By Isabel Shen
The war in Ukraine has left governments scrambling to accept the incoming flood of refugees. Since the war started in February, 5 million Ukrainians have departed Ukraine, and about 15,000 Ukrainians have fled to the U.S. However, by allowing Ukrainian refugees to immigrate to the U.S. through the U.S.-Mexico border while forbidding Mexican immigrants to do the same, the U.S. government is showing an unmistakable preference by prioritizing Ukrainian refugees over Mexican refugees. Similarly, comparisons are being drawn in Europe between the warm reception of Ukrainian refugees as compared to the chilly acknowledgment of Afghan refugees. To understand the forces motivating the changes in different governments’ behavior towards immigrants, it’s important to understand the history of immigration and the inception of the enduring ideologies that shape American society. Understanding the United States’ treatment of immigrants is a crucial part of viewing America as a whole.
While a popular generalization is that immigrants always flee from wars, persecution, or other trauma, the fact remains that the “push and pull” factors for immigration are varied. People may be “pushed” out of their home country because of natural disasters (floods, famine, etc.), poverty, war, persecution, government instability, etc. However, it is important to note that just because someone immigrated to another country does not necessarily mean that they were forced out of their country through some sort of traumatic experience. “Pull” factors are just as significant as “push” factors- immigrants may be attracted to a country because of better education, increased employment opportunities, family members already residing there, etc. In respecting immigrants it is critical to understand the gravity of the decision to immigrate- those who immigrate do not do so on a whim, but through careful consideration and because of serious reasons. While many American politicians like to report that people immigrate to the U.S. because of malice or with the intention to do wrongdoing, to assume the same is to vilify and dehumanize the millions of immigrants in the U.S.
Historically, the U.S. government has worked to impede and disenfranchise immigrants. The first restriction placed on immigrants was the Page Act of 1875. The Page Act of 1875 was created to prohibit the immigration of Chinese “coolies”- in other words, laborers from China. It specifically stated that the recruitment of laborers from China, Japan, or “any Oriental country” who were involuntarily brought to the U.S. or were brought for “lewd and immoral purposes” was forbidden. The consul general or consul at the port cities were responsible for deciding whether the person was allowed to enter the U.S. Individuals would have to undergo intrusive and purposely humiliating interrogations by the U.S. immigration officials. These interrogations deterred many people from immigrating to the U.S. However, the major impact of the Page Act was that it resulted in the number of Chinese women immigrating to the U.S. decreasing, as at that time Chinese woman were portrayed as prostitutes, therefore causing them to not be deemed eligible for entry into the U.S. Because of this, the ratio of Chinese women to Chinese men dropped from 78:1,000 to 48:1,000. Since many states had laws that restricted interracial marriage, Chinese men were prevented from having families and therefore prevented from fully settling down into American society. This compelled many male Chinese immigrants to return to China. However, the male Chinese immigrants who remained were subject to renewed antagonism. “They were portrayed as driftless,” says Dr. Melissa May Borja, assistant professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan “(and) it enhanced the view that they shouldn’t be full Americans. Barriers justified other barriers.”
The Immigration Act of 1917 took America’s anti-immigrant stance further by focusing on preventing the immigration of “undesirables” and enforcing literary tests on immigrants and forbidding certain groups of people (those differently abled mentally and physically, lacking wealth, or who had been involved in criminal activity) to immigrate into the U.S., and banning immigration from the Asia-Pacific zone. The Immigration Act of 1917 came from the fears and distrust in immigrants that remains today. It is important to note that while the immigration of Asians was prohibited, European immigrants remained without restriction, further proving that for some part the government’s barrier towards immigration sprouted from xenophobia.
Anti-immigrant societies have proliferated in American history. The majority of these anti-immigration societies were focused on disseminating propaganda and lobbying. The Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894, was a notable anti-immigration group that was a factor in the creation of the literacy test. While these organizations and ideologies may seem disconnected and a thing of the past, there are still many organizations blatantly opposed to immigration, such as the California Coalition for Immigrant Reform and the American Immigration Control Foundation, and shadows of the anti-immigration beliefs that these organizations carry can also be found in many people and influential, prominent politicians.
Today, immigrants are still viewed in a variety of ways. Because of their difference in background, they’ve been exoticized, dehumanized, feared, and ignored. While society has grown more diverse, anti-immigrant hate crimes have also risen, and though the government is careful to not state anything egregiously xenophobic it merely means that politicians have grown to be more subtle in their bigotry. In this new America where racism festers under the polished veneer of advancement and inclusion, disillusionment is key to uncovering the striking parallels between the world of the much condemned past and of the present.
The harsh reality of the truly rotten state of America contradicts the very morals upon which the land of opportunities has been built on. The American dream is that every American should have equal opportunities and be able to achieve their highest potential; this egalitarian ideal is the very opposite of reality, where people are obstructed by discrimination towards their race, socioeconomic status, gender, and more. In real life, America is not the land of the free; America is the land of the secretly oppressed.
America is built off the constitution. It’s the basis of our government; “right” and “wrong” have even been renamed “constitutional” and “unconstitutional” in the judicial system. Yet in a country so inextricably bound to its constitution, the government still finds a way to persecute immigrants through the creation of “constitutional free zones”, which are intended to prevent immigrants from illegally crossing into the U.S. and permits arbitrary stop-and-searches by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities within a 100 miles of the U.S. border, which is explicitly prohibited by the 4th amendment. By permitting this breach of the constitution, the U.S. government is allowing the Border Patrol to operate entirely on their own internal bias in the name of justice. It exacerbates the pattern of racism in authorities by letting the Border Patrol decide who’s a criminal solely based on their own opinion on how someone looks or behaves. Just because the people in the Border Patrol operate under the government does not mean that they are free of prejudice. To make things worse, around 2/3rds of the U.S.’s entire population lives in these “constitutional free zones”. The U.S. government is so averse to the idea of illegal immigrants, so scared that they might be dangerous or criminal, that it is are willing to violate the constitution to try to stop illegal immigrants from arriving.
These “constitutional free zones” show the unmistakable criminalization of immigrants by the U.S. government. The government blindly refuses to acknowledge the desperation and lack of resources that drives people to illegally immigrate and instead vilifies these people as rapists, thieves, and murderers. When illegal immigrants are caught, the government imprisons them inside immigration detention facilities, where they can be kept for weeks or, in many cases, longer. These detention facilities are notorious for their atrocious living conditions and lack of access to medical care and hygiene products. Since 2017, 39 adults have died in or during being released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement care because of inhumane conditions- and 12 because of suicide. Many detention facilities have no mental health professionals on staff. Immigrants in detention centers under Trump’s regime weren’t given access to counsel, which is another clear transgression against the constitution. Detention facilities opened before 2017 have 4 times as many immigration attorneys available than those opened under the Trump regime. Disgustingly, the majority (81% as of 2020) of detention facilities are owned by private companies, which means that corporations profit from the detainment of immigrants. Even under the Geneva Convention, the living conditions and harassment that people face in detention facilities would be illegal if the immigrants were prisoners of war. Regardless of what politicians will say, immigrants are not actually more likely to commit a crime than regular citizens, and there is no logical reason to treat them worse than war criminals.
Despite the many challenges that immigrants face, many manage to successfully gain citizenship in the U.S. and live productive lives there. While immigrants are often pressured to assimilate and leave their traditional ways behind when they become a permanent resident of the U.S., many immigrants have resisted this westernization and introduced to America their own culture and beliefs. This diversity of cultures can be seen in San Francisco, where there are districts dedicated to the minorities who immigrated and grouped there—Chinatown, Japantown, Little Italy, etc. Through immigrants, America’s culture has been changed irreversibly.
My mother, who is Chinese-American, immigrated from Hong Kong to America in search of a better education, and I thought that it would be useful for her voice to put immigration into perspective.
Charmaine Shen: I was born in Hong Kong to a father who had escaped from China during the cultural revolution, and to a mother who was the daughter of a general in the Kuomintang Army who retired in Hong Kong. When I was about 4 years old, my father, who worked for a British pharmaceutical company, was sent to work in the UK for a few years so we moved there as a family. We spent 2 years in a village called Frodsham (located between Liverpool and Manchester). I was enrolled in kindergarten and became fluent in English within a couple months. Upon our return to Hong Kong we continued to attend English speaking schools. Most of my neighbors and classmates were members of the English speaking international community, consisting of people from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, and several other countries. When I was about 11 years old, my mother remarried a US Citizen living in Hong Kong. My mother, brother and I became naturalized US Citizens shortly after.
Isabel Shen: How did you view America before you had actually arrived? Did your expectations meet reality?
CS: I came to live in the US for the first time at age 18 to attend Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. I remember realizing during orientation that my main “view” of America had come from television shows, and that Americans are far more varied than what I had seen on TV!
IS: Have you ever faced discrimination in America?
CS: I first became more aware of being treated differently when I was training and serving in the US Air Force as a young physician. My training experience was mostly positive and professional, but there were a few occasions when I encountered behavior from patients that felt uncomfortable and disrespectful. Things like patients commenting in certain ways about my appearance, or inviting me to sit in their hospital beds when I went in to examine them in my white coat and military uniform. In an early experience of leadership, I noticed how a colleague with whom I shared the same rank, the same medical training background and a similar leadership title, seemed to receive more assistance and follow through on his requests among our shared staff members.
As time goes on, hopefully the discrimination that immigrants face will decrease as America becomes more and more diverse. As sea levels rise due to the absorption of greenhouse gasses and the melting of glaciers and ice caps, it is inevitable that eventually people who live in coastal areas or islands will have to migrate inland or even immigrate elsewhere. We can only hope that immigration will be normalized in the years to come. Unfortunately, there is a high possibility that it won’t; as the global population grows exponentially and more people immigrate to America, inexorably the fear will grow that the U.S. ‘s resources (natural resources, housing, employment opportunity) will run dry, and anti-immigrant sentiment will rise. Another likely way xenophobia would be renewed would be through wars; all-generation immigrants are often blamed for the mistakes of the country where the first-generation immigrant came from, e.g. Anti-Asian hate ballooning after COVID-19 originated in China and the Chinese government didn’t manage it successfully. Tensions between Russia and the U.S. have already resulted in Russian immigrants in America fearful that they will be viewed as complicit in the invasion of Ukraine. With the lives of immigrants on the line, it is exigent that we avert the budding catastrophe and find a way to put an end to the xenophobia of the American government and people. However, it will be impossible to permanently terminate these symptoms of xenophobia and racism without eliminating the malignant virus causing it.
To find the origins of America’s xenophobia, we have to go back to the very beginning of the United States. The U.S. was built off the misery and suffering of African slaves at the hands of their iniquitous European torturers. These African slaves were treated with unimaginable cruelty and looked down upon as inferior to White people by their oppressors because of their appearance and foreign culture. In other words, racism and xenophobia sprouted from when White people presumed that they were superior to African people, and that these African people were savage and less than human. These erroneous beliefs burgeoned in the malleable American consciousness and branched out until it wasn’t just the belief that White people are better than African people, it was the belief that White people were the supreme race. Unfortunately, this incorrect theory has thoroughly implanted itself into the global psyche and nearly destroyed a fundamental part of the world- diversity. There is a pressure to assimilate to the Western culture, with unique languages replaced by English world-wide, cultural ways eliminated in the process of Westernization, and people even surgically altering themselves to have features closer to the much sought after Eurocentric model of beauty. Yet when it feels impossible to establish the belief in the humanity of every person and the restoration of the value of each culture seems inconceivable, when uniformity feels imminent and the future dark and dreary, an answer arises out of the turmoil. If a lack of humanity, a lack of diversity is the problem, then the solution is creating a society where humans are seen as humans, where diversity is plentiful, where barriers created out of differences are fragile because every human can accept that no one is superior or inferior to someone else.
To exit philosophy and enter mundane reality, the way we can set about implementing change is simple. We must empower our immigrants so that every minority is represented by the people in power, forcing people to acknowledge their capacity as a leader and as a human, and revealing the great potential that lies within them. When our backgrounds are all equal, there can be no more overpowering of cultures, and no culture is more “civilized” than the other. It is our duty, as capable citizens of this world, to continue the work immigrants have already laid out for us.
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