American Ambivalence about Immigration 7 April 2006Posted by Todd in Inequality & Stratification, Political Commentary, Politics, Race & Ethnicity, Social Sciences.
The only good thing to come out of the current insanity in Congress—the battle over the Senate and House versions of immigration reform, the former a somewhat reasonable proposal, the latter a throw-back to 1920s style nativism—is that it happens to fall right when my course on inequality in the United States is covering the issue of immigration, so I have something meaty and immediate to throw to my students for debate.
Immigration has been an issue for centuries, dating back to the fear of German immigrants in the 18th century. But Americans as a whole have always been ambivalent in their feelings in general, and their governmental policies always end up stradling various ethical, legal, and historical issues. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center demonstrates amply America's ambivalence about immigration.
Where Mexico is concerned, Americans' feelings about immigration are even more murky. Some point to the fact that the U.S. Southwest was once northern Mexico, but more salient is the fact that even during the bracero program of the 1930s, the border with Mexico has always been a de facto open border. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883, California farmers needed to replace the labor force they lost, and turned to Mexico. Mexican (and Canadian) workers were exempted in the draconian 1924 Immigration Act and moved freely back and forth across the border. It was not until the 1965 Immigration Act put limits on Mexican immigration that the issue of "illegal immgrants" from Mexico was even an issue. (That is not to say that there weren't cultural and social tensions between Anglos and Mexican-Americans prior to 1965, just that their legal status was not at the center of the conflict.) The Mexican economy, decimated by NAFTA during the 1990s, has produced a horde of unemployed people living at or near absolute poverty; southern Mexicans have been displaced into northern Mexico, and more and more Mexicans need to come north to feed their families.
Current debates about immigration cross party boundaries and make strange bedfellows, because the values that drive individuals' and groups' evaluation of the issue are contradictory and overlapping. Often people on both sides of the American political dyad find themselves both for and against immigration and immigration reform at the same time. It seems that these attitudes fall into four quadrants of sorts, as I've tried to illustrate in very bad HTML Table below (if anyone knows why a giant space is appearing before the table, please email me so I can fix that).
|Ideology or Values (Left)||Believers (Left)||Believers (Right)||Ideology or Values (Right)|
|For: Multiculturalism, diversity, etc.||Educators, immigrant advocates, immigrants, etc.||Business owners, farmers, PMC who hire immigrant day-labor and domestic help, etc.||For: Capitalist production, free market, etc.|
|Against: Job protection, labor rights, etc.||Working class, labor activists, etc.||national security wonks, those who don't directly benefit from migrant labor, middle class and working class who fear cultural "denationalization", etc.||Against: Nationalism, "American identity"|
Of course, this is an oversimplified rubric (many labor activists are pro-immigration, and many business owners are against, etc.). What I am trying to illustrate, here, is the general outline of the competing values that drive peoples reactions, emotions, their policy decisions regarding immigration, and ultimately their ambivalence. Surely, sociologically, immigration is not a neutral social phenomenon; it can cause real upheaval and turmoil to a society, depending on how it occurs, its scale and scope, and the perceptions of society's members. And just as surely for the migrants themselves, according to many studies, the "context of reception" is the single greatest factor in determining their mental health and emotional adjustment to a new cultural home after migration.
To be continued when I know where I'm going with this…
 Democracy Now had an interesting debate over the Senate proposal last week, between Aarti Shahani of Families for Freedom and Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute. Although I am at odds with the Manhattan Institute on many issues—especially their economic policy—Ms. Jacoby's arguments made sense to me, given what I've been studying recently about the history of immigration policy and Americans' responses to immigrants over the past 10 years. Listen to the debate online.
 See Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait, Second Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 155-186.