Over the past several years, America has debated and (to some extent) confronted the extent of our country’s racism.The willingness of White Supremicists to make their animus explicit was triggered by the election of Barack Obama and evidence of shifting demographics, but we are still far from having a candid discussion of the ways in which that racism has infected the systems and structures of our society.
Far too many people think of racism as individual behaviors–the sorts of interpersonal nastiness that goes viral after being captured by our ubiquitous iPhone cameras. Those of us who are white and middle-class rarely recognize the ways in which people of color have been systematically disadvantaged by official acts; I was shocked to learn about the federal government’s role in redlining from The Color of Law and similar books.
The Brookings Institution recently compared the treatment of South American immigrants with earlier treatment of immigrants from European countries. It was illuminating, to say the least.
Examining immigration policy through a systemic racism lens reveals that today’s largely Latino undocumented immigrants face far harsher consequences than white Europeans of years past for the same exact offense of unauthorized entry. A system that treats immigrants differently solely to their race is essentially the textbook definition of structural racism.
“Illegal” immigration was remarkably common in past decades. Around the turn of the century many Europeans came to the US “with a tag on,” a label sewn into their clothing to allow an employer or labor contractor who’d paid for the immigrant’s passage to find the newcomer at the dock on Ellis Island. While illegal—indentured servitude having long been outlawed[ii]–the practice was so widespread that one labor union official testified in 1912 that “more than 8 in 10” of the million immigrants who’d entered that year had a job waiting from an employer that paid for the newcomer’s passage.[iii] Others came as illegal stowaways aboard ships or unlawfully crossed the border from Canada, as CBS Evening News Anchor Nora O’Donnell recently discovered her Irish grandfather had done in 1924.[iv
According to the Brookings report, these “illegal” European immigrants faced few if any repercussions. In part, that was because there was little or no immigration enforcement, but even among those who were caught, few faced deportation. Migrants who entered unlawfully before the 1940s were protected by statutes of limitations and– in the 1930s and 1940s– by grants of amnesty. And before 1976, the government was extremely unlikely to deport parents of US citizens–the “anchor baby” accusation is a recent invention.
There weren’t restrictions on the ability of immigrants to access public benefits until the 1970s, and Brookings reports that it wasn’t until 1986 that it became unlawful to hire an undocumented immigrant.
In sum, from the early 1900s through the 1960s, millions of predominantly white immigrants entered the country unlawfully, but faced virtually no threat of apprehension or deportation. Businesses lawfully employed these immigrants, who were eligible for public benefits when they fell on hard times.
Times have certainly changed. Undocumented people today, most of whom are Latino and/or other people of color—are treated very differently. They enjoy none of the privileges that were accorded to previous generations of white immigrants as a matter of course.
The toughening of immigration laws coincided with a shift of immigration from Europe to newcomers from Latin America, Asia, and Africa,[x] often in the context of racialized debates targeted mainly at Latinos. Researchers have documented how through the 1960s, racialized views of Mexicans shaped law and bureaucratic practice.
The report goes on to describe the increasingly draconian policies that followed the change in immigrants’ skin color. I encourage you to click through and read the entire, depressing exposition.
Watching Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd was a horrific example of official disregard for the life of someone perceived to be different and thus lesser. As a society, we need to send a message that such behaviors by individuals cannot be tolerated. But the larger challenge we face is the pressing need to ferret out the multiple ways in which similar attitudes have infected the structures of our laws and policies, and the multiple, less-visible ways those structures continue to harm not just the people being marginalized but also the country as a whole.