Immigrants, Xenophobia And Racism In America
By Jon Kofas
12 August, 2015
Undocumented workers are not so much an issue about economics but rightwing populist and often racist politics. Throughout history immigrant labor had very solid benefits to the US economy and society and informed critics know this to be the case. Nevertheless, politicians and the media present the immigrant issue as a problem in the economy, though after 9/11 they link it to terrorism. Some rightwing analysts link undocumented workers who are nothing more than economic refugees to security and by implication terrorism, although there is no empirical evidence of such linkage. The following excerpt is typical of how rightwing analysts are using terrorism to instill fear in politicians and the public when it comes to undocumented workers.
“They (illegal aliens) also take away value by weakening the legal and national security environment. Even though they pose no direct security threat, the presence of millions of undocumented migrants distorts the law, distracts resources, and effectively creates a cover for terrorists and criminals. In other words, the real problem presented by illegal immigration is security, not the supposed threat to the economy.” (Tim Kane and K. A. Johnson, The Heritage Foundation). The linkage between terrorism and undocumented workers is as absurd as the one that undocumented workers are a destructive force in the economy; they sponge off the welfare system, pay no taxes, spread diseases, and commit crimes. Critics of immigration policy are driven by ideology, xenophobia and racism. Above all, they are hypocrites because they would never advance the same arguments in case of illegal immigrants is they came from northwest Europe.
Immigration has political, social, racial/ethnic, and cultural dimensions and it has been around since the founding of the Republic. John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 to limit the rights of immigrants because the Federalists in power viewed immigrants as part of the popular base of Thomas Jefferson who supported the French Revolution at the time. Half a century later the “Know Nothing” movement revived the “ethnic purity” argument in a country that was predominantly Anglo-Saxon but clearly one of immigrants, with African slaves and American native population whose lands were colonized. Coinciding with the Spanish-American War (1998), once again the anti-immigration elements organized against Asians resulting in the limitation of Chinese immigrants. This too was a reaction to the depression of the 1890s and the search to find a scapegoat for structural problems in the US economy.
Besides the government, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) vehemently opposed immigration on ethnic, racial and cultural basis. The AFL arguments notwithstanding about immigrants contaminating American “purity”, the status quo labor union wanted to preserve its monopoly in the field and opposed the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW founded 1905) that immigrants supported. The anarcho-syndicalist IWW trying to organize low-paid workers posed a threat to the pro-capitalist AFL whose labor base was the high-paid labor force made up of ‘natives’ (second and third generation immigrants) rather than recent immigrants. The opposition to immigrants, therefore, came not only from politically, religiously, ethnically “purist” groups but also from the largest organized labor group seeking to protect its monopoly in society. Opportunistic politicians took advantage of the conflict between the IWW advocating class struggle and AFL advocating class collaboration. Woodrow Wilson co-opted the AFL during WWI and Democrat politicians recognized the importance of having a segment of the labor movement on their side.
Not just in the US, but in Europe and Australia, politicians have been hammering to secure votes from an increasingly skeptical public about the underlying causes of social and economic problems that they attribute to illegal immigrants that organized labor also opposes. Xenophobia and racism are not the exclusive domain of the ultra-right wing elements that make no secret of their views about non-white Protestant Anglo Saxons, but even of moderates who yield to populist rhetoric about undocumented workers as the root of all economic and social problems.
In recent years, Mexicans are the targets of those raising the American flag against illegal immigration polluting the “purity” of American society. The ethno-centric views of those opposed to immigrants from Mexico and Latin America revolve around ethnicity, religion, and culture and have historical roots. The Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty (1848) ended the war that the US had declared against Mexico depriving it of all its territory north of the Rio Grande River and California. The Mexican population estimated at 80,000 in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona accepted US citizenship. However, land belonging to Mexican families transferred hands in the course of the war. The citizenship rights of Mexicans did not result in retention of their ancestral lands for the most part, causing friction also because this sent a signal they were second-class citizens as far as US government and courts were concerned, and treated accordingly in a society of high levels of racial/ethnic stratification before the Civil Rights movement.
During the Great Depression, the Mexican community suffered “pogrom-style raids”, while the US government forced more than 500,000 people, 60% of them US citizens, back to Mexico. Stereotypical racist images of Hispanics in American popular culture as lazy, criminal-oriented, trouble-makers that cause chaos in communities reinforced the racist tendencies among xenophobes. This meant that Hispanics were invariably on the fringes of the institutional mainstream, excluded from jury-duty in Texas before 1954 (Supreme Court case: Hernandez vs. Texas) and suffering the indignities such as store signs that read” “No dogs no Mexicans”.
During the expansionary cycle of the US economy in the 1950s and 1960s, the issue of immigration in general did not receive center stage in political debates, except at the cultural level where stereotypical images remained in the dominant culture about non-white minorities. The Civil Rights movement addressed some of these issues, but this affected mostly the middle class minorities as much in the Hispanic as in the black community. Because there was demand for workers to fill positions in the primary and secondary sectors of production, the political class and media did not emphasize immigration to the degree in the 1960s and 1970s as they did after Reagan came to the White House and the ideological and political climate moved sharply to the right. The undocumented workers issue remained at the core of US politics, especially under Reagan who fought against Civil Rights and workers’ rights. An enthusiastic supporter of agri-business in California where Hispanics were trying to earn a living wage with the help of Cesar Chavez, Reagan sent the signal to society that mainstream white Protestant America must be maintained against any encroachments from outsiders at a time that the US was engaged in counter-insurgency operations in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
During the second Clinton administration, the government recognized the legitimate rights of Mexicans, but the legacy of ethnocentrism and the mindset of Manifest Destiny that prevailed in the 1840s have assumed new forms in the early 21st century. This is evident not just by the manner that Republican presidential candidate Trump described Mexicans, but actually the entire society according to public opinion polls. While 50% women claimed they felt discriminated and 52% of blacks, the percentage for Hispanics are at 61% with 81% claiming to have suffered some form of discrimination.
Attitudes of the public changed regarding immigration from the time the US passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 when 1% deemed this the most important issue to 2014 when about one-third of Americans saw immigration as a threat to the American way of life and values; whatever this means, considering the heterogeneous nature of American society and the rightwing propaganda of linking non-white immigration with “domestic security”.
Despite the massive rightwing propaganda the media spews daily and politicians reinforce, the majority of the people believe immigrants strengthen the economy and society. However, from 2000 to 2015, the convergence of three developments changed attitudes toward immigration among an increasingly skeptical public that wants to blame some tangible entity for problems facing the country. a) the war on terror that provided a political impetus to the xenophobes and rightwing elements; b) the deep recession of 2008; and c) the election of a black president that many white conservatives associate with diluting “American purity”.
It is not at all surprising considering that the media and politicians are constantly pointing to undocumented workers as America’s problem, as though if immigrants disappeared America would magically reclaim its glory of the 1950s. Arizona passed legislation forcing out undocumented workers and authorizing police to check the citizenship of people they suspect are illegal aliens. Politicians and other fear-mongers have been talking about erecting a wall to keep out Hispanics and terrorists along the US-Mexico border of roughly 1100 kilometers at the cost of billions to the taxpayers. This association of linking Mexico-US border security with terrorists is unmitigated fear mongering projected on to the public that has difficulty differentiating what is the role of the immigrant because of the way the rightwing media bundles the two completely separate issues.
Republican presidential candidate Trump opportunistically used the xenophobia issue to bring popular support to his campaign. “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” The Trump xenophobic rhetoric actually achieved his political goal because it reflects two-thirds of the sentiment among Republicans and one-third among Independents and Democrats, according to the latest public opinion poll on immigration. A poll taken in 2011when the recession was still a reality revealed that the majority of Americans opposed not just immigrants but their children from attending public school and receiving any type of assistance to attend college.
Considering that the demographics of American society are changing and that Hispanics will be the largest minority group by the middle of the 21st century, there seems to be a divergence between this reality on the one hand, and the anachronistic racist attitudes of politicians and the media on the other. The question is why the political and socioeconomic elites stress this issue when they know very well that the country’s economic and political future is changing very rapidly owing in part to demographics. Whereas in 1960, Hispanics accounted for 3.5% of the US population and whites for 85%,it is estimated that in 2050 whites will account for 47% and Hispanics for 29%. Hispanics will have the potential to determine national elections, assuming the US will remain a representative democracy.
Fear of losing their privileged status and possibly political power has driven a segment of the majority voters toward xenophobia amid the war on terror. Stereotypical images of immigrants persist because the dominant white Protestant Anglo-Saxon culture perpetuates them in order to preserve the political economy and social structure that will be changing more rapidly in the 21st century. This is a classic case of old white northwest European immigrants opposing the new immigrants of color from Latin America, Asia and Africa. This is an issue of legitimacy that whites give themselves but exclude others as though an open pluralistic society is a private country club.
Right wing elements in politics, the media, and think tanks like Heritage Foundation use immigration as a distraction from the real cause of the growing socioeconomic inequality that has to do with neoliberal policies and military-solution-oriented foreign policy both the Democrats and Republicans support. Another dimension is that American culture is immersed in a long history of racism and xenophobia and the white majority fears that society is becoming more multicultural than ever. Instead of seeing cultural diffusion as a positive development enriching society in every respect, there are those who cling on to illusions of Anglo-Saxon Protestant “purity”, once an illusion of the Ku Klux Klan, now prevalent among otherwise” respectable” rightwing elements raising the American flag high against foreigners and terrorists.
This issue is not going away any time soon for two reasons. First, the US will continue drifting down the road of militarism regardless of costs to the economy in order to maintain its global leverage. Militarism will translate into greater xenophobia and right wing domestic attitudes if not hostile policies toward new immigrants. The second reason this will remain an issue in the political arena is because the next recession will revive calls to close the borders. This is what has taken place throughout American history from the 19th century to the present and it will continue as it does in Europe and Australia.
America has always been described as “the Land of Opportunity”, but does it live up to its reputation on a sustained basis? There are certainly opportunities during the expansionary cycles in the economy, but even those appear to have limitations in the last forty years. From the end of the Vietnam War until the present diminished opportunities exist because the US economy has shifted from manufacturing to service-oriented, accelerating with advent of China as the world’s manufacturing center and the relocation of company operations in all fields to India, Brazil, Ireland, and other parts of the world.
Capitalism has always been an international system with capital going it will realize the highest returns rather than maintaining loyalty to a nation-state. The international nature of capital with the opening of China’s economy as well as the downfall of the Soviet bloc simply created more investment markets while driving wages lower for the US middle class and blue collar workers. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that the US economy lost 20 million jobs by the end of 2009 as a result of the recession of 2008, while more than 170,000 small businesses closed in the first two years of the recession.
There is no shortage of part time and low-wage jobs, while the full time and well-paying jobs are few. The creation of “contract workers” is one phenomenon of the new globalized economy operating under neoliberal policies. This is as much a reality in the US as it is in many countries around the world because multinational corporations figured a way around permanent full time work that entails greater profits. The new economy based on “contract workers” (rent-a-worker just like you rent a car) keeps employer production costs low, while the employee lacks jobs security, rights otherwise accorded to full time workers, and often has no benefits such as health care. In essence, this means that companies shift the burden of health care costs to the employee and the state subsidizing the employee. In the 1980s, there were just 05% of contract workers, while in 2014 the number had risen to 2.3%. Even more significant, this is a trend that will grow, considering more employers are using this option along with part-time workers.
Instead of examining the new labor conditions in the marketplace and new labor-management relations, politicians, the media, and rightwing consultants blame workers for failing to retrain and take advantage of the changing market conditions. There are studies indicating that immigrants will accept jobs that “natives” whether in the US, Europe, Australia or Canada will not take. Studies also show that immigrants tend to do better with upward mobility despite structural obstacles than “natives” for a combination of reasons ranging from the psychology of an immigrant to willingness to accept harder jobs and more than one.
The upward mobility of immigrants phenomenon doing better than “natives” pertains more to the second generation immigrants and not so much to first generation that encounter problems integrating fully into society. One explanation for the immigrants tending to grab at any opportunity and crave upward mobility is their fear of finding ahead of them what they left behind in the old country. The spirit of competition is much higher because they are outsiders whose psychology is very different than that of the native population. In fact, the American Dream has a much greater appeal to the immigrant worker than it does to the college student who has doubts about the institutional system delivering what politicians and the media advertise.
While the immigrant aims toward integration into the institutional mainstream, a segment of the native population regards it with suspicion. All immigrants, including black immigrants who know the history of racism in America, are actually driven by the same sense of excelling through conformity whereas the same people would not do as much in their own countries. However, as the chart below indicates, recent and long-term immigrants lag far behind the native population in every respect from housing ownership to income. The same holds true for Hispanics, who actually lag even more than the overall US immigrant population according to a study by the Center for Immigration Studies.
In comparison with the socioeconomic conditions of immigrants, the economic and social situation of much of the African-American population is bad, and in many respects deteriorated since 1980, especially with regard to black male youth employment opportunities. Conservative and liberal analysts alike argue that the fault does not necessarily rest with a system in which immigrants seem to be doing fairly well, but with the African-Americans. After all, there is a black middle class and the US elected a black president twice. Therefore, there is no discriminatory institutional structure but individual responsibility for failure to succeed. There are consultants and inspirational gurus trying to tell people that a positive state of mind is all it takes to become successful. These people stress the values of individualism and never raise the issue of structures as catalytic in the life of the individual who must persevere over any obstacle society presents within legal means.
The US government, businesses and educational institutions have moved toward a broader definition of meritocracy since the Civil Rights movements by introducing Affirmative Action in education and hiring practices to even the playing field between the majority and minority populations. Kennedy signed an executive order in 1961 ordering that government “not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin" and "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." Conservatives, especially during the Reagan presidency, argued that affirmative action was a form of quotas for minorities, disregarding the long history of quotas for white males only in an institutional structure favoring white males to the exclusion of all others.
Affirmative Action simply extended the 18th century meritocracy ideal to women and minorities, but within these groups impacting largely the middle class and not the poor. After all, the concept of meritocracy was a bourgeois ideal and created for the middle class trying to insert itself into the political and business mainstream commensurate with its contributions to society, as far as 18th century Enlightenment thinkers were concerned. Kennedy and those favoring affirmative action simply extended the old bourgeois concept pertaining to white males only to the rest of the middle class population to reflect the realities of a diverse society that minority populations enriched with their contributions.
Diversity in an open society seems logical, except when it threatens the white male majority. How does one measure merit except in standardized tests and grades in school? The white meritocracy argument used against blacks and Hispanics has run into contradictions when it comes to Asians scoring much higher than whites in standardized tests and especially in math and science. Although American society is becoming more diverse demographically, the right wing politicians, think tanks, media have used the courts and the Supreme Court to fight against what they label “reverse discrimination”. This is because they see with great clarity the majority white population losing ground largely because of demographic changes and the only way to preserve privileges accorded on racial/.ethnic grounds is to fight in the courts where white male judges are skeptical about affirmative action trying to correct white “sins of the past”.
Even with the progress that women and minorities have made under affirmative action, the reality is that class transcends gender, race and ethnicity. This is the reason for the concessions to the middle class Hispanics, women, blacks, and other minorities. The American economy reached its peak in the second half of the 1940s when the economies of the entire world were in shambles. While there was growth in the 1950s and upward socioeconomic mobility continued until the end of the Vietnam War, opportunities became fewer and the long decline set in as a permanent feature. In 2015, the IMF declared that China is the world’s largest economy if measured in PPP terms, and likely to continue rising to overtake the US at some point later in the century. China’s economic rise is as certain as the decline of the US. This limits opportunities for the majority of Americans. The result will be that politicians will continue to distract the public by blaming the individual and minority groups, terrorism and foreign enemies rather than the domestic political economy as the root cause of the problem.
Jon Kofas is a retired university Professor from Indiana University.
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