The structural racism of our immigration system

By Julissa Arce, Activist, Writer, and Producer

In May 2018, Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez were shopping at a convenience store in Montana when U.S. Border Patrol stopped them because they were speaking Spanish. In March 2019, Customs and Border Protection detained nine-year-old Julia Isabel Amparo Medina, a U.S. citizen, for more than 30 hours. In July 2019, Francisco Erwin Galicia, a Dallas-born teenager, was held in ICE custody for more than three weeks. The thing they all had in common is that they were assumed to be unauthorized immigrants because they’re Latino.

These racist assumptions have deep structural roots. Immigration laws in this country are often designed to keep Latino immigrants out, or when allowed, treated as disposable, marginalized, and often illegal.

Let’s take off the thin veil and expose the real roots of immigration laws. It is race, more than national security, or economic worries, that dictates immigration policy.

From the very beginning the United States used racial requirements as a way to welcome white people and exclude others. The first Congress in the United States, in 1790, established by law that “free white persons,” of “good character,” were the only people eligible for naturalization. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and barred Chinese people from entering the country. Later, broader laws banned other Asian groups as well.

In the 1920s, “national origin” quotas were enacted that favored northern European immigrants. In 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act got rid of the racist national origin quotas but replaced them with new restrictions on immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

America has attempted to hide its racist immigration laws behind economic worries. As the Great Depression pushed the United States into economic collapse, President Hoover used Mexican Americans as scapegoats and deported as many as 1.8 million Mexicans, the majority of them U.S citizens. Amid a labor shortage during World War II, the Bracero program brought millions of Mexicans to the United States as temporary workers. But during a recession in the mid-1950s, 1.3 million Mexican Americans, including many U.S. citizens, were deported as part of “Operation Wetback.”

Too often, society in the United States paints Latino immigrants as a drain on the economy. But did you know that when upwards of 80% of immigrants were white, no restrictions existed for accessing things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other parts of the social safety net? But in the 1970s, when immigrants became Browner and more Latino, the government added restrictions.

The legacy of these policies continues today. Even though undocumented immigrants pay more than $11 billion in state and local taxes each year, they are not eligible to claim many tax credits to support the health and wellbeing of their U.S.-born children. These same restrictions also shut them out of the first COVID-19 relief legislation.

The effects of these racist attitudes and actions impact Latinos today, citizens and immigrants alike. Let’s remove the vestiges of racism from our immigration laws once and for all. And let’s urge Congress to pass legislation to provide a path to citizenship to all 11 million undocumented immigrants. Let’s imagine a system based on humanity and not to advance a nativist agenda.

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