From MINNESOTA, the magazine of the
University of Minnesota Alumni Association
If the United States builds a wall along its border with Mexico to stem illegal immigration, Donna Gabaccia will be no fan of it. Currently a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and director of the U’s Immigration History Research Center, Gabaccia once lived in the divided city of Berlin. Part of a small group of German-speaking historians from the United States, she taught at Berlin’s Free University from 1979 to 1982.
“When they built the Berlin wall, East German rulers claimed they were trying to keep out West German drugs and criminals. Of course, the wall also prevented East Germans from leaving,” Gabaccia says. “Building a wall carries a very high cost, not just financially but symbolically. It affects the image of a country, and it affects the ease with which citizens can move across borders too. I hope that future debates about wall-building discuss all those costs.”
According to Gabaccia, who has authored numerous books and articles on immigrant life in the United States and Italian migration around the world, the debate over immigration has been going on in the United States since at least the 1870s. While the numbers and origins of immigrants have varied greatly in that time, the concerns people have about immigration— including fears of cultural and racial inferiority, political radicalism, and religious beliefs—remain the same.
Then there is the question at the heart of the immigration debate: whether people have the basic right to move from place to place. “Though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says people have the right to leave their home countries, it does not assert that they have the right to go anywhere else,” says Gabaccia. “Without the right to enter another country the individual right to leave your home country seems meaningless. This is not something we talk about much in the United States today.”
Indeed, much is missing from the current immigration debate. Gabaccia sat down to offer a historical and global perspective on immigration for Minnesota magazine readers.
Could you briefly define the terms immigrant, migrant and refugee?
A migrant is a person who is moving, regardless of whether or not they are crossing a border. The word immigrant usually means someone who has crossed an international boundary and has entered a country with the intention to remain. What we forget is that many of the people we think of as immigrants actually don’t come to stay. About 50 percent of Italians who came to the United States in the early 1900s went back to Italy. That’s also been true of Mexican migration until very recently.
According to U.S. immigration law, a refugee is someone who has been driven from his homeland because they fear violence or ethnic, religious, or political persecution. Until the early 1980s, the United States accepted [as refugees] only people who were fleeing religious persecution in the Middle East or fleeing communist countries. The United Nations has defined the term more broadly, saying that anyone who fears violence or persecution in their homeland can be considered a refugee.
Where are the greatest numbers of immigrants coming from and where are they going?
Some of the largest groups worldwide are from Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines. There are also significant numbers from Turkey. The impact refugees and immigrants have on the receiving country depends on its size. The United States has 35 million to 38 million foreigners. Believe it or not, Russia has the next largest population of foreign-born people at 12 million. Germany has 10 million. France has 6.5 million, and Saudi Arabia has 6.5 million. And here is where the difference between number and impact matters: The 35 million foreigners living in the United States represent about 15 percent of population, whereas the 6.5 million foreigners living in Saudi Arabia make up more than half of its population.
What’s different about immigration in the United States and Europe today compared with 50, 100, or 150 years ago?
The main difference is the origins of the people who are migrating. One hundred years ago, the major migrations [to the United States] were from Europe and, to a lesser extent, from Mexico, Canada, and Asia. Today the largest migrations to the United States come from Asia and Latin America, including Mexico, and to Europe from Africa and Asia.
Most migration to Europe 100 years ago was from one European country to another, usually workers. Now, the European Union allows free movement for Europeans across its old national borders but it restricts the entry of workers, refugees, and asylum-seekers from other parts of the world.
One big difference about immigration today is that more highly educated people are migrating now compared to 100 years ago. About one-third of immigrants today are highly educated with advanced degrees who often speak English and have professional training, where, in the past, most immigrants were blue-collar industrial workers and farmworkers. Today, those less-skilled workers are about a third of the immigrants coming into the United States.
Another big distinction between immigration today and 100 or 150 years ago is that there are many more restrictive laws now than we had then. In 1900, the United States and most European nations didn’t even require a passport. With each increase in bureaucracy, there is an increase in cost and the time it takes for paperwork, and the incentive to walk across a border without those documents can be very strong.
What is the history of the term illegal immigrant?
People say there were no illegal immigrants in the past, and, in a sense, that’s true, because 100 to 150 years ago the United States did not restrict immigration. As the United States began to restrict immigration more heavily, the first group to be excluded was workers from China. In the 1880s and 1890s, there was a lot of racialized hostility toward Chinese workers in the United States. People were saying a lot of the same things you hear today like, “They’re stealing our jobs.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese workers, but there were small loopholes in the law that allowed mer chants who were already U.S. residents to bring in their sons. They were called “paper sons,” and they often were not really sons but other relatives or friends who used false information on their paperwork. They were the first illegal immigrants to the United States.
It was only in the 1950s and ’60s that the term illegal immigrant came to be attached to Mexican workers. Ironically, it came at a time when the United States was trying to encourage guest workers to come from Mexico. Between 1943 and 1963, about 4 million men came to work in the United States from Mexico under the Bracero Program. People in Texas and all over the West and Southwest were aware of the demand for labor, especially agricultural labor. The immigrants who were recruited to do those jobs were good workers, and the people they worked for wanted to keep them on because they were already trained. But there was no way to extend their work visas when they expired, so they would just stay illegally.
One thing many people don’t understand about illegal immigration is that there was illegal emigration 100 years ago. The laws people broke were the laws of their home country. Almost all people leaving Russia during the period of czarist rule that lasted until 1918 left illegally because czarist Russia didn’t feel it was an individual right for people to move around as they chose. China also prohibited people from leaving until 1868. The Chinese emperor felt that if you left you were a rebel and possibly a revolutionary. If you were a loyal Chinese subject you stayed at home.
For me, the most interesting question raised by all of this is whether or not human beings have the liberty to move themselves around as they choose. Or is it governments who should decide whether individuals should be able to move freely about? It really forces us to think about the relationship between people and their governments.
Why is immigration such a sensitive topic in the United States and Europe, and has it always been this way?
Well, the main thing I’d like to emphasize is that, historically in Europe and the United States, every time the number of immigrants has gone up and the proportion of foreigners has moved to about 10 to 15 percent of the population, the perception that immigration is a problem also increased. There was never a time when immigrants were regarded positively. Every immigration has sparked demands for greater control or outright restriction. The United States has gone through at least four different debates over this in the past. In the 1790s, Americans feared foreign political ideology from revolutionaries fleeing Europe, so Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts giving the president the right to deport an alien who was believed to be politically dangerous.
In the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party argued for restrictions on naturalization and tighter restrictions on the Catholic Church because they believed Catholics couldn’t be good Americans. The argument was that Catholics owed loyalty to another country and another ruler—the papal state of Rome and the pope—and therefore they could not be loyal to the United States.
Then there was the Nativist movement at the end of the 19th century, arguing that people from Asia and from Southern and Eastern Europe were culturally and racially inferior, poor, and uneducated, or that they were radicals, socialists, and anarchists. After 1921, Asians were excluded and caps were placed on the number of immigrants who could enter from countries like Yugoslavia, Poland, and Italy.
What we see in today’s debates are some old themes like fear of political radicalism. Today, Americans are focused on Muslims and they’re again worried about terrorism and political radicalism. There is still fear of racial and cultural difference.
The immigration debates you see in the United States are not unique to us. You see these same debates in Europe, Asia, and in the United Arab Emirates, where there are also many foreign-born workers who often try to stay in the countries where they work. There’s just as much hostility expressed toward foreigners in those countries as there is here.
Is it accurate to call the United States “a nation of immigrants”?
First of all, it is not true that the United States has always called itself a nation of immigrants. The phrase was not used until the 1880s and it came into popular usage only 60 years ago, when the numbers and proportions of immigrants had reached their lowest point in U.S. history. The problem with the phrase is that many Americans don’t think of themselves as descendents of immigrants. Many African Americans don’t, because their ancestors did not choose to come here. Native Americans clearly do not think of themselves as immigrants. Many Hispanics of the Southwest don’t think of themselves as immigrants, because the United States conquered that territory. They didn’t cross the border; the border crossed them. Many of the Americans descended from the English who arrived in the 1600s and 1700s don’t think of their forefathers as immigrants either.
So, calling the United States a nation of immigrants is a very recent development. We have to be aware of who is included and who is excluded if we use this phrase. Look at groups who don’t identify with the term and you’ll see that most of them are peoples of color who were excluded from the nation and from citizenship and its rights because they were slaves or conquered peoples. Whether or not the phrase “nation of immigrants” is flexible enough to accept the growing racial diversity among today’s immigrants will be the question of the 21st century.
How does U.S. immigration policy prioritize who is allowed to legally enter the United States? What does and doesn’t work with our current system?
The United States allots a certain number of visas to immigrants and refugees per year, usually 500,000 to a million. The largest group of visas goes to the very close relatives of U.S. citizens and to immigrants with green cards. The next largest group of visas goes to people with employment skills certified as needed by the U.S. Department of Labor. Almost all of those visas are for highly skilled people like nurses, engineers, etc. It’s almost impossible for a blue-collar worker to qualify for an employment-preference visa as an immigrant.
The main problem with the current policy from my perspective is that the number of visas each year doesn’t go up and down with the labor needs of the United States. Whether our economy is in a boom or in a bust, the number of available visas is stable. The second problem is that the current preference system makes it almost impossible for blue-collar and semi-skilled workers to get a visa. So that is, of course, the population that is most likely to enter the United States illegally. That’s why it’s incorrect when people say, “Oh, those illegal immigrants, why don’t they just wait in line and take turn like everyone else?” They don’t do that because there is no line for them to wait in. President Bush has been talking for quite some time about a guest worker program to solve this problem. But his proposal makes people angry because they think guest workers will take Americans’ jobs.
Are immigrant workers an essential part of the U.S. economy? What effect do they really have on American jobs?
Contrary to popular belief, immigrants are not widely dependent on welfare. Studies show that foreigners are more likely to work than American-born workers are. There are a lot of reasons for that, one being that the majority of immigrants are working age when they come here and they come here specifically to work. About 23 million of those 35 million foreigners [who come to the United States] are working. Most of the rest are children or mothers of young children.
People talk about getting rid of immigrant workers. But if 23 million workers were to disappear tomorrow, the United States would definitely face some problems. Whether it would be insurmountable, well, I’m not an economist, so I can’t say.
But you can’t remove that many people from the workforce without some serious readjustments and repercussions. And this isn’t just about Americans and foreigners competing for jobs. Consumers may well benefit from the lower costs of goods and services because of immigrant labor and slightly declining wages. It’s a complex picture.
So, how valid are popular complaints that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans and are burdening the social service system and public schools?
The United States today has an unemployment rate of under 5 percent. That’s actually considered full employment. It means that almost every American who wants a job has a job. As far as jobs go, it’s true that with the rise in immigrant labor there has been a slight downward trend in wages, especially for people working in fields like construction and agriculture and service industries.
Still, the U.S. Department of Labor has identified sectors of the economy where job growth is expected to be rapid over the next several years. About half are sectors that require higher education. The other half are in the hotel and food industry, agriculture, and construction. These are all areas that already hire a lot of immigrants, and especially immigrants without documentation, so the question is: Would American work ers take those jobs? Many American workers say they will do those jobs. But economists say we need immigrant workers to fill those jobs because they pay $10 an hour and under, a wage that many Americans won’t take.
When we talk about the costs associated with illegal migration, many of those costs are in health care and schooling. It’s immigrants’ children—many of them U.S. citizens—who are the main users of those services. That becomes an issue at the local level because the federal government is in charge of setting and enforcing immigration policy, but it’s local government that pays for schools and many health services. That’s why many people are focused on the fact that states are paying for the rising rates of immigration and that’s why some localities have been passing local ordinances to drive out immigrants without papers.
Small towns that have had an influx of immigrants will sometimes be burdened with increasing education and health-care costs. But think of some of the meat packing towns in Minnesota. There, immigrants are also paying property taxes that are helping to fund the schools, creating teaching jobs for Americans.
When people focus only on the costs, they don’t always try to measure the benefits: Even those without papers are usually paying income tax, sales tax, and property taxes. A recent study showed that 10 percent of the 12 million illegal immigrants here in the U.S. are homeowners. Yes, they send money to their homelands, just like earlier immigrants did. But they also contribute to a social security system that they may never be able to draw on because they may have used a false Social Security number on their paperwork. So, the image of the illegal immigrant is probably much more negative than the reality.
The best example is the image of the illegal immigrant as a criminal. The only crime most commit is entering the United States without papers—and that’s a misdemeanor. Crime rates among the foreign-born in the United States are decidedly lower than among the native-born.
Immigration is emerging as a one of the top issues in the 2008 presidential campaign. Does the United States have an urgent immigration problem?
I don’t think the United States has an urgent immigration problem. The problem that is urgent is the problem of illegality. It is not a good idea for a democratic country to have a huge number of people living outside the law, disrespecting the law, unable to participate in governance. That’s what happened during prohibition, when the United States passed an amendment to the constitution prohibiting people from purchasing alcoholic beverages. The result was a nation of lawbreakers and skyrocketing costs of law enforcement. It took about 15 years for Americans to realize they had passed a law that too few respected.
We have something similar today with illegal immigration. Most Americans don’t think it’s a crime to work. Yet people who want to work, who take care of their families, go to church, and buy houses are breaking the law by living and working here.
We have a law that too many employers and job seekers aren’t willing to obey. That’s a problem, and not just a problem for government and American citizens. It’s a problem for illegal immigrants and for workers. They don’t want to be illegal. Being illegal is not fun. What many of them would like is the ability to move back and forth legally while many others want to remain, work, and become citizens.
The debate should probably be about whether it’s the law or the workers who create the problem. In the case of prohibition, Americans decided it was the law that was the problem.
Meleah Maynard (B.A. ’91) is a Minneapolis freelance writer.