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The Truth about Immigrants: Xenophobia existed in early America

Recently, one of my friends was at a family reunion. When she told her family what I was doing this year–volunteering at a house of hospitality for Latin American immigrants–one of her aunts expressed disapproval because “illegal immigrants take jobs away from tax-paying Americans.” This is not an uncommon sentiment. Immigration from Mexico and Central America, documented and undocumented, is flourishing and many people in the United States want to stem the tide. But during this process the history of immigration in the U.S. is often forgotten, while the global forces that work to send contemporary immigrants here remain largely unnoticed.

There is always a touch of irony when a citizen of the United States complains about immigration. Except for those of pure Native American origin, every one of us is of immigrant descent. Native Americans inhabited the continent for over 12,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. The United States gained its territory largely through the dishonest and violent removal of the indigenous population. Yet somehow we maintain the idea that this land is ours alone and that it is not only harmful but immoral for other people to enter it.

Picture this: a state within the U.S. has been receiving a large number of immigrants from a foreign country. The immigrant population becomes so great that the public school system institutes bilingual education in many areas. Over time, abetted by political events, this practice becomes controversial and a public backlash forms against bilingual education and the immigrants themselves. One disgruntled state legislator declares, “If these people are Americans, let them speak our language.” Does this story describe California or Texas in the 1990s? No, it describes Nebraska in the early part of this century. The immigrants in question are German immigrants (Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1990. ps.159-60). The history of the United States is a story of successive waves of immigration, each wave arriving from a different area on the globe. With each new influx of immigrants, the older population has balked, claiming that the new arrivals would cause harm to the nation. Chances are, what is said today about Hispanic immigrants was once said about your own ancestors.

The first major immigration boom in U.S. history began in the 1840s. Before that period, about 60,000 immigrants came to America each year. This number tripled in the 1840s, and quadrupled in the 1850s. More important than the sheer numbers, however, was the change in ethnic composition. Previously, the vast majority of immigrants hailed from England. But during these two decades, over one-and-a-half million Irish came and almost as many Germans (A. Thomas Bailey,. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic. 3rd ed. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1966. p324). The reaction of the “natives” to these newcomers shows that American attitudes towards immigrants have changed very little.

The Irish had been coming to America for years, but in the 1840’s the potato famine crushed their homeland. During that decade, a fourth of the population died of disease and hunger, and many fled to the U.S. (Bailey 325). Here, they lived at the bottom of the social scale, working as menial laborers and domestic servants, and living in squalid conditions. The native population looked down on them, considering them less clean and hygienic (Daniels 131). Furthermore, the Irish, like today’s Hispanics, were accused of stealing American jobs. This fear and resentment led to the famous sign often posted in store windows: “No Irish need apply.” The sign was so common that it was frequently abbreviated simply to “NINA” (Bailey 325).

At the same time, Germans were pouring into the U.S., fleeing political instability at home. While most Irish stayed in east coast cities, the Germans were more likely to move to the mid-west. They were slightly better off than the Irish, but suffered discrimination nonetheless, as the Nebraska anecdote illustrates. Hostility towards the Germans had been around since they began to immigrate en masse in the eighteenth century. Benjamin Franklin, in his 1751 pamphlet Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, wrote

“Why should the Palatine Boors [Germans] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Languages or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” (Daniels 109-10)

From our vantage point, it is comical to hear someone claim that those of German descent will never integrate themselves into the U.S.

The arrival of the Irish and Germans in the U.S. prompted the formation of many anti-immigrant institutions. In 1849 the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner was formed; its goals included rigid immigration restrictions and the deportation of “paupers” (Bailey 328). This animosity towards immigrants often exploded into violence. Irish and Germans were reviled for their Roman Catholicism, and in 1834 a Catholic convent near Boston was burned by a mob, followed by subsequent attacks on Catholic schools and churches. In 1844, a several-day riot in Philadelphia left thirteen citizens dead and fifty wounded. Violence against Catholics on the East coast was so common that insurance companies practically refused to insure them (Daniels 267). It is difficult for us to imagine such malice being directed towards Irish or German people.

Over time, of course, the Irish and Germans did assimilate. By the time the next big wave of immigration occurred, they were considered the old guard as opposed to the newcomers. This wave began at the turn of the century, as hordes of new immigrants arrived from Europe. By 1920, one-third of the population was either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant (Daniels 274). Again, the changing ethnic composition was critical: throughout the nineteenth century, immigrants had come mostly from Northern and Western Europe. But in the beginning of the twentieth century, the newcomers were from Southern and Eastern Europe. They included Italians, Poles, East European Jews, Hungarians, Albanians, Romanians, Russians, and Lithuanians, among others. Between 1880 and 1920, 4.1 million Italians alone came to the U.S. (Daniels 188). Like nearly all immigrants, from the earlier Irish to the later Hispanics, Italians joined the poorest class, working at manual labor for low wages and living in crowded urban apartments. “As early as the 1890s commentators were noting that the Irish no longer built the railroads and paved the streets; Italians did” (Daniels 195).

These new arrivals from Italy and other Eastern European nations frightened the native population, as the Irish and Germans had before. In large part, the fear was based on the belief that the newcomers were racially inferior. People believed that differences, including great disparities in quality, existed. The pamphlet by Benjamin Franklin quoted earlier continues: “The number of purely white People in the World is proportionally very small . . . in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are Germans also, the Saxons only accepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth” (Daniels 110).

By the early twentieth century, these prejudices had developed into widespread and sophisticated theories about ethnic disparities. The Immigration Restriction League, formed in the late 19th century by Harvard graduates, proclaimed the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon, or Aryan race. One founder, Prescott F. Hall, asked rhetorically if the U.S. was “to be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic [meaning Jewish] races, historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant” (Daniels 276). While researching for this article in the local university library, I came upon a history of American immigration published in 1926. In it, the author wonders “whether or not the American environment will transform the Italian, Slav, and Jew as it has transformed the Irishman . . .” Lurking behind much contemporary resistance to immigrants from Mexico and Central America is an underlying if unacknowledged prejudice against their race.

These twentieth-century anti-immigration movements were eventually successful. In 1921, the government passed the Emergency Quota Act. It decreed that each year, the U.S. would accept a number of immigrants from any country equal to 3% of the number who were living in the U.S. in 1910. This law was quickly amended with the Immigration Quota Act of 1924, which allowed a number equal to 2% of those living here in 1890 (a time when few Southern and Eastern Europeans had arrived). Following this law, Great Britain could send 65,721 immigrants a year, while Italy could send 5,802 (Bailey 780). The nation succeeded in warding off the “undesirable” new European immigrants.

The Latin American immigration of the past few decades is merely the latest example in this cycle. It cannot be understood except in the context of America’s history of immigration.

Why Do Immigrants Come?

Scores of immigrants are crossing the border each day. Why are they coming here? Why do so many leave their families, friends, and homeland behind to seek an uncertain future in a new country? When we investigate the issue, we come to the shocking discovery that policies of the U.S. government and corporations are largely behind this phenomenon. Before we can blame immigrants for crossing our border, we must understand our own role in bringing them here.

We often question guests of Casa Juan Diego about their work experiences back home. Laboring in Mexican factories, they receive a little over $3.00 a day, not nearly enough to maintain an adequate living standard. This alone may not surprise people. What is surprising is that more likely than not, these workers are employed by United States’ companies! U.S. and European corporations now have the permission and the technology to locate factories throughout the third world. There they do not have to abide by the wage, safety, or environmental standards that are in effect here. Consequently, people in Mexico and Central America are receiving slave wages to manufacture products such as clothing or automobiles that will be profitably sold in the U.S.

A critic might respond, “True, U.S. companies do pay low wages in Latin American nations. But if those companies were not there, the people would have no jobs, no wages. Therefore, those people should be grateful to have the opportunity to make at least some money.” This argument sounds persuasive, but is born from ignorance of the history and extent of U.S. involvement in Latin America. As we shall see, the location of U.S. factories there is only the tip of the iceberg. The story of United States’ engagement in Latin America is a long and complicated one.

Until the 1930s, the Latin American economy was based primarily on exporting raw materials to the industrial nations. But in 1929 the stock market crashed, and the ensuing depression spread to Latin America, which no longer had a strong market for its products. Many Latin American governments therefore embarked on a new economic course, one which seemed the most sensible at the time. Because exportation had proven too fraught with danger, these governments tried to achieve self-sufficiency under an economic plan called import substitution. This involved a state-led effort at economic growth, comprising nationalization of industries, tariffs to protect domestic products, and government investment in infrastructure (Green, Duncan. Silent Revolution: The Rise of Market Economics in Latin America. London: Casell, 1985. ps.15-17). By the 1960s, domestic industry supplied 95% of Mexico’s consumer goods.

The decisive event leading to the current situation originated not in Latin America, however, but in the global community: the oil boom of the early 1970s. With so much new money pouring into the West, banks recklessly gave loans to third world nations, “believing,”in the words of Citicorp chairman Walter Wriston, that “‘a country does not go bankrupt’ as a private company could” (Green 21).

Latin American nations gladly accepted these loans at good interest rates. Although their program of import substitution had prompted much development, it had also caused lasting inflation, inefficient business practices, and high unemployment. But the loans which seemed like a blessing quickly turned into a burden. At the end of the 1970s the U.S. raised interest rates from the traditional level of between 4 and 6% to over 20% (“Foreign Debt Tribunal – Verdict.” Third World Resurgence 107 (July 1999) ps.19-21.) This forced Latin American nations to take out new loans just to pay the interest on the old ones. Something had to give, and in 1982 Mexico announced that it could no longer meet its debt repayments. Other nations followed suit.

Latin America was now broken and vulnerable. Irrevocably in debt to the U.S. and Europe, it needed debt renegotiation and further loans. But with no bargaining power, it was forced to accept the terms of the north.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were formed after World War II to forestall the kind of international trade disputes that had occurred in the 1930s. While the organizations are multi-national, the United States has the power to veto any IMF decision. The president of the World Bank is always an American, and the headquarters of the two organizations are not near the United Nations in New York, but in Washington, D.C. Their first task was to rebuild post-war Europe, but they soon turned their attention to the developing world (Green 33-35).

The organizations’ mode of operations is basically this: when nations cannot pay for their debts, as the Latin American nations could not in the early 1980s, they may receive loans from the IMF and World Bank. But these loans come with conditions: The nations must agree to rearrange their economies according to the dictates of the IMF and World Bank. Each loan is exchanged for a list of resolutions from the borrowing nation, kept secret from the public, and usually drafted by IMF officials. (These stipulations were not applied to the European nations after World War II.) In deciding what policies the debtor nations should follow, the IMF and World Bank adhere to the economic theory of neoliberalism. According to this theory, government de-regulation, privatization, and free trade will lead to a more efficient economy and greater wealth. Theoretically, rising standards of living and decreased poverty should then follow (Green 35-46).

Over time, Latin American nations like Mexico were forced to accept these neoliberal terms, and the results were disastrous, a “swift, steady erosion of the domestic producers in manufacturing and agriculture who were ill equipped to compete in the global system. As the protective mantel of government was rolled away, many of them were decimated” (Greider, William. One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. p271). As native industries crumbled, American companies reaped the benefits as they acquired new markets for their goods. Wealth did flow into Mexico, but mainly for the construction of “steel mills, auto factories, chemical plants and other kinds of new productive capacity” that were not integrated with the domestic economy (Greider 272). Multinational companies, mainly American, relocated factories in Latin America to exploit the available cheap labor. The products and the profits went straight north to the U.S., while Latin Americans received only jobs that paid less than a living wage. The decimation of native industry had destroyed most other employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, agribusinesses like Del Monte, Campbell’s, and General Foods came to own huge tracts of land in Latin America. These lands, formerly owned by small-scale peasant farmers, are now used to produce crops for export into the U.S. Like the industrial companies, the agribusinesses came to exploit cheap labor. The foods they produce are too expensive for most of the population to buy, including the workers who actually grow and produce the food. And the disappearance of so much land into the hands of agribusiness has made agricultural self-sufficiency all but impossible (Burbach, Roger, and Patricia Flynn.Agribusiness in the Americas. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980. ps.183-88).

Ostensibly, these economic policies are supposed to help Latin Americans, by creating a trade surplus to pay off their debts. But for the majority of the population, conditions have only worsened. One World Bank official candidly remarked, “We did not think that the human costs of these programs could be so great, and the economic gains so slow in coming” (Green 54).

While the Latin American population has not been helped, U.S. banks and companies have. They reap profits by paying slave wages to third-world workers. The disappearance of Latin American industry has given them an enormous new market. And the export revenue that Latin nations do generate is sent north as debt service payments. Between 1982 and 1992, Latin American nations accumulated a trade surplus of $242.9 billion dollars. $218.6 billion was sent to foreign banks and governments (Green 64). Many third-world nations now pay more to debt service than they do on health care or education (“HIPC: Too little, too late.” Third World Resurgence . . . ps.22-24).

American banks and companies are enriching themselves, while the Latin American population is paying the price. Yet when these men and women migrate here, to escape the poverty of their own nations, they bear the brunt of our resentment. Instead of blaming our companies and our government, the ones who have created this situation, we blame the destitute immigrants, who are clearly the victims and not the instigators of this story.

The European Commission has proposed granting foreign investors unfettered access to the economies of poor nations, thereby preventing those nations from exercising control over their economies. The Commission advises that foreign companies should be treated exactly like domestic ones, and advocates the removal of laws that interfere with foreign investment, such as anti-trust laws and regulations that limit how much of an industry can be owned by foreigners (Khor, Martin. “EC proposes new rules on foreign investment.” Third World Resurgence 60 (Aug. 1995) ps.19-21). The frightening part is that these are not merely suggestions; international organizations now have the leverage to enforce their will upon poor nations.

This system has rightly been described as a new form of colonialism. We are shaping foreign economies to suit our own production needs. Meanwhile, we are working to erode national sovereignty in these nations. The patriotic citizen so proud of “tax-paying Americans” should remember that our revolutionary forefathers refused to accept British rule under such conditions.

Yet so far, none of this has addressed that charge, the one we began with: that immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans. This accusation provides most of the fuel of anti-immigration sentiment. As economist Julian Simon writes, “‘Displacement’ of natives by immigrants is the most emotional and politically-influential fear about immigration in the U.S. and elsewhere” (The Economic Consequences of Immigration. 1989. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, p.208).

Do undocumented immigrants take jobs away from natives? The logic of this argument is simple: there are a finite number of jobs. Therefore, if immigrants manage to obtain some of these jobs, fewer will be available for others. In addition, since immigrants are willing to work for such low pay, they cause wage competition which brings down the wages of everyone else. So even those natives who remain employed consequently receive less pay. Though apparently logical, this argument is unsound for several reasons.

First, the argument rests on a critical assumption: that natives and undocumented immigrants compete in the same labor market. However, economists and demographers argue that these immigrants constitute a separate “low-skill labor pool with a tendency to fill jobs native workers disdain” (Bean, F., E. Telles, and B. Lowell. 1987. “Undocumented migration to the United States: perceptions and evidence.” Population and Development Review. 13 (4): 676-90).

We see this at Casa Juan Diego. We have a hiring hall where men go to wait for employers. Most end up doing temporary, menial labor. Employers come from as far away as Kentucky and the Carolinas to find immigrants willing to work on tobacco farms or in chicken factories – extremely demanding, low-paying jobs that no one else will take. Without the availability of these workers the jobs might not even exist, and either be transported overseas, or accomplished by mechanized means. Very seldom do immigrants compete for the same jobs as native citizens.

Furthermore, undocumented immigrants might actually cause a slight improvement in the employment and wages of natives. Undocumented immigrants provide goods and services at lower-than-usual prices; in addition, their widespread employment maintains the existence of supervisory jobs, filled mostly by natives. Thus demographers Bean, Telles and Lowell conclude that “real wages of natives are increased” by the presence of these workers. Following a survey of other research, they state, “Studies of labor market impact have found that the effects of immigrants (both legal and undocumented) on the wages and earnings of other labor force groups are either nonexistent or small (and sometimes positive)” (671).

Arguments that see immigrants taking more and more of a finite number of jobs ignore the complexity of the marketplace. Immigrants who come here do not simply take jobs; they also increase the demand for goods and services, which means that more jobs are created. The diffuse nature of this chain of events makes it difficult to envision, but no less real. Julian Simon writes:

Though it is easy to imagine in one’s mind’s eye an immigrant sitting down before a machine and taking a place that a native might otherwise occupy, one cannot so easily picture in one’s imagination the small effect on the labor force in the plant that manufactures the refrigerator that the immigrant buys, at the trucking firms that move the refrigerator along the channels of distribution, in the wholesaler’s sales force or front office, in the number of sales clerks in retail stores, and so on. (218)

Finally, immigrants create new jobs not only through their consumption patterns, but though their ingenuity and industriousness. “Immigrants not only take jobs, they make jobs. They open new businesses that employ natives as well” (252).

The weight of the evidence indicates that immigrants have little if any negative impact on the native economy, and perhaps exert a positive influence.

U.S. citizens are generally oblivious to the role our companies, banks, and government are playing in Latin America. Most people know that Latin America is poor, and have a vague idea that it was always poor. Believing that the poverty of those nations is solely of their own making, Americans find it easier to justify keeping their citizens out of our country. Racial or cultural revulsion towards Hispanics – the same kind of revulsion that was once directed towards Irish, Germans, Italians – fuel this inclination. Immigration restrictions are justified by the claim that immigrants take American jobs, though the weight of the evidence points to the contrary. Spreading accurate knowledge about these issues will be the first step in working towards a more fair immigration policy. The second step will involve questioning the nationalist view that those born outside of our borders are somehow not deserving of aid and justice. Hopefully, a greater dissemination of knowledge and deeper ethical meditation will spur us to adopt a healthier attitude towards immigrants in the future.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIX, No. 7, December 1999.