Playing the Role of Gatekeeper
Anti-immigrant sentiment bubbling up in Arizona and other states is recent, but the U.S. has a long history of white people saying who can and who can’t be an American.
Four hundred years ago, when the first British settlers landed on the eastern shore of what has become the United States, other tribes of people had been living on the continent for 13,000-15,000 years. Although new fossil evidence is constantly being unearthed, anthropologists currently believe these multi-millennium inhabitants originated in Asia. Comparing features of today’s Native Americans with Asians indeed yields some physical similarities, so we can probably say that the “original” Americans were Asian and not European.
Once the word got out that North America was full of land and natural resources, the floodgates of northern Europe opened and millions of immigrants streamed across the ocean, looking for new lives and new opportunities. Of course, these opportunities came at a cost to the native inhabitants. There were wars over resources, then treaties. Then broken treaties and more wars. Native American resistance was eventually broken and they were pushed onto reservations, areas often far removed from their homelands, areas often poor in natural resources. By new laws. White men’s laws.
As the their new economy developed, European settlers required larger worker pools to harness the vast land, and they began kidnapping and importing African slaves to provide forced labor. To limit any civic participation of slave immigrants, state governments made laws which forbade Africans from owning property, intermarrying, voting, or going to school. After the U.S. Civil War freed the African slaves, necessary railway expansion pushed westward, aided by thousands of immigrant Chinese who were poorly paid and often hurt or killed in dangerous work settings. As the transcontinental railroad was completed, the thousands of Chinese were less useful and became seen as racial impurities, and the national Congress passed laws against Chinese immigration and other rights.
U.S. government history has many other ignoble moments: laws passed against Mormons and Catholics, laws limiting immigration from southern Europe, work practices forbidding Irish from applying for jobs, laws imprisoning citizens of Japanese descent and confiscating their property. Whenever there is prejudice in difficult times, the dominant culture will look for someone to blame, for someone to pick on.
The current group of immigrants to pick on comes from Mexico and Central America. From impoverished places, hundreds of thousands have slipped into the U.S. to find employment, often taking jobs in hot farm fields, in cold meat-processing plants, and in other dirty and dangerous workplaces. They provide labor for industries which want workers who will be cheap, work hard, and not complain. They bolster the U.S. economy, but they are not given the chance to become citizens.
The same racist beliefs and practices from the previous centuries still apply today. Angry voters in Arizona recently pushed for discriminatory laws against undocumented Latino workers. They have held angry rallies, calling for the eviction of the estimated 12 million immigrants who entered the United States without visas. They send armed vigilante groups (called “Minutemen” after early American militias who could be assembled in minutes to fight against the British during the War for Independence) to patrol the borders against people trying to cross the vast desert border.
The signs at anti-immigrant rallies tell undocumented workers to “Go Home.” They claim that only English should be spoken here. Ironically, many of the signs are written by white Americans with bad spelling and bad grammar. Here are two.
(should say “morons”—which means “idiots” )
(should be “our” )
My friend Jake Bowen and I recently created a cartoon which comments on this current wave of racist, anti-immigrant sentiment. We published it earlier this spring in the GVSU student newspaper, The Lanthorn. I include it here for you to see.
copyright 2011 Jake Bowen & Alan Headbloom
The irony with today’s anti-immigrants is that they are themselves descendants of uninvited immigrants who came from countries lacking in opportunity a few hundred years before. I once heard a clever person quip, “Today’s immigration problems can be traced back to the lack of a comprehensive immigration policy by the Native Americans.” I hope we can use a deeper knowledge of history plus a little bit of humor to approach today’s immigration challenges with more compassion and understanding than our sad ancestors did. Otherwise, we will just repeat more ugly stories of the past.