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The colors of immigration reform

Phillip M. Jones | 3/27/2013, 5 p.m.

After years of non-action and adverse action from differing political groups, persuasions and governmental entities, the issue of immigration almost immediately gained more serious national attention following the re-election of President Barack Obama.

While most people think primarily of Hispanics and Asians when the topic of immigration comes up, there are number of people of African descent that fall into the immigrant population as well.

"Blacks only make up around 10 percent of the immigrant population," said Opal Tometi of the Black Alliance, citing United States Department of Immigration statistics. "Yet, Blacks are five times more likely to be detained or deported."

Tometi spearheads a network of groups that address issues of immigration and other such rights for Blacks, and does so on a worldwide basis.

The immigration issue has seen many changes and developments over the years, but it has typically been driven by a key interest--American corporate and business needs.

Corporations have always sought to exploit cheap labor while American laborers have sought better wages as immigrants have challenged them for jobs.

Race and ethnicity have often been a bedrock component of American immigration, including the slave trade, the Chinese railroad workers, and Hispanics in agriculture. Laws tended to change once usefulness has been absorbed or because of challenges.

In 1790, Congress passed a law allowing the naturalization of free White persons, a racial requirement for American citizenship, which remained on the books until 1952. In 1907, the U.S. and Japan entered into a diplomatic agreement--not bound by law, yet adhered to--where Japan agreed to only emigrate educated or business-engaged Japanese, and Japan would also withhold skilled and unskilled laborers, along with those affected by mental or physical disabilities. President Theodore Roosevelt agreed to desegregate California schools in exchange. This reversed a practice where Asians in Northern California were educated separately from the larger student population much as Blacks were in the South.

The Immigration Act of 1917 added a literacy test and designated Asia as a barred zone, allowing only Japanese and Philippine immigrants. A barred zoned limits the number people allowed to come into the U.S. from a certain area.

Race was further embedded in immigration law in 1882 when Chinese were prevented from entry into the U.S. for decades by the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act was repealed in 1943 during World War II as the nation warred against the Germans and Japanese because, some historians say, Chinese were needed for military intelligence against Japan.

At one time, American immigration was limited to a certain number of people per year pursuant to federal law, and was considered as enforcement and aid to American culture, democracy, national defense and security.

It was not until the Immigration Act of 1965, which was encouraged and only made possible by the Civil Rights Movement and the ensuing Voting Rights Act of 1965, that race-based immigration admission was replaced by criteria that involved skills, profession or by family relation to U.S. citizens.

Currently, the White House and the Senate Bipartisan Committee on Immigration Reform have both drafted plans that include an eventual pathway to permanent citizenship for the thousands of people who entered the U.S. illegally, but they don't yet agree on details. Both do, however, agree that applicants pay fines, taxes, wait in line behind current green-card applicants, and learn to speak English.