"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, July 7, 2017

Illegal Immigrants: Congress Created the Problem, and Then Made It Worse

In last month’s post, I summed up the source of our problem of illegal immigration:  the combined effects of Congress terminating the Bracero Program in 1964 and enacting the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965.  As a result, I wrote, “A large number of Mexicans, whose life had been tending crops in the U.S., while technically living in Mexico, faced a cruel dilemma.  Their migratory living had been eliminated, but Mexico had no work for them (which was largely why they became migrant workers in the first place).  They could not legally immigrate to the U.S, where there was work to sustain their families, as the 1965 Act and subsequent restrictions had capped the legal residence options at much too low a number.  The result was obvious, at least in retrospect: a migration that had been circular and legal became one-way and illegal.”  Let’s call that Unpleasant Conclusion Number One. 

So, here’s some evidence for Unpleasant Conclusion Number Two: Congress made the problem worse by doing what it does best, playing politics.  The story also contains a timely example of how one’s efforts can produce exactly the opposite results from what one intended.

After Congress had finished its terminating and enacting, legal and organized migrant labor ceased to exist.  The need for it, however, did not.  As a result, the actual migration of people didn’t initially change, only the “legal and organized” part.  A recent scholarly paper on the subject summed it up this way:  In essence, in 1965 the United States shifted from a de jure guestworker program based on the circulation of bracero migrants to a de facto program based on the circulation of undocumented migrants….the well-established migratory flow simply continued informally without authorization.”*

Migration kept taking place, largely because the migrants had no other option.  We should also note that, in the absence of legal organizations to facilitate their border crossings, illegal organizations stepped in to fill the gap.  As all this merely continued a by-now well-established pattern, it initially received little attention.  But that changed.

By the late 1970s, the arrival of illegal Latinos began to be perceived as a problem.  In the following decades, the continued influx steadily became first a bigger problem, and then a threat.  Politicians and pundits pronounced the situation bad, as our border came “under siege” and then worse, because our nation faced “the Latino threat.”  Congress responded, and proceeded to make things worse.

Mind you, they did this by taking the obvious action, steadily increasing the money and personnel dedicated to stopping the illegal influx of Latinos.  From 1977 to 1995 the number of Border Patrol agents increased by 250%, while the Agency’s budget rose by about 650%.  The effort continued, and continued to expand.  It may surprise some of those on the Right to know that among some of those on the Left, President Obama was known as “The Deporter-in-Chief.” 

All of this was to little effect, however, a fact that the American public had clearly perceived in advance of the 2016 election.  The numbers of Latin Americans residing in the U.S. “without documentation” continued to rise.  The numbers are, in fact, quite unsettling.   There were an estimated 1.13 million undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. in 1980.  By 1990, that number had almost doubled, to 2.04 million, then more than doubled during the next decade, to 4.68 million by 2000.  The total number (supposedly) peaked at 7.03 million in 2008.  In other words, after 1980, the number of undocumented Mexicans not only continued to rise, it demonstrated an increasing rate of increase, by decade.

So what happened?  Why did the problem not only continue, but also increase, despite drops in the number of undocumented Mexicans entering the U.S.?  The simple answer is, of course, the story of Mexico’s continued inability to absorb its growing population into its workforce compared to the better economic conditions just north of the border.  They just kept coming.  But they did so despite much greater law enforcement aimed at preventing exactly that.  The American public was even treated to amateur videos of how easy it was to cross somewhere.  Mind you, the numbers of those caught and returned did rise, but to absolutely no net effect.

On the face of it, this is evidence that throwing more money at the problem did not solve it.  Look a little deeper and you find evidence that throwing more money via dramatically increased law enforcement at this particular problem actually made it worse, much worse.  There is evidence that increased border security efforts amid the rising volume of political rhetoric had the opposite effect of what was intended.

After the end of the Bracero Program, Mexicans continued to enter and leave, much like before.  But after 1980, the increasing public pressure and legal enforcement efforts steadily ratched up the risk of being caught en route.  The result was, once again, what we should have expected.  Faced with steadily greater risks (not to mention costs), many of those who had been migrants decided that continued migration was just too dangerous.  Instead, they remained in the U.S., and did what minorities suspicious of their government have always done: hunker down, stay out of sight, and wait until conditions improve.  In other words, increased law enforcement failed to affect inflow, but instead discouraged outflow.

But all of this reaction began some forty years ago, and we are long past the time of talking about just farm workers.  The largest numbers of Latinos may live in the Southwest, but they have spread throughout the country.  Hispanics are estimated to be about one third of the total population of Norristown, Pa., a long way from Mexico.  If we take the lesson about “hunkering down,” we should probably add to that percentage.  What to do about those who are “illegal” will be decided in Washington, but the result will be felt in towns like Norristown all across the nation.  We’ve done a great deal to stop the flow, but failed miserably.  We live today with the results of that failure dominating our politics.

*Douglas S. Massey and Karen A. Pren, “Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America”

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why Did So Many Hispanics Come to the U.S. Illegally Since 1965?

It’s time to update things.  I have focused so far on the Italian end of the “Hispanics are the new Italians” theme that I have been pursuing.  I have hardly mentioned Hispanics yet, for the good and sufficient reason that they just didn’t figure into the national discourse about immigration until rather recently.  But they certainly do now, so here’s a brief summary of when and why things started to change.

The 1920s immigration laws that I discussed in an earlier post placed quotas on how many from where could legally enter the U.S., while effectively barring Asians and Africans outright.  As evidence of just how little Hispanics figured in the picture, the new laws placed no numerical limits at all on immigration from Latin America or the Caribbean.  Hispanics still weren’t of major concern when the next major alteration to the U.S. immigration laws took place during the 1960s, but things would change in the decades that followed.  Consider:

In 1965, the estimated number of people from Latin America residing illegally in the U.S. was near zero.  Today there are an estimated 11 million of them.  Together with the legal immigrants and the children of both, Latin Americans now constitute almost 10% of the U.S. population.

So what happened to bring so many here?  It’s not that complicated a story, but there have been many twists and turns along the way.  It’s also been over fifty years now, and other factors have contributed during that period.  I’m only going to write about how it all began, and zero is a good place to start. 

To begin, we have to expose the reality behind the numbers in the highlighted paragraph above, particularly that first “near zero.” Then we need to discuss a classic example of what happens when Congress, despite all the good intentions in the world, doesn’t do its homework.  Together, these two stories reveal the beginning of the process that led to our current national fixation with “the immigration problem.”

The statistical zero for illegal immigrants in 1965 is deceptive.  There were actually a great many Mexicans living in the U.S. before that date, depending on where in the country we are looking, but most important on the time of year.  They were encouraged to work in the U.S., but not allowed to stay permanently.  They were migrant laborers, here legally courtesy of the Bracero Program. 

The Bracero Program had originated during World War II in answer to the agricultural labor shortage that military service had caused.  We grew a lot of food to feed our troops overseas, and we needed people to grow and harvest these crops.  Mexico, just south of us, had a large number of unemployed or underemployed people.  It was a natural fit.

It also wasn’t new.  The Bracero Program basically just legalized a migrant labor practice that had been in place long before, if officially unacknowledged.  The program helped to provide the badly needed agriculture labor, while ostensibly guaranteeing better working conditions for the migrant laborers (plus pay of $.30 an hour!).  The Bracero Program began in August 1942, when our government and that of Mexico signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement.  The first braceros entered the country in September, just in time for the sugar beet harvest season.  During the war itself, not that many braceros actually participated in the program, but the labor market was so tight that they were important, often important enough to require the payment of bribes to get a labor contract.*

As with many “wartime expedients,” the program not only survived, it was greatly expanded after the war.  It was highly profitable for growers, of course, ridding them of any real responsibility for their workforce, as well as any number of people who carved out a profitable niche in this mass circular movement.  However, even if we assume that the Program delivered on its promise of better living conditions, the life of a migrant worker was hard and degrading.  It was also a dead end, condemning these men and their families to a lifetime of transient peonage.

By the 1960s, blatant prejudice had gone out of fashion in most of America.  This was the age of the Civil Rights Movement and a host of other efforts aimed at ameliorating some of the worst components of the American national psyche.  Rather overlooked amidst its more publicized activities, the U.S. Congress, for the very best of motives, took two actions, one in 1964 and one the following year.  These two would interact to form a vise of most peculiar shape and function, one that slowly forced increasing numbers of Mexicans—and others from Latin America—into the U.S. illegally.  This phraseology means that, in the early decades at least, those entering illegally did not so much make the choice as be forced into making it.

The first of these actions was the 1964 termination of the Bracero Program (over vociferous objections from Mexico, it should be noted).  Congress phased out the entire program by 1968.  The long-established legal infrastructure that had provided the labor for our “economic miracle” of cultivating the Southwest ceased to exist.  The laborers were still needed, but now legal immigrant worker status was required.  Each had to enter legally, then stay and work under existing programs for resident aliens.  There were several problems with that right away, but one the biggest one didn’t appear until the following year.  That was the 1965 passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The Immigration and Nationality Act is a lesser-known component of LBJ’s “Great Society.”  It replaced the obviously racist 1920s quotas, and attempted to establish a neutral immigration system that focused on family reunification and labor needs. During the negotiations that led to this Act, our border with Mexico was not a major focus of attention. Hispanic immigration—legal or illegal—was a minor issue in 1965.  The Act did, however, impose the first numerical restrictions, capping the total immigrants allowed from the Western Hemisphere at 120,000.  Subsequent amendments between 1978 and 1980 further lowered the allowed numbers.

Thus, to glowing reviews, the trap was set, and what should have been foreseen took place.  A large number of Mexicans, whose life had been tending crops in the U.S., while technically living in Mexico, faced a cruel dilemma.  Their migratory living had been eliminated, but Mexico had no work for them (which was largely why they became migrant workers in the first place).  They could not legally immigrate to the U.S, where there was work to sustain their families, as the 1965 Act and subsequent restrictions had capped the legal residence options at much too low a number.  The result was obvious, at least in retrospect: a migration that had been circular and legal became one-way and illegal.  The 1965 Act increased legal immigration from Latin America—up to the max, in fact—but in combination with the end of the Bracero Program, the two managed to create an entirely new problem, that of illegal immigration.   

In the decades after the 1965 Act, illegal immigration mushroomed, particularly from Latin America. Mexico was by far the most frequent country of origin.  By not paying attention to how capping the number of legal immigrants allowed in the U.S. impacted their previous decision to terminate the Bracero Program, the U.S. government laid the groundwork for the illegal entry of millions of Latin Americans, with the resulting upsurge of nativism and xenophobia in response.  Illegal immigration continued—and increased—in later decades, and the reasons for that lie in the comparison of international economies.  Still, everything needs a creator, and for the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico, that was clearly the U.S. government. 

*Thank you, Wikipedia!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Columbus Day and the Italian Heritage; Further in Debt to Hank Cisco

Last October, I began a series of monthly posts dealing with ethnicity and immigration, focusing as always on my subject towns along Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River.  I drew comparisons between attitudes toward immigrants now—largely Hispanic—and similar views about Italians, their predecessors as the most suspect immigrant minority in the U.S.  In February, I acknowledged that much of my inspiration came from my mentor and friend, Hank Cisco, the Ambassador of Norristown.  Hank is a proud Italian-American, with a long record of support for efforts to commemorate Norristown’s Italian heritage.

This post is again inspired by Hank, who sent a group email with a link to an article in the Italian American Herald.com, entitled “Columbus Being Pushed out of the Picture in America?”  This fits right in what what I have been writing about.  He asked for feedback, and here is mine, late though it is.

Keep in mind that what I have already written about ethnicity—and that’s a sizeable, and growing, amount—and what I shall write, in this post and forthcoming ones, derives from my perhaps unusual perspective.  As I have written before [6/26/15], I view and comment on ethnicity from the position of an outsider.  I possess no ethnicity, for a combination of circumstances, but my primary emotion from that is one of regret.  I am sure this will lead to my thinking along different lines for this subject.

The Italian American Herald is dedicated to preserving the Italian heritage in America.  The essence of the article’s argument is that, in its own words, “Part of preserving is protecting and slowly there is erupting a movement to abolish Columbus Day, a holiday near and dear to Italian Americans.” 

The statement’s phraseology demonstrates, but does not take into account the uniquely bifurcated nature of Columbus Day.  I can think of no other federal holiday that has been celebrated for such different reasons for so long.  It is a federal holiday, and has been since 1937.  The public holiday has always celebrated the beginning of the European cultural influence in the Western Hemisphere.  Yet it is also very personal, “near and dear to Italian Americans,” who celebrate it in their communities and organizations for the fact that Columbus was Italian.  The article itself links the public and the personal view of Columbus, implying that opposition to Columbus Day demeans Italian culture.

First, some background information about federal holidays.  To begin with, the fact that a date is a federal holiday does not actually mean a great deal.  Technically, such recognition applies only to federal employees and federal property.  The federal government is prohibited by the Constitution from requiring any state to observe a federal holiday.  This leaves it up to the individual state to decide.  For Italians, the ability to opt out is where the problem comes in, because a few states have chosen not to celebrate the event, or at least not as regards Columbus.

Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont do not observe Columbus Day, but for reasons that vary widely.  South Dakota and Vermont recognize “Native American Day” and "Indigenous Peoples Day" as a direct alternative to Columbus Day.  Alaska’s reasoning seems to be that the date falls too close to Alaska Day.  Hawaii cannot be said to have any meaningful connection to Columbus at all, so its recognition of “Discovers Day” might be interpreted as being more inclusive than it seems.  In addition, a few municipalities have themselves abolished Columbus Day observances, following the lead of The Peoples Republic of Berkeley, California.

 Now to the nub of the argument:  Are efforts to disestablish Columbus Day directly—or indirectly—an attack on America’s Italian heritage?  

Here is where my status as an outsider comes into play.  I have always been aware of the public nature of Columbus Day; in my upbringing, Columbus Day was for celebrating one’s “Americanness,” and I can recall no emphasis at all on the Italian aspect.  The fact that the Spanish had an Italian show them the way to the new world was just one of those interesting little factoids of history.  Columbus Day was all about the civilizing mission of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere.  Columbus was purely a symbol; his being Italian had virtually nothing to do with it.  The public message celebrating the spread of western civilization runs closely parallel to the personal message that celebrates Columbus being Italian, but there is separation between them, visible at least to this outsider.

Although I cannot feel it as an Italian would, I have learned of the day’s importance to Italian Americans, and see the Columbus monument in Norristown a prime example not only of the day’s significance to them, but to that civilizing message itself.  They may run in parallel, but there is a close connection between the two.

The subject article says that “slowly there is erupting a movement to abolish Columbus Day,” but just how threatened is Columbus Day?  That clearly depends on where in this large, diverse country of ours that you live.  The author recognizes this, and even seems to find it understandable, when she says, “No wonder people are challenging Columbus Day and winning support to change it to Indigenous Peoples Day.  In the American Midwest and West, where the Italian populations are scarce and the American Indian population is huge, Oregon and Minnesota’s Italian American population is about 110,000 and others mentioned don’t reach 100,000.” 

The message I take from this is very American: the people are the authority, and the more local the better.  That means the response to any attempt to disestablish Columbus Day is going to vary quite a bit.  Anadarko, Oklahoma has abolished Columbus Day, but Norristown, Pennsylvania is not going to.

Although I would not use the term “erupting,” Columbus Day is clearly under pressure.  But here’s the rub: in all of the actions, proclamations, statements or whatever taken or made by any state or municipality opposing Columbus Day, I have yet to see one—not even one—directed against Italy, Italians, or Italian Americans.  Columbus long ago became a symbol of Europe’s “civilizing” influence on the Western Hemisphere, its public persona.  In 1892, decades before it became a federal holiday, much of the nation celebrated his 400th anniversary with what Wikipedia calls “patriotic rituals.”  That process had continued, but today we celebrate diversity, with organizations such as Italianamericanherald.com among the celebrants of diversity, Italian style. 

It turns out that celebrating diversity is not a universal good for everyone, as Italians are discovering.  Columbus is part of Italian heritage, and his memory is employed to help sustain and nourish a distinct Italian American ethnicity.  But for anyone who identifies with “indigenous peoples,” sustaining their ethnic history requires recognizing the havoc wrought upon them by the new immigrant Europeans.*  For them, Columbus is a symbol; not of Italy or Italians, but of Europe, the civilization that raped and plundered the Western Hemisphere.  The fact that he was Italian is of no significance.  Italy did not even participate in the rape and plunder of the new world for the good and sufficient reason that Italy did not yet exist.

Unfortunately, while there may be no offense intended by Native Americans, there definitely is offense taken by Italian Americans.  But is the downgrading of Columbus in areas where Italians are massively outnumbered by Native Americans a symptom of the downgrading of Italian-American history?  Perhaps only someone such as I, utterly lacking in ethnicity, would even ask such a question, but I do.  I would like to hear some thoughts on this from you, my readers, and in particular would enjoy your thoughts on my public/private distinction.  How valid is it?

I will conclude with the one point in the article with which I wholeheartedly agree: “Educating all generations is vital to Italian Americans sustaining their heritage, culture and traditions.  Honor the roots of our Italian ancestors who forged onto a new land and were once the unwelcome immigrant.”  Regardless of the fate of Columbus Day in areas with little Italian American population, those parts of America that do possess such peoples should follow the advice quoted above.  This has been the central point of all my writing in this series on ethnicity that has focused on Italian Americans.  They were indeed the unwelcome immigrants, once.

*They have a point.  Within two generations after the arrival of Columbus, the native population of the Western Hemisphere had dropped by at least 90%, largely due to European diseases.  Most of those who remained alive, or their descendants, were subsequently either killed or enslaved.