Migration as "Ungrace”: Critical Reflections on U.S. Immigration History, Law, and Policy

Profe's note:  Thank you for checking out this second blog post in a series entitled, "Migration as Grace: Biblical, Historical, and Legal Reflections on Immigration."  Last week's post explored a biblical theology of immigration centered upon the theme of "migration as grace": http://www.jesusforrevolutionaries.org/migration-as-grace-biblical-historical-and-legal-reflections-on-immigration-part-i/

This week's reflection applies this theological principle of "migration as grace" to the history of U.S. immigration law and policy, especially with regards to Latina/o and Asian immigrants.  Most of this history is unknown to the generable public, and unfortunately much of it is dark.  I pray that this history may draw us all into deeper compassion for the millions of immigrants currently living in our midst, as well as give us greater discernment as we move into the next political election cycle.

“Migration as Ungrace”:  U.S. Anti-Immigrant History, Law, and Policy

Unfortunately, much of U.S. immigration history over the past 150 years does not square with biblical understandings of migration as grace.  Instead, U.S. immigration law and policy has more often reflected an attitude of migration as “ungrace.”   Anti-Chinese xenophobia produced invidious legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which, for the first time in United States history, barred an entire ethnic group from immigration.[1]   Racism towards Italians and Eastern Europeans fueled passage of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, the Cable Act of 1922, and the Immigration Act of 1924.[2]   Together with the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, and the Tydings-McDuffe Act (1934), these laws slowed immigration from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe to a trickle, and expanded migration flows from Northern and Western Europe.  Between 1930 and 1935, 345,839 Mexicans were repatriated or deported back to Mexico.[3]   Tragically, Mexican Americans were also not excluded from these deportations.  In California, over 80% of the repatriates were U.S. citizens or legal residents of the U.S.  Moreover, between 1947 and 1954 the Immigration and Nationalization Service boasted of apprehending more than 1 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants as part of the notorious “Operation Wetback.”[4]  Racially discriminatory quotas favoring northern and western European immigrants and barring immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and southern and eastern Europe were not overturned until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965.

Regrettably, such mass deportations are not just a thing of the past.   Since 2009, the presidential administration of Barack Obama has destroyed the family structures of untold numbers of immigrant families through the deportation of more than 2.5 million individuals.  At this rate, President Obama is on pace to deport more people than the combined total of the 19 presidents who held office from 1892-2000.[5]   From January 2014 to  October 2015, moreover, the United States government  deported 83 El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran refugees to their deaths in violation of United Nations protocol.[6]

Tragically, “ungraceful” anti-immigrant federal and state laws have also proliferated over the past two decades.  Examples include California Proposition 187 (1994), the federal Sensenbrenner Immigration Bill (2005), the Hazleton “Illegal Immigration Relief Act” (2006), Arizona SB-1070 (2010), Alabama House Bill 56 (2011), and 162 other anti-immigrant laws passed by state legislatures in 2010 and 2011.[7]

Although held to be largely unconstitutional and never implemented, Proposition 187, the so-called “Save Our State” initiative, barred undocumented immigrants in California from receiving health care, K-12 public education, and other public social services.[8]  It also required police, teachers, public school officials, and public healthcare providers to check the immigration status of individuals and report undocumented immigrants to the federal government for deportation.

The Sensenbrenner Bill, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005, sought to construct a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, eliminate the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, categorize all forms of unlawful presence and visa overstays as felonies, and arguably made it a crime for churches to minister to undocumented immigrants.[9]  In passing the “Illegal Immigration Relief Act” in 2006, the city of Hazleton, Pennsylvania tried to take the issue of undocumented immigration into its own hands by fining landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants and suspending the business licenses of people who hired them.[10]

In its explicit terms, Arizona SB-1070 called for the goal of immigrant "attrition through enforcement."   SB-1070 requires police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained if they have "reasonable suspicion" that such individuals are undocumented.[11]   Civil rights organizations have criticized the law because of the severe danger it poses for racial profiling.[12]  Indeed, in May 2016, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was found in contempt of the Federal District Court for his failure to limit racial profiling in the implementation of Arizona SB-1070.[13]

In stark moral condemnation of Arizona SB-1070, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared forcefully[14]:

“I am saddened today at the prospect of a young Hispanic immigrant in Arizona going to the grocery store and forgetting to bring her passport and immigration documents with her. I cannot be dispassionate about the fact that the very act of her being in the grocery store will soon be a crime in the state she lives in.

Or that, should a policeman hear her accent and form a "reasonable suspicion" that she is an illegal immigrant, she can -- and will -- be taken into custody until someone sorts it out, while her children are at home waiting for their dinner…

But a solution that degrades innocent people, or that makes anyone with broken English a suspect, is not a solution. A solution that fails to distinguish between a young child coming over the border in search of his mother and a drug smuggler is not a solution.

I am not speaking from an ivory tower. I lived in the South Africa that has now thankfully faded into history, where a black man or woman could be grabbed off the street and thrown in jail for not having his or her documents on their person.”

Alabama House Bill 56 and Georgia House Bill 87 are like Arizona SB-1070 on steroids.  Though partially invalidated by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Alabama  HB-56 barred undocumented immigrants from attending college, criminalized the rental of residential property to undocumented immigrants, and prohibited them from applying for or soliciting work.  It also required school officials to submit an annual tally of all suspected undocumented K-12 students to the state department of education.[15]  Georgia House Bill 87, signed into law by state governor Nathan Deal in May 2011, authorized police officers to question individuals about their immigration status in certain criminal investigations and threatened to fine undocumented immigrants $250,000, or send them to jail for 15 years, for using fake identifications in search of employment.[16] In 2010, the Georgia Board of Regents also passed rules effectively barring undocumented students from all public universities in the state.[17]

Political Scapegoats:  Donald Trump, Tea Party

These various anti-immigrant laws and policies of the past decade have occurred within the context of political scapegoating.  Since the economic downturn of 2008, undocumented immigrant labor has been scapegoated by the white working class population and opportunistic politicians eager for election.

Such anti-immigrant rhetoric has fueled the rise of the Tea Party movement. White workers have condemned immigrant workers as unfair labor competition and culturally unassimilable; politicians have seized upon this discontent among the electorate, adding that immigrants are also a drain upon state and local economic resources because of their use of social services such as education and healthcare. Campaigning on this anti-immigrant, restrictionist platform, many Tea Party politicians have been successfully elected to local, state, and federal office over the past decade.  Most notably, reality t.v. personality Donald Trump has successfully ridden the tidal wave of anti-immigrant sentiment to the position of Republican presidential nominee.  In his now notorious words[1]:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people.”

"I will build a great wall -- and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me --and I'll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words."

“’Donald Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States…”

In the Grace of Christ,

Robert Chao Romero




[1] Will Heilpern, “Trump campaign:  11 outrageous quotes,” CNN politics, February 23, 2016,  http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/31/politics/gallery/donald-trump-campaign-quotes/; “30 of Donald Trump’s wildest quotes,” CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/wild-donald-trump-quotes/.

[1] Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1975).

[2] Harvard University Open Collections Program, “Key Dates and Landmarks in United States Immigration History,” accessed June 21, 2016, http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/timeline.html.

[3] Zaragosa Vargas, Crucible of Struggle:  A History of Mexican Americans from the Colonial Period to the Present Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 220.

[4] David Gutierrez, Walls and Mirrors:  Mexican Americans, Mexican immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 142.

[5] Tim Rogers, “Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president. Now he’s running up the score,” Fusion, January 7, 2016,     http://fusion.net/story/252637/obama-has-deported-more-immigrants-than-any-other-president-now-hes-running-up-the-score/

[6] Sibylla Brodzinsky and Ed Pilkington, “US government deporting Central American migrants to their deaths,” The Guardian (U.S. Edition), October 12 2015.

[7] Ian Gordon and Tasneem Raja, “164 Anti-Immigration Laws Passed Since 2010. A MoJo Analysis,” Mother Jones, March/April 2012 Issue, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/03/anti-immigration-law-database

[8] “Prop 187 Approved in California,” Migration News, 1, no.  11 (December 1994), https://migration.ucdavis.edu/mn/more.php?id=492

[9] For the full text of the Sensenbrenner Bill, see: https://www.congress.gov/bill/109th-congress/house-bill/4437;  Arin Gencer, “Parishioners Fast to Protest Migrant Bill,” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2006.

[10] Lozano v. City of Hazleton, 620 F. 3d 170 (2010).

[11] For the full text of Arizona SB-1070, see: http://www.azleg.gov/alispdfs/council/sb1070-hb2162.pdf.

[12] For example, see, “A National Constitutional Crisis: Arizona's Racial Profiling, Anti-Immigrant Law, SB 1070," Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, accessed June 21, 2016, http://www.maldef.org/about/events/arizonas_racial_profiling_anti-immigrant_law_sb_1070/index.html

[13] Merrit Kennedy, “In Racial Profiling Lawsuit, Ariz. Judge Rules Sheriff Arpaio In Contempt Of Court,” The Two-Way Breaking News from NPR, May 14, 2016,  http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/05/14/478050934/in-racial-profiling-lawsuit-ariz-judge-rules-sheriff-arpaio-in-contempt-of-court.

[14] Desmond Tutu, “Arizona: The Wrong Answer,” Huffington Post, August 7, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/desmond-tutu/arizona----the-wrong-answ_b_557955.html.

[15] For the full text of Alabama HB-56, see: https://legiscan.com/AL/text/HB56/id/321074

[16] For the full text of Georgia HB-87, see:  http://www.legis.ga.gov/Legislation/20112012/116631.pdf

[17] Casey Tolan, “Undocumented students in Georgia are fighting for equal rights to attend public university,” Fusion, November 19, 2015, http://fusion.net/story/234860/undocumented-students-georgia-are-fighting-for-equal-rights-public-university-ban/.