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Immigration Laws as Official 'Racial' Policy

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Politicians and most other residents of the United States alike, from every rung along the full political spectrum, generally agree on one issue: Our immigration system is severely broken and needs fixing. Seemingly insurmountable gaps in political solutions to repair the system along with Congressional inaction to the point of blockage have brought the country to the point of crisis.

Though politicians and members of their constituencies argue immigration policy from seemingly infinite perspectives and sides, one point stands clear and definite: Decisions as to who can enter this country and who can eventually gain citizenship status generally depends of issues of "race," for U.S. immigration systems reflect and serve as the country's official "racial" policies.


Looking back on the historical emergence of the concept of "race," critical race theorists remind us that this concept arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification for conquest and domination of the globe beginning in the 15th century of the Common Era (CE) and reaching its apex in the early 20th century CE.

Geneticists tell us that there is often more variability within a given so-called "race" than between "races," and that there are no essential genetic markers linked specifically to "race." They assert, therefore, that "race" is an historical, "scientific," biological myth, an idea, and that any socially-conceived physical "racial" markers are fictional and are not concordant with what is beyond or below the surface of the body.

Though biologists and social scientists have proven unequivocally that the concept of "race" is socially constructed (produced, manufactured), however, this does not negate the very real consequences people face living in societies that maintain racist policies and practices on the individual, interpersonal, institutional and larger societal levels.

Official Immigration and Naturalization Policy

In the "American" colonies, 1705 Virginia statute, the "Act Concerning Servants and Slaves," read:

"[N]o negroes, mulattos or Indians, Jew, Moor, Mahometan [Muslims], or other infidel, or such as are declared slaves by this act, shall, notwithstanding, purchase any christian (sic) white servant...."

In 1790, the newly constituted United States Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which excluded all nonwhites from citizenship, including Asians, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans, the later whom they defined in oxymoronic terms as "domestic foreigners," even though they had inhabited this land for an estimated 35,000 years. The Congress did not grant Native Americans rights of citizenship until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, though Asians continued to be denied naturalized citizenship status.

Congress passed the first law specifically restricting or excluding immigrants on the basis of "race" and nationality in 1882. In their attempts to eliminate entry of Chinese (and other Asian) workers who often competed for jobs with U.S. citizens, especially in the western United States, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to restrict their entry into the U.S. for a 10 year period, while denying citizenship to Chinese people already on these shores. The Act also made it illegal for Chinese people to marry white or black U.S.-Americans. The Immigration Act of 1917 further prohibited immigration from Asian countries, in the terms of the law, the "barred zone," including parts of China, India, Siam, Burma, Asiatic Russia, the Polynesian Islands, and parts of Afghanistan.

The so-called "Gentleman's Agreement" between the U.S. and the Emperor of Japan of 1907, in an attempt to reduce tensions between the two countries, passed expressly to decrease immigration of Japanese workers into the U.S.

Between 1880 and 1920, in the range of 30-40 million immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe migrated to the United States, more than doubling the population. Fearing a continued influx of immigrants, legislators in the United States Congress in 1924 enacted the Johnson-Reed [anti-] Immigration Act ("Origins Quota Act," or "National Origins Act") setting restrictive quotas of immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe, including those of the so-called "Hebrew race." Jews continued to be, even in the United States during the 1920s, constructed as nonwhite. The law, on the other hand, permitted large allotments of immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

This law, in addition to previous statutes (1882 against the Chinese, 1907 against the Japanese) halted further immigration from Asia, and excluded blacks of African descent from entering the United States. It is interesting to note that during this time, Jewish ethno-racial assignment was constructed as "Asian." According to Sander Gilman: "Jews were called Asiatic and Mongoloid, as well as primitive, tribal, Oriental." Immigration laws were changed in 1924 in response to the influx of these undesirable "Asiatic elements."

In the Supreme Court case, Takao Ozawa vs. United States, a Japanese man, Takao Ozawa filed for citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906, which allowed white persons and persons of African descent or African nativity to achieve naturalization status. Asians, however, were classified as an "unassimilateable race" and, therefore, not entitled to U.S. citizenship. Ozawa attempted to have Japanese people classified as "white" since he claimed he had the requisite white skin. The Supreme Court, in 1922, however, denied his claim and, therefore, his U.S. citizenship.

In 1939, the United States Congress refused to pass the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which if enacted would have permitted entry to the United States of 20,000 children from Eastern Europe, many of whom were Jewish, over existing quotas. Laura Delano Houghteling, cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration sternly warned: "20,000 charming children would all too soon, grow into 20,000 ugly adults."

Following U.S. entry into World War II at the end of 1942, reflecting the tenuous status of Japanese Americans, some born in the United States, military officials uprooted and transported approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans to Internment (Concentration) Camps within a number of interior states far from the shores. Not until Ronald Reagan's administration did the U.S. officially apologize to Japanese Americans and to pay reparations amounting to $20,000 to each survivor as part of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.

Finally, in 1952, the McCarran-Walters Act overturned the "racially" discriminatory quotas of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. Framed as an amendment to the McCarran-Walters Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed "natural origins" as the basis of U.S. immigration legislation. The 1965 law increased immigration from Asian and Latin American countries and religious backgrounds, permitted 170,000 immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere (20,000 per each country), 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere, and accepted a total of 300,000 visas for entry into the country.

The 1965 Immigration Law, however, was certainly not the last we saw "race" used as a qualifying factor. The Arizona legislature passed and Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070, which mandates that police officers stop and question people about their immigration status if they even suspect that they may be in this country illegally, and criminalizes undocumented workers who do not possess an "alien registration document." Other provisions allow citizens to file suits against government agencies that do not enforce the law, and it criminalizes employers who knowingly transport or hire undocumented workers. The law is currently on hold as it travels through the judicial process challenging its constitutionality.

If we learn anything from our immigration legislative history, we can view the current debates as providing a great opportunity to pass comprehensive federal reform based not on "race," nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other social identity categories, but rather, on humane principles of fairness, compassion and equity.