Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Importance of Being an Earner

Today on Democracy Now! I heard again this snippet from President Obama's recent speech on immigration reform:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have to deal with the 11 million individuals who are here illegally. Now, we all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to citizenship.
Oh, really?  And how did you "earn" your way to citizenship, Mr. President?  Right, you were born.  Me too.

These remarks reminded me of rhetoric I used to hear in the Sixties (though it's undoubtedly older) that The Negro Must Earn His Rights, or show that He deserves them.  Even as a teenager I noticed that all  whites had done to earn our rights was to be born white.

In the story and discussion that followed, I noticed that the Republican proposals for "reform" (a word that should always be put in quotes, it seems to me) include requiring an English proficiency test and a civics test to get a green card -- not citizenship, mind you, just legal residency.  That's not a blatantly unfair requirement, I suppose, just quietly and firmly unfair -- as co-host Juan Gonzalez said, those are presently requirements for citizenship -- but I'd want to know how rigorous the test would be.  Could most native-born Americans pass it?  I've seen the written test for citizenship, because some of my foreign-born coworkers studied for it, and while I could probably pass it, I feel sure that most of the white native-born anti-immigrant racists I know could not.  (I base this on conversations I've had with such people over the years, but also from what I see on Facebook: if they ever took a high-school civics class, they didn't learn anything.)

On the other hand, many of the undocumented foreigners in the US aren't looking to become citizens: they are here to work and earn money to send back home.   Most of them want to go back to their countries eventually, and they do.  Despite the fantasy that many Americans have, not everyone in the world wants to become an American, even if or especially after they've lived here.  Even those who become citizens and master English have to cope with white racism, and increasing numbers of legal immigrants are going back home.  The problem will be how to deal with the temporary immigrants -- call them migrants -- who aren't interested in earning US citizenship, just in earning money.  And they do earn it, working as most of them do in unrewarding service jobs for long hours.  Those on "guest visas," whose jobs may be more interesting, still have problems.  As Mae Ngai, one of the guests, remarked,
We have a lot of experience in this country with guest worker programs, and I think that it should really give us pause. The problem with temporary labor visas is that if the employer holds the visa, as in the case of the H1s, then the worker really has no rights at all. If you say, "You didn’t pay me" — and this is what happens a lot in the lower end of the H2 program — "I didn’t get paid. I was forced to do overtime, all these things," you’re just sent home. You have no rights, and you can’t quit, you know. And we all understand in this country that the quintessential thing of being a free labor—of free labor, is the right to quit, as well as the right to organize. And those are things that you can’t get with a temporary labor visa.
Ngai also said:
I’m reminded a lot of the difference between immigration at the turn of the last century and immigration at the turn of this century. In many ways, they’re similar: It’s a mass migration, it’s a labor migration, it contributed to a dynamic growth of the country’s economy and culture. The main difference, though, was, a hundred years ago, there were no numerical restrictions. So when people say, "My ancestors came legally; they didn’t break the law; they didn’t cut to the front of the line," well, there wasn’t any line. Ninety-eight percent of the people who showed up at Ellis Island got in. And that’s a big difference.
At first I was taken aback by Ngai's claim.  What about the anti-immigrant nativist movements of the American past, with their hostility even to "white" European immigrants?  The 1795 Naturalization Act limited the possibility of naturalized citizenship to "free white persons," extended to include persons of African descent in 1870 but excluding Asians -- a limitation that remained in force until the 1960s.  What about immigration quotas?  I did some looking, and found that the first US immigration quotas were passed in 1921.  The Page Act of 1875 blocked immigration by "undesirables," which in practice kept Asian women out of the country.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 blocked all immigration by Chinese.  The Immigration Act of 1924 was intended to limit numbers of Eastern and Southern Europeans while excluding Asians and Middle Easterners altogether.  It's significant that Ngai refers to Ellis Island, which processed immigrants entering the US from Europe, but then immigrants weren't supposed to be coming from Asia anyhow.  The number of "illegal" immigrants from Europe or Asia was limited by the fact that few people were able to swim the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, but an unknown number of Chinese entered the US with forged documents, as "paper sons."  So, while Ngai was technically correct, I think she gave an oversimple and unrealistically positive picture of immigration in the past.

I'm not saying that immigration should be unrestricted, though I think there are better ways to address the issue than we've seen so far.   As this timeline shows, the amount of immigration is influenced if not determined by social conditions in the home countries and elsewhere: Jewish immigration in the late 1800s, for instance, was driven by pogroms and other persecution in Eastern Europe.  Mexican immigration now is affected by the state of the Mexican economy as well as by US business' demands for cheap, vulnerable labor.  (As Ngai points out, even legal immigrants with worker visas are vulnerable to the whims of their employers.)  Changes in policy are similarly affected: the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, during World War II, as a gesture to our Chinese allies against the Japanese enemy; the status of Filipinos came and went, ebbed and flowed.  White American racism remains a constant, though.

Which reminds me of something else: when Ngai mentioned "mass migration," I thought for a moment she was talking about internal migration, such as the movement of southern African-Americans to the northern states just before and during World War II, in search of better jobs and less Jim Crow.  Even migration within the US, by American citizens (albeit of the 'wrong' color), has been controversial in some circles.