In April 2006, hundreds of thousands of immigrant rights protestors marched in cities across the United States. They countered prolonged debates about the pros and cons of comprehensive immigration reform with a short but sweet affirmation, scrawled on placards: “No Human Being Is Illegal.” Their direct assertion challenged the deeply entrenched practices of our government and a deep wellspring of racism in our culture. Their actions also evoked traditions of protest, organization, and resistance.
Since the days of slavery — well before the establishment of the United States itself — the government, buttressed by popular culture, included some residents as citizens and excluded others as outsiders, as what historian Mae Ngai has called “impossible subjects.” Not only were slaves defined as outside the political and social community, but freed slaves and their children were typically excluded from citizenship. The federal constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. The Naturalization Act of 1790 offered citizenship to “free white persons.” The Alien Act of 1798 authorized the president to order the deportation of any alien “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” during peacetime. Once the government began to regulate immigration, argues Professor Ngai, it had begun to create the “illegal” alien.
Race was the central criterion by which such decisions would be made, and thinking about race was shaped by popular prejudices, beliefs, and passions. A dual process cast the racially different as “other,” while securing a place on the inside for all those accorded “white” status. The outsiders were vulnerable to the worst forms of economic exploitation, from slavery and servitude to sweatshops, in the most dangerous conditions at the lowest wages. Yet they enriched their employers. Just a step above these outsiders on the economic ladder, from their own position of insecurity, simultaneously threatened by the wealth and power of those above them and the lack of power manifested by those below them on the socio-economic ladder, working class whites struggled to hold on to what status and privilege they had. They practiced discrimination and even mob justice at times, and they sought laws, court orders, and enforcement from the state to shield them from competition with the outsiders. And hence a pattern took shape which would be seared into the American body politic. When insecurity spread among working class whites and popular discontent threatened to swell, the elite and the state responded by scapegoating and exorcising “the other,” both people of color and immigrants.
This pattern has dominated our society since its founding to the present day. When the industrial revolution undermined the independence of white artisans in the first half of the 19th century, they began to organize unions and independent political parties. But one state after another revised its voting qualifications from property ownership to whiteness and maleness and the discontent subsided. The deep depression of the 1870s and the political turmoil it occasioned led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law which proscribed a particular race. Amidst the economic and political turbulence after World War I, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, the nation’s first comprehensive immigration restriction law. It established numerical quotas on immigration and a racial and national hierarchy that favored northern and western Europeans over southern, central, and eastern Europeans, most of whom at that time were not considered to be “white.” An enforcement bureaucracy blossomed, attentive not only to borders and ports, but also to cities, fields, factories, and mines throughout the country.
Not only were barriers to immigration constructed, but the members of those banned groups who did live in the U.S. were treated as suspect. Dominant popular attitudes, shaped by and expressed through cartoons, commercial advertisements, newspapers, radio, film, and humor, rendered all members of these groups “alien,” “other,” not-quite American. And the authorities, from the local police to the U.S. Supreme Court, enforced these attitudes through exclusionary laws and punitive actions.
Even those groups who had attained some level of “insider” status would discover how easily it could be revoked. During the 1930s Great Depression and World War II, Mexicans, Filipinos, and Japanese residents were marked as “illegal” immigrants despite having entered the country legally, having become legitimate citizens, or even having been born here. They were stripped of their property and their rights, some to be interned and others to be deported. Even the third generation U.S. citizens in their groups were rendered “illegal.”
The Immigration Act of 1965 was supposed to change much of this. Influenced by the civil rights movement, on the one hand, and the Cold War, on the other, the new law was to set aside old prejudices and establish a new day of openness and fairness. Racially-based quotas were dropped, and broad, regional categories were created.
Ironically, the post-1965 era also marked the transformation of the global and American economies into the turbulence generated by neoliberalism and free market economics. Rapid, profound changes swept Central and South America, Southeast and South Asia, and parts of Africa, occasioning unprecedented population movement, from countryside to city, from country to country, even from continent to continent. By the late 1980s a significant part of that population movement headed to the United States. Free trade, the importation of less expensive farm products, the export of capital and the opening of factories, exploration for raw materials, war and the presence of the U.S. military tied Hmong, Vietnamese, Salvadorans, Mexicans, Liberians, and others to the U.S. Simultaneously, war, discrimination, drought, and political and economic crises pushed Somalis, Eritreans, Oromos, Guatemalans, Indians, Pakistanis, and others to leave their homes and seek peace and security elsewhere, including the United States. From nursing homes to meatpacking plants, from taxi cabs to cleaning buildings, they provided cheap labor with little ability to stand up for their rights.
The very same economic shifts were sweeping the U.S. domestic economy, destabilizing manufacturing and undermining the economic security of American workers. They feared losing their jobs, while they were becoming increasingly aware of the presence of new non-white immigrants in their communities, many of whom were willing to work for longer hours and less pay than they were. Politicians, demagogues, radio talk show hosts, and the like found this to be fertile ground for the replaying of that historical nativist script. Scapegoating immigrants, especially non-white immigrants, was a path to fame, fortune, and political power.
Recent events have delivered this package to our doors in the Midwest. Two glaring experiences demand our attention, each different in its particulars but similar in its construction. Both grow out of the historical power of racism and its incorporation by the practices of the state.
The Twin Cities has become home to the largest Liberian community in the U.S., even as the federal government denies many of them permanent residency status. Two decades of civil war and disorder, on top of a century of economic neocolonialism, much of it facilitated by U.S. weapons, money, and intervention, have demolished Liberia’s infrastructure and left its unemployment rate hovering at 80%. Meanwhile, by their own accounting, Liberians working in Minnesota are sending $8-10 million a month to family members back home. Yet our federal government only proffers “temporary protected status” to tens of thousands of displaced Liberians, with a time-clock ticking away towards expulsion in March 2009. When Sierra Leonean immigrants lost their temporary protected status in May 2004 they were transformed from “refugees” into “undocumented illegals” with one sweep of the bureaucratic hand. To add insult to injury, our government has introduced a DNA testing program in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, requiring applicants for immigration to the U.S. to “prove” their familial relationships with immigrants already here. Liberian immigrants are treated as potential criminals before they have set foot in the U.S. and they live each day here with one eye over their shoulders.
Central American immigrants have not fared any better. In the last decades of the Cold War, dictatorial and military governments in the region, often funded by the U.S., waged virtual warfare against their own populations. Since the rise of free trade and neoliberalism in the last decade, self-sufficient agriculture and artisanal production have been battered by the import of cheap agricultural products and mass-produced commodities. Millions of displaced peasants and village-dwellers have left their homes, seeking jobs which enable them to support their families. Due to immigration restrictions, which persist despite the 1965 law, many of them have entered the U.S. surreptitiously, without legal documents. As economic insecurity for many white workers in the U.S. has worsened and as politicians and demagogues have fanned the flames of fear, these immigrants have been increasingly targeted by authorities.
Once the government assumes the task of separating citizens from “impossible subjects,” Professor Ngai points out, “the border” is everywhere, not just between countries. Thus, the border has come to the Midwest. Indeed, in the two years since the immigrant rights marches of spring 2006, there have been federal ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids of workplaces, especially meatpacking plants, in Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska. Two months ago, 900 ICE agents raided the AgriProcessors plant in Postville, Iowa, the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the country. This was the largest such raid in U.S. history, with the most severe consequences. Nearly 400 undocumented packinghouse workers, mostly indigenous men and women from Guatemala, were rounded up, and charged with the felony of “aggravated identity theft” for having used false social security numbers. They were separated from their children and relatives, chained, interned in tents in the Waterloo cattle grounds, and pressured to plead guilty. Nearly all of them did. The men are serving five-month prison sentences, while the women are under house arrest, wearing electronic ankle bracelets, unable to work or earn any income. When the men complete their sentences, they and their partners will change places for another five months. The women will go to prison and the men will be under house arrest. Then, all will be deported.
Liberians and Guatemalans in these cases, and many other immigrants in other cases, are being rendered illegal by a state bureaucracy which invokes terrorism to justify budget increases for ICE while cutting back on social services. Borders and boundaries are sharply defined, by the logics of the state, with some of us on the inside, others of us on the outside. Men, women, and children fleeing regimes which have wreaked havoc in their communities seek ways to survive. When they get to the U.S., some find dangerous, dirty, and low-paying jobs. Some do better economically but live in fear of deportation and the loss of anything they have built here.
Not all Americans are content with this state of affairs. Informed by the stories of protest, organization, and resistance that are also part of this country’s history, American people have consistently challenged both popular racism and the actions of the state. Time and again, those directly hurt by racism and state policies have been joined by ordinary women and men who were moved by conscience to mount movements seeking social justice. Some people organized to free slaves in the Underground Railroad or challenged the very institution of slavery as abolitionists. In the next generations, workers, farmers, and farmworkers of color organized together with their white counterparts in the Knights of Labor, the Populist movement, and the Industrial Workers of World. They sought a democratic and egalitarian America in the face of the rising power of corporate elites and robber barons. Southern and eastern European immigrants joined with African Americans who had migrated from the South to lead the industrial union movement of the 1930s. In the midst of the Great Depression, this movement sought economic security, fairness, and dignity in the workplace, and a voice for workers in the nation’s political life. Sleeping Car Porters, hospital workers, government employees, auto workers, coal miners, and many others mobilized their unions to support the civil rights movement, while the United Farm Workers of America brought its values and vision to Latino and Filipino migrant workers. Workplace and community-based organizations, churches, and social justice groups of all sorts have stood up time and again for fairness, equality, and inclusion, even when it wasn’t popular.
This history has been as complex and rich in the Midwest as it has been anywhere in the U.S. Currently, in Minnesota, organizations and individuals — religious and/or faith-based, labor, and rights and justice advocates — have formed a network to support permanent residency for Liberians and fair treatment and a path to citizenship for the Postville immigrant workers. Twin Cities-based Jewish Community Action, drawing on its interpretation of the complicated historical narrative of Jews — as “strangers” on the one hand, and as advocates of social justice on the other — has played a leading role in the organization of the Committee for Permanent Residency, “CPR,” which has focused on the insecure immigration of Liberians in the U.S., and in the organization of material aid and a support rally in Postville on Sunday, July 27. They have organized through synagogues and temples and Jewish organizations, newspaper, and websites, and they have advocated on behalf of “Hekhsher Tzedek,” an expansion of the definition of “kosher” to include issues of worker treatment and the right to organize. As partners and advocates on their own behalf, immigrants themselves have been a major part of these efforts, bringing their neighbors, offering contacts and critical information, and acting from deep experiences of coalition and courage. A partial list of participant organizations is suggestive of this widening network: the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, Centro Campesino, the Advocates for Human Rights, the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, UNITE-HERE Local 17, the Workers’ Interfaith Network, and a number of synagogues and churches.
The stories of exploitation, abuse, and disrespect have disturbed those of us participating in these organizing efforts. We have also found inspiration and hope from history and from each other. Most of all, we cannot stand idle while the state, greedy employers, and racist organizations and individuals act in our name. It’s time for all of us to march with those immigrant rights signs: “No Human Being Is Illegal!”
Peter Rachleff is Professor of History at Macalester College and Past President of the Working Class Studies Association.