate the potential for assistance from immigrants in solving crimes or preventing future terroristic acts.
Certainly, the debate about the best way to address the undocumented immigration issue will continue. Nonetheless, I think the opinions of law enforcement officials on how they would like to see our government best address the issue carries a lot of weight.
On a lighter and not-quite-related note, Jon Stewart from The Daily Show recently had a brief video segment on patrolling the border, embedded below.
Most of the news these days is on the economy — the recent financial institution crisis and how it will affect the presidential elections and American society going forward. But as an example of interconnections between social issues, as CBS News reports, the number of immigrants coming into the U.S. (both legal and unauthorized), significantly declined in the past year, with the economy being a big reason:
The wave of immigrants entering the United States slowed dramatically last year as the economy faltered and the government stepped up enforcement of immigration laws. The nation added about a half million immigrants in 2007, down from more than 1.8 million the year before. . . .
The Census Bureau’s’ estimates for immigrants include those in the country legally and illegally because the agency does not ask about legal status. . . .
One other obstacle could be the 69 percent increase last summer in citizenship fees, about 281,000 immigrants applied to become U.S. citizens in the first half of 2008 – less than half the number of applicants in the same period last year. . . .
Much of the nation experienced a housing boom in the first half of the decade, providing jobs that attracted immigrants. The housing bubble burst last year, sending housing markets tumbling and contributing to a slumping economy that some economists believe is in recession.
It should not come as a surprise that with the economy slumping that there are fewer economic opportunities for immigrants (both legal and unauthorized), so that the numbers of immigrants entering the U.S. has declined significantly in the past year.
Of course, the political controversy over unauthorized immigration and high-profile efforts to round up and deport undocumented workers have also contributed to a less-hospitable climate in general. Critics of unauthorized immigration are undoubtedly rejoicing at these numbers, but as sociologists have tried to point out, these issue exist in a larger context of institutional and historical factors that require a longer-range focus if we want true and fair immigration reform.
State and local governments incur costs for providing services to unauthorized immigrants and have limited options for avoiding or minimizing those costs.
The amount that state and local governments spend on services for unauthorized immigrants represents a small percentage of the total amount spent by those governments to provide such services to residents in their jurisdictions.
The tax revenues that unauthorized immigrants generate for state and local governments do not offset the total cost of services provided to those immigrants.
Federal aid programs offer resources to state and local governments that provide services to unauthorized immigrants, but those funds do not fully cover the costs incurred by those governments.
So in other words, on a national level, unauthorized immigration constitutes a slight positive benefit for the American economy but on the state and local governments have to bear a disproportionate share of the financial costs, so at the state and local levels, unauthorized immigration constitutes a slight net loss on their budgets.
That is also a big reason why opposition to unauthorized immigration is so vehement — people situate themselves at the local setting, within their own city, town, or neighborhood — not at the national level. So they mainly see what is immediately around them, rather than taking a national-level perspective.
In that sense, it’s easy to see why people are opposed to the costs of unauthorized immigration that their city or state must bear, rather than recognizing the net benefit at the national level.
As sociologists have also pointed out, part of the solution needs to include the federal government sharing more of those net benefits with the state and local levels, to offset the disproportionate burden of costs that states and cities have to bear. Unfortunately, in today’s financial climate, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.
Update: As more evidence that unauthorized immigration to the U.S. is slowing down, last week, the Pew Research Group reported that for the first time in about a decade, between 2005 and 2008, the number of unauthorized immigrations was lower than the number of legal immigrants. Secondly, they also estimated that the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. has fallen from about 12.4 million last year to about 11.9 million this year.
In one of my recent posts, entitled “Racial Tensions and Living in a Colorblind Society,” I commented on how the economic recession and larger social/economic forces associated with globalization have resulted in many Americans struggling and feeling besieged by current events:
As Americans, particularly White Americans, continue to economically struggle as we enter a recession and as they culturally struggle with maintaining their exclusive hold on the “American identity” while demographic shifts take place all around them, their fear, frustrations, and anger will inevitably boil over and verbal and physical attacks on convenient scapegoats such as Asian Americans will continue.
I also predicted that racial/ethnic tensions are likely to get worse before they get better. Unfortunately, as the New York Times reports, the recent death of an illegal immigrant in Pennsylvania seems to represent how these rising tensions have led to physical violence and murder:
Mr. Ramirez, 25, who had been in the country illegally for six years, picking crops and working in factories, died July 14 from head injuries received two days earlier. Investigators said he had gotten into a fight with a group of teenage boys — most or all of them members of the town’s high school football team, the Blue Devils — who left him unconscious in a residential street, foaming at the mouth.
Exactly what happened during the fight is still hotly debated . . . with some saying it was just a street fight that went bad, and others claiming the teenagers singled out a Mexican immigrant for a beating and made anti-Mexican remarks. Since Mr. Ramirez’s death, this town of 5,600 has been bitterly divided over the case, illuminating ethnic tensions that surprised town leaders. . . .
“For many Latinos, this is a case of enough is enough,” said Gladys Limón, a staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “And it can help us get attention to the wider issue that this is happening all over the country, not just to illegal immigrants, but legal, and anyone who is perceived to be Latino.”
Of course, defendants of all races/ethnicities are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. However, the circumstances here seem to paint a clear picture of racial/ethnic tensions, probably combined with economic and cultural insecurity, providing the fuel to ignite a physical confrontation that ultimately led to Mr. Ramirez being beaten to death at the hands of three teenagers who apparently had been drinking and, by virtue of playing on a football team, are used to using physical violence to achieve personal gratification and community status.
What also strikes me is that the article states that town leaders have been surprised at how this murder has exposed ethnic tensions in their town. Why were they surprised when in fact, this town had drafted laws similar to that of their state neighbor Hazelton, that would have severely limited the rights and access of illegal immigrants to basic public resources, such as housing, jobs, and education.
As they say, denial is not just a river in Egypt.
Unfortunately, Mr. Ramirez’s murder is another example of economic competition and feeling culturally threatened leading to racial/ethnic hostility. As sociologist will tell you, throughout American history, we’ve seen this pattern over and over and over again. In its relatively “mild” state, it may take the form of a resurgent acceptance of the confederate flag, as I talked about in my last post.
But taken to its unfortunate extreme, as has happened so many times before, it leads to murder. On top of that, what makes it even worse is how those in power at the time and whose actions helped to lay the reinforce and perpetuate such tensions, continue to be in denial about the fundamental causes of this horrific event.
Like I said, although I want to be optimistic, it does look like things will get worse before they get better.