Racism and Immigration in the USA

Eight years ago I was in Rome on a guided tour of the city. Our group was divided into two groups, one English-speaking and one Spanish/German-speaking. Because the Spanish/German-speaking group was quite small, I chose to go with that one. This is how I wound up touring Rome all day with three women from Germany.

"You're voting for Obama, right?" One of the women asked in German in lieu of a How do you do? Germans can be quite forward about politics and have no qualms about asking who you're voting for.

I was actually planning to vote for Obama and had no problem telling the woman this. While her question was a bit rude and aggressive by US standards, it only tickled the margins of appropriate conversation. Back then.

Back then, politics seemed relatively normal. Obama was scandalously liberal and a bit too dark for some people--in short, he was history in the making--but it all seemed like something I could talk about with a stranger. The world is different now. No stranger has enough time for me to tell them how furious I am about our current political situation. I'd ruin their holiday. They'd be talking about the US-American guy who actually foamed at the mouth. Their grandchildren's grandchildren would be telling some mutated version of the story 60 years later. OK, when I look at it this way, maybe it would have some entertainment value. I'd be a legend.

Our current situation didn't start, and will not end, with Trump. History doesn't work that way. There would be no Trump without Obama, no Obama without Bush, and so on. We don't have Obama to thank for illegal immigrants or American jobs going abroad. These situations are much older than Obama. In fact, the first "illegal" immigrants were the 50,000 slaves smuggled into the US in 1808 after President Jefferson made foreign slave trade illegal (Roger Danniels, PhD, Guarding the Golden Door). And then between 1814 and 1850 around a million Native Americans were denied citizenship and forced to cede their land, essentially making them foreigners in their own home while Protestant Europeans were offered fast-track citizenship because of course they were white and non-Catholic. Native American weren't given citizenship until 1924.This was the first "Make America White Again" movement.

In the second half of the 19th century, so many people from around the world came to the US legally. As workers. The Chinese and the Irish built the first transcontinental railroad. It wasn't until 1864-1880 that Congress actually tried to start organizing and controlling immigration and didn't create an agency to regulate immigration until 1891. The Chinese were discriminated against and forbidden to buy or own land. In 1862, Chinese laborers were officially excluded from citizenship. 

Between 1880 and 1924 25 million Europeans emigrated to the US, legally. And in 1898, the Supreme Court confirmed that the 14th Amendment gives citizenship to anyone born or naturalized in the US, so the birther movement is a bit older than anyone living now.

But here's when it gets really interesting: 1910 and the Mexican Revolution. This is when thousands of Mexicans fled Mexico to the US where they found jobs in agriculture, mining and the railroad. World War I only fueled the need for cheap labor. Oddly though, when mounted guards were stationed along the Mexican-US border, it wasn't to keep the Mexicans out but rather the Chinese who were trying to get into the US illegally. Long story short, almost all of the immigration laws enacted by the US have been to keep non-white people out. It must be said, though, that we weren't really that fond of Catholics either.

1927 -- US Labor Secretary estimates that over 1,000,000 Mexicans are in United States illegally

During World War II 5 million Mexicans came to the US legally as part of the Bracero Program to work on farms and railroads which officially ended in 1964 but did not stop the flow of Mexicans into the country. So 1964 is a sort of milestone: the beginning of our current era of illegal, undocumented aliens from Mexico. 1964: not Thanks, Obama. Not even Thanks, Bush. Or Thanks, Jimmy Carter. By 1980 almost 2 million undocumented Mexicans were living in the US, very few of them having arrived before 1960 (so apparently some of those from the 1927 figure either became legal citizens, came legally, or went back to the Mexico). You get the idea. We have a history--a relatively complicated one marred by racism and discrimination. We've passed some awful laws, and we've repealed them. And the situation of illegal immigration goes on. It's a complex issue.

So can you imagine having this discussion with a stranger on holiday?

As you inaugurate Trump tomorrow, remember that history repeats itself. Those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it. The US has a long history of racist immigration policies. We'll heal only once we confront them. We seemed to be on the right path, but maybe that was an illusion.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Eclectica Magazine's 20th-Anniversary Speculative anthology, Indiana Review, FRiGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and over a hundred other great places. Read his book reviews in [PANK], Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, The Lit Pub, and others. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Bootsnall Travel, and lots of other fine places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net, the storySouth Million Writers Award, and the Pushcart Prize. He is the 2015 recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal's award for flash fiction and in 2016 took third place in the K. Margaret Grossman fiction award given by Literal Latté. Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

Art by 281_Anti nuke. See more HERE.



Popular Posts