Wanted But Not Welcome

3 books bring different interpretations to the nation's struggle with immigration


No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border

State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America

A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America

Why remember the Alamo? For conservative firebrand and occasional presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan, Texas’ break from Mexico offers a timely warning to the United States—don’t let people who will never belong into your country. In his recently published State of Emergency, Buchanan argues that the Americans whom Mexico’s government “foolishly invited into their country were aliens with whom they had nothing in common, foreigners who had no interest in assimilating, but intended to maintain their own separate identity.”

My memories from Texas history classes and a junior-high field trip to the Alamo evoke different explanations for why Mexico lost Texas. Tyrannical rule, military occupation, forced conversions, lack of representation in the federal government, and the brutality of Gen. Antonio López de Santa Ana were among them, along with the sticky issue of Mexico’s banning slavery in Texas.

But any narrative depends not just on how it is told, but why. There is hardly any resemblance among the various versions—more than two, fewer than infinity—of America’s immigration situation at the moment. The story told by the right, replete with references to invasion, is one of middle America under siege culturally, even militarily. From the left comes a rights-based narrative emphasizing the human consequences of hard-line immigration policies.

The intertwining cultural, political, and practical threads of these competing stories are part of a bigger debate. There’s more at stake than the fates of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, of the businesses that depend on their labor, of the contractors angling for lucrative border-defense projects, and of the communities whose fortunes ride with both welcome and unwelcome newcomers.

At issue is what America is about. Not just what the country should look like, who belongs here, or even who Americans are when interacting with newcomers, but the relationships between businesses and employees; the future of the middle class and low-income Americans; and the shaping of politics by reason or by hysteria.

Deciding who belongs in the United States has been a powerful political wedge wielded for both good and evil since the nation’s birth.

In A Nation by Design, my New School colleague Aristide Zolberg details such arguments throughout U.S. history. In the nation’s early days, the idea of citizenship by consent rather than by birth was radical. Zolberg writes: “As they proceeded to constitute themselves into a political body, the Americans faced an unprecedented question: If membership is not to be determined exclusively by tradition and birth, what criteria would be appropriate?”

A second part of the question has been just as important: What to do once people arrive? Debates have raged not only over how long immigrants should have to wait before naturalizing (five years it was decided in 1802), but whether they should be naturalized at all, be granted land as an enticement (the answer was no), own land before naturalizing (yes), and vote before becoming citizens (yes, if they were free white landowners).

Many arguments centered on culture and national character—both important questions for a union formed on an untested political formula. Ultimately, pragmatism usually determined policy, and rhetoric shifted in turn. What mattered was what kind of immigrant might ally with which political party, how much land the government would be able to sell, how much profit shipping and railroad companies might make, and to a lesser extent how individual states might keep out those likely to become wards of the state.

Immigration played heavily into politics leading up to the Civil War, providing new sources of cheap labor and voters likely to oppose slavery. In the mid-19th century, the Whig Party struggled to balance the nativist fervor of its rank and file with its commitment to a business-minded economic program, but failed and ultimately dissolved.

From colonial times to the present, the compromises that emerged on immigration policy created a state of limbo for groups who were, as Zolberg puts it, “wanted but not welcome.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Asian immigration and naturalization were restricted, but southern and eastern Europeans were allowed in at record levels. In the early 1920s, the nativist camp eventually prevailed over business interests as strict national-origins quotas were imposed, severely limiting immigration for the next four decades.

The historical rhetoric resembles today’s. Zolberg quotes inventor Samuel Morse invoking the imagery of an invading army of immigrants when he penned a series of articles and books blaming immigration for undermining the American character. These arguments would be familiar to readers of Buchanan and his bedfellows, like Colorado’s Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo. Toying with the idea that—as it did for Buchanan—a fierce anti-immigration platform could fuel a Quixotic presidential campaign, Tancredo’s recent book, In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America’s Border and Security, features a battered and scorched American flag on its cover.

Debates in the 1950s invoked the “invasion” image that would lay the groundwork for today’s tiered-entry system with front, side, and back doors. After World War II, Americans became uncomfortable with race-based immigration. Discontent had been rising over the controversial bracero guest-worker program, begun in 1942 to ease a wartime shortage of farmworkers. Amid discussions of easing immigration policy in the 1950s, Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran and Pennsylvania’s U.S. Rep. Francis E. “Tad” Walter, both Democrats, commissioned a review that concluded that it was impossible to seal the border. Their response was a back-door solution: an expanded guest-worker program, but with a ban on allowing guests to become permanent residents. “Albeit well-nigh useless with regard to border control, the system was highly effective as a deterrent to the incorporation of Mexicans, in particular, by way of naturalization,” Zolberg writes, pinpointing an issue at the heart of today’s immigration conundrum.

The 1952 immigration reform officially ended openly racial bias. But it also created a new mechanism—legal status—designed to permanently marginalize parts of the population, creating a host of new problems.

In No One Is Illegal, a class-based analysis of the relationship between immigrants and U.S.-born workers, Justin Akers Chacon documents strategies to control labor by isolating ethnic groups, whether “coolie” railroad workers in the 19th century or Mexicans in the 20th. “Like the Chinese and Japanese who had previously occupied the niche of agricultural helots, the Mexicans were first extolled by the growers as paragons of hard work and docility, then excoriated as riff-raff and a racial menace when they began to organize and strike,” Akers Chacon writes.

Anti-immigrant agitation took hold in the mines and in the urban labor movement in the mid-19th century. Akers Chacon describes the virulent working-class fear and hatred, which so garbled the ideas of good and bad that thwarting massacres became a reprehensible act: “Indeed, in his pro-Workingman novel, The Last Days of the Republic (1880), the Kearneyite Pierton Dooner described how the desperate efforts of San Francisco’s white workers to massacre the Chinese were thwarted by the capitalist militia, leading to the enfranchisement of the Chinese and, ultimately, their conquest of North America.”

By the early 20th century, nativist sentiment had expanded into the rural and urban middle classes—the targets of today’s movement to crack down on immigration. Like the earlier working-class consumers of nativist mythology, significant parts of the middle classes then and now were taken in by a brilliant sleight of hand and convinced that American workers would be better off if other workers were worse off. The opposite is true.

In his brief introduction to No One Is Illegal, urban theorist Mike Davis recalls the 1933-34 wave of labor unrest and crackdowns, showing how progress on one front for U.S. workers translated to misery for those who worked alongside immigrants: “While urban workers led by the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions were successfully overthrowing the open shop in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California’s agricultural workers—whether their names were Maria Morales or Tom Joad—were being terrorized by bigoted deputies and raging mobs.”

In 1942 the United States began importing Mexican agricultural guest workers. Designed to secure a supply of temporary, cheap labor, this bracero program was limited in size and bureaucratically unwieldy, so growers brought in illegal workers to supplement their needs—which came to include the demand for scabs as U.S. workers began organizing for better pay and working conditions.

César Chávez, the revered labor organizer, oriented the United Farm Workers’ strategies toward attacking undocumented workers, demonstrating at the border against illegal immigration, turning in immigrant scabs to authorities, and fighting the bracero program until it was dismantled in 1964.

It would be decades before unions began to realize that their best interests lay in making allies, not enemies, of immigrant workers—too late to shape policies that might have left immigrants and Americans better off.

The flawed bracero program has been replaced by an informal system that lures immigrants here with the promise of work, however meager, and the understanding that immigration authorities likely will turn their heads as long as immigrants keep their heads down. Their illegal status keeps them in limbo, prevented by law and custom from putting down roots, and makes it easier for abusive employers to exploit them, in turn dragging down U.S. workers beside them.

Recognizing the danger inherent in this dynamic, the major U.S. unions in 2000 abandoned their long-time opposition to increasing legal immigration.

The political and labor conversation about immigration has evolved, but the story told by the populist right has remained largely the same, unapologetically focused on race and culture. Practically in the same breath, Pat Buchanan praises César Chávez—”the first Minuteman”—for his agitation against illegal immigration, and then laments that California has named a state holiday in his honor, because Chávez was Latino.

Buchanan all but says it’s OK to be racist. “If racism means a belief in the superiority of the white race and its inherent right to rule other peoples, American history is full of such men,” he writes in State of Emergency. “Indeed, few great men could be found in America or Europe before World War II who did not accept white supremacy as natural.”

While Buchanan’s brief portrait of Mexico’s loss of Texas warns of the folly of inviting strangers into a land, his account of Mexican immigration to America is one not of invitation, but outright invasion. “What can be said for a man who would allow his home to be invaded by strangers who demanded they be fed, clothed, housed, and granted the rights of the firstborn?” he asks. He lumps mass immigration as part and parcel of an alleged conspiracy to replace borders and national sovereignty with a world government.

This rhetoric resonates with those sympathetic to Buchanan’s argument—and who probably watch Lou Dobbs and identify with the Minutemen. But the problem is not that immigrants are receiving the benefits to which Buchanan claims they feel entitled. It’s that “the firstborn” feel that they are not receiving their due.

Buchanan identifies concerns that many Americans share: stagnant or falling wages, ethnic clashes, economic inequality, and declining test scores of American students. But he does not appear to be interested in solutions. When it comes to education, he blames immigrant students for skewing average test scores downward, then proceeds to complain that “educrats” use the averages to argue for the (apparently unworthy) goals of smaller classes and higher teacher salaries.

Buchanan’s solutions are a 10-year moratorium on all legal immigration, a fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, a vigorous deportation program, and denying children of illegal immigrants born here the 14th Amendment right to citizenship. He advocates halting welfare for illegal immigrants, except emergency medical services. Since they are not eligible for most benefits anyway, the main effect would be to deny schooling to children.

Buchanan fails to understand that his rhetoric fosters the socioeconomic inequality he decries. He would address ethnic tensions by keeping out people who look different—an idea guaranteed to make ethnic clashes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Akers Chacon and Buchanan both oppose a guest-worker program that would condemn immigrants to transient status. Buchanan would rather not see immigrant workers come at all—a solution that reasonable people recognize is unrealistic.

Akers Chacon opposes the temporary, marginal aspect of guest-worker programs and the damage that a large, unauthorized migrant population does to the interests of workers in the United States and elsewhere. His solution is to throw open the borders, proclaiming, “No one is illegal!”

Both of these approaches fall short. Advocates of true open borders—a group that is far smaller than the nativist right would like the public to believe—fail to recognize the real cultural fears that are part of human nature, as well as the disruptions that a further increase in immigration would spawn. Buchanan and his ilk shirk responsibility for shaping a society that presents both a reasonable possibility and an expectation that newcomers can adopt the habits of their new home.

There probably is no reconciliation between these two positions. But it is possible for Americans who care about the future of the country to drown out the small but vocal contingents at either end of the debate. For this, we could do far worse than turn to the solutions Zolberg proposes.

“Borders are necessary to establish and preserve distinctive communities, notably self-governing democracies,” Zolberg writes. In addition, given economic disparities among nations, open borders would attract a flood of immigration from poorer to more affluent nations. Yet he also views nativist attacks on immigrants as a far bigger threat to democracy than migration itself. He advocates neither allowing unlimited immigration nor a moratorium on immigration. He argues for giving admissions priority to those in most need—unskilled workers and those fleeing violence. Zolberg contends that to eliminate unauthorized immigration would require creating a police state. Instead, he sensibly advocates improved border security, combined with protection of the rights of minority groups upon whom the populist right has unleashed its wrath.

“Immigrants who feel welcome rarely set out to destroy their new home,” Zolberg concludes. Nor, he might have added, do they secede. One wonders whether, had Santa Ana recognized the same principle, the story of the Alamo would have been entirely different.

Michele Wucker, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, is the author of Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When O
r Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right (PublicAffairs Press, 2006).