Back to the Future?
by Kevin R. Johnson
July 24, 2018
Kevin R. Johnson is Dean and Mabie-Apallas Professor of Public Interest Law and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Davis School of Law.
As I wrote in 2009, race and class permeate U.S. immigration law and enforcement. This taint stems in large part from the critically important roles of race and class in the formation and maintenance of the American national identity. Immigration law reinforces and maintains that identity by determining who is admitted to the United States. A history of exclusion of poor and working people of color from the United States reveals both how we as a nation see ourselves and our aspirations for what we want to be.
Through aggressive immigration enforcement like that seen in no other administration in modern U.S. history, President Trump has taken race and class in immigration to the next level. Indeed, his administration has embraced a policy akin to the infamously discriminatory Chinese exclusion laws of the late 1800s. Moreover, his attacks on Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and migrants from “s---hole countries” expressly invoke race and class of migrants as the reason for their harsh treatment.
Immigrants from Latin America
Because of their perceived negative impacts on U.S. society, Mexican and other Latino immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, are among the most disfavored immigrants of modern times. President Trump has made no bones about his view that Mexico does not “send their best” to the United States and has labelled Mexican immigrants as a group as criminals. Although not mentioning “Operation Wetback” by name, President Trump has endorsed the now-discredited deportation campaign of President Eisenhower that removed hundreds of thousands of persons of Mexican ancestry from the Southwestern portion of the United States in 1954. President Trump also has disparaged Salvadorans, tying them to the violent gang MS-13 who are no less than “animals” warranting the harshest of treatment.
President Trump’s raw demonization of Latinos fits into a long history of discrimination against immigrants from Mexico and, more generally, all persons of Mexican ancestry in the United States. The demonization is not limited to “aliens” or “illegal aliens” but today affects Latinos in this country of all immigration statuses.
Anti-Mexican sentiment, often combined with class-based bias, has long been prevalent in American social life. Persons of Mexican ancestry are often stereotyped as little more than peasants who undercut the wage scale of “American” workers because of their willingness to work for “inhuman” wages. The debates over the ever-expanding fence along the U.S.-Mexico border that President Trump champions and border enforcement generally, the proliferation a few years ago of state and local immigration-enforcement measures such as Arizona’s infamous S.B. 1070, and the popularity of immigration enforcement, reveal both anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as legitimate concerns with lawful immigration and immigration controls. President Trump has fully embraced and amplified these sentiments.
The difficulty of disentangling lawful from unlawful motivations does not change the real influence that invidious motives have in both the substance and enforcement of U.S. immigration law and policy.
An often-expressed public concern is with the magnitude of the flow of immigrants from Mexico. Some contend that the United States is being inundated – “flooded” is the word frequently employed - with poor, racially-and culturally-different Mexican immigrants (often referred to as “illegal aliens”) and that this flood is corrupting the national identity of the United States as well as resulting in economic and other injuries to U.S. society. Consistent with that sentiment, President Trump has tweeted that immigrants “pour into and infest out country.”
The alleged failure of immigrants to assimilate into American society also is a related, oft-expressed concern and is presumably what motivated the President to say that we need more immigrants from Norway than El Salvador and Haiti.
As President Trump’s comments about immigrants suggest, recent developments reveal the unmistakable influence of race and class on immigration law and its enforcement. Consider a few contemporary examples.
The Obama administration deported in the neighborhood of 400,000 noncitizens a year during his first term. Removal numbers were widely publicized. Not widely publicized was that more than 95% of the persons removed were from Mexico, El Salvador, and other Latin American nations. The harsh effectiveness of the Obama removal campaign, which devastated Latino families and communities, resulted from the U.S. government’s focus on noncitizens arrested by state and local police, with whom Latinos are disparately targeted due to racial profiling and other practices.
Announcing a “zero tolerance” policy, President Trump has sought to ramp up removals of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Haitians, many of whom are poor and seeking asylum in the United States. This strategy, seen clearly in the administration’s responses to the migrant “caravan” and the Central American mothers and children in 2018, likely will continue to disproportionately affect poor and working class Latinos.
At various times in U.S. history, the U.S. government has employed raids as a device for enforcement of the immigration laws. Employers as well as immigrants have been affected.
As Congress debated comprehensive immigration reform, the Bush administration increasingly employed immigration raids in the interior of the United States in an effort to demonstrate the federal government's commitment to immigration enforcement.
These raids have had racial and class impacts on particular subgroups of immigrant workers, namely low-skilled Latina/o immigrants.
For example, the May 2008 raid of a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, constituted one of the largest raids on undocumented workers at a single site in American history. In the raid's aftermath, the U.S. government did not simply seek to deport the undocumented, but pursued criminal prosecutions of the workers for immigration and related crimes, such as for identity fraud. The raid involved a massive show of force that included helicopters, buses, and vans as federal agents surrounded the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse. According to news reports, immigration authorities arrested 290 Guatemalan, 93 Mexican, 4 Ukrainian, and 2 Israeli workers.
President Trump has employed well-publicized workplace raids at 7-11 stores and, more recently, meatpacking and landscaping companies in Ohio. Those raids specifically targeted workplaces of working class immigrants and Latinos. We can expect the same types of disparate impacts on Latino working class immigrants as we have seen with past immigration raids.
Immigration detention has been in the news, with vivid pictures of desperate mothers and children who fled the rampant violence of Central America catching the national imagination. Ending “catch and release” of noncitizens apprehended in the U.S./Mexico border region, President Trump has used a variety of policies, such as family separation and family detention, in the administration’s efforts to deter Central Americans from coming to the United States to seek asylum – relief for which the law allows them to apply. As the pictures make clear to the world, poor and working class Latinos are the most directly affected. Given that the policies are directed at border crossers from Central America, it cannot be denied that the U.S. government is not targeting Latinos in the enforcement efforts.
U.S. border enforcement historically has focused on Latinos, with racial profiling a well-known phenomenon in immigration enforcement. Immigration enforcement officers often target Latinos for immigration stops. President Trump has ramped up enforcement in the U.S./Mexico border region, with persons who “look” Latino/o the focus of those efforts. President Trump’s rhetoric attacking Latinos cannot help but encourage immigration officers to focus on Latinos and to ultimately remove many of them from the United States.
The immigration laws through a variety of mechanisms historically have excluded poor and working people of color and continue to do so today. The Trump administration has sought to make it harder to immigrate lawfully to the United States. Put differently, he wants to limit legal as well as unauthorized immigration.
The Trump administration has tightened visa requirements and is promising to do more. President Trump’s travel ban denies entry into the United States of nationals from a number of predominantly Muslim countries. In addition, the President has expressed support for the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, which would cut immigration by half and redirect migration away from developing nations populated by people of color, including Mexico, India, and China, the three nations currently sending the most immigrants annually to the United States.
Race and class continue to permeate U.S. Immigration law and enforcement. This is especially true in the Trump era. Indeed, President Trump is focusing on policies that will directly affect working class Latinos. Judging by his incendiary rhetoric attacking Latinos and poor and working people of color generally, the Trump administration seems to have targeted Latinos for immigration enforcement. For better or worse, my 2009 article analyzing the race and class impacts of immigration enforcement is more relevant today than when I wrote it.