Immigration, Race, and Political Philosophy

The killing of 18 year old Michael Brown and the nationwide protests following the grand jury’s failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson Ferguson have dispelled the myth of that the United States is a post-racial nation. Protests coincided with the release of the U.S. Department of Justice’s December 2014 Guidance for Federal Law Enforcement Agencies regarding the Use of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, National Origin, Religion, Sexual Orientation, or Gender Identity. In all the turmoil, the relevance of race for immigration policy and enforcement has been largely overlooked. Notably, the Department of Justice’s report explicitly states that “this Guidance does not apply to interdiction activities in the vicinity of the border, or to protective, inspection, or screening activities (2).”

A conversation about race and immigration is badly needed. The United States’ immigration history is explicitly and shamefully tied to racist ideologies, including Social Darwinism. In Culling the Masses, David Scott FitzGerald and David Cook Martin note that the United States was the first independent country in the Americas to introduce racial selection policies for admissions and naturalization. It was also the last country to end them. This ignominious history begins with the 1790 Uniform Rule of Naturalization that restricted naturalization to free whites and continues until at least 1965 when the Immigration and National Act abolished national origins quotas.
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act put a halt to Chinese immigration until the mid-twentieth century and the 1907-8 “Gentleman’s Agreement” that effectively prohibited Japanese immigration. The 1924 Immigration Act set up a quota system to restrict the population flows from Southern and Eastern Europe (Asian and African immigration had already been stopped). History is marred by the bigotry of events such as the internment over 100,000 Japanese during World War II (many who were U.S. citizens) and the 1954 mass deportations under “Operation Wetback” (again, victims included U.S. citizens of Mexican origin).
Though immigration scholars have resisted thinking about chattel slavery, Rhonda V. Magee usefully proposed that scholars examine chattel slavery as a brutal form of immigration (Slavery as Immigration?). She writes:
viewing immigration as a function of slavery reveals an important irony: that with respect to immigration, slavery—our racially based forced migration system—laid a foundation for both a racially segmented labor-based immigration system, and a racially diverse (even if racially hierarchical) “nation of immigrants” – legacies which the founders may not have set out to leave, but which are among our history’s most pernicious and most precious gifts to civilization (26).
Despite this grim legacy, the end of explicit racial discrimination has led many people to believe that immigration policy is no longer racist. Demographics offer some support to this view. Immigration from Northern Europe has fallen to a trickle, while hundreds of thousands of people from Latin America and Asia settle every year. Here are the countries that had the largest number of permanent residents in 2013:
El Salvador
United Kingdom
Dominican Republic
The demise of explicitly racist immigration policy and the changing demographics leads many people to not see the relevance of race for immigration. Mainstream political debates scrupulously disguise racist attitudes with coded language and anti-immigration groups disavow racism in their propaganda material. People who oppose immigration often feel compelled to insist that they are not racists (for an illustration, see The Daily Show’s Democalpyseepisode). Instead, they oppose “illegal immigrants” (imagined as brown, Spanish-speakers clandestinely crossing the Southern border) or claim their restrictionist convictions are motivated by economic, cultural, or environmental concerns. (For evidence, peruse the website of FAIR[Federation for American Immigration Reform], one of the U.S.’s most prominent restrictionist groups.) Xenophobia is cloaked in the rhetoric of law and order, tradition, economic justice, or sustainability (in a September blog post I discussed how nativist groups frame immigration under these categories).
Political philosophers writing on immigration have largely neglected a sustained examination of race and immigration. (One exception is José Jorge Mendoza.) Of course, liberal political philosophers believe that racial discrimination is wrong, but they are too quick to take the demise of explicit racism as license to show that liberal norms of equality and non-discrimination have won. The consensus seems to be racism is not theoretically interesting for the ethics of immigration because it is so obviously wrong. Most of the best work on immigration and race is done by legal scholars such as Bill Ong Hing (see Deporting Our Souls),  sociologists such as Douglas Massey (see The New Latino Underclass: Immigration Enforcement as a Race-Making Institution), and many anthropologists.
One way political philosophers might approach immigration policy and practice by seeing how it is deeply implicated in institutional and systemic racism. Political philosophers could draw on critical race theorists such as Charles W. Mills to show how racist processes and structures have shaped and continued to shape immigration practices, including admissions and enforcement policy. Political philosophy might follow sociologists and anthropologists in asking how the racialization of immigrants affects their experience in the workforce, in cities, and with law enforcement.
American attitudes toward immigration are complex and I do not believe that any single framework is fully adequate for an ethical inquiry into the immigration. Nonetheless, the critical race perspective may shed light on some of the following topics: 

  • Seemingly racially-neutral language about culture may have racist implications. This is most obvious in screeds about “alien invaders” but also extends to shoddy social science used to oppose immigration (e.g., Samuel Huntington’s Who We Are? The Challenges to America’s National Identity). Given how internally diverse all cultures are, we might ask if language about “protecting” culture is in fact coherent and is not better explained as racisms or Islamphobia (for example, Germany’s recent, frightening anti-Islamist rallies).
  • Racism helps explain the concentration of enforcement on the Southern border when it is well known that many unauthorized immigrants initially entered the country legally and then overstayedtheir visas. It also sheds light on ugly policies such as attrition through enforcement that encourage racial profiling. 
  • The dehumanization of human beings that allows for and accompanies immigrant detention can partly be explained by racism. People see the victims of detention not as children or refugees but as faceless “illegal immigrants” that need to be extirpated. The parallels to racist purges throughout history are not coincidental.
  • Temporary work programs have largely been examined in terms of exploitation (their existence is based on recruiting a vulnerable population that, at least for low-skilled labor, need to accept wages below what the market would set if they had permanent residence and the ability to change employers). Political philosophers have not thought enough about how temporary migration programs often recruit racialized populations to carry out dirty, dangerous, and demeaning/demanding jobs.
  • A discussion of race and the role racist attitudes have played in dehumanization human beings might help explain the developed world’s refugee policies that make every effort to prevent desperately needy people from seeking asylum. (As I write, the developed world has made almost no real effort to resettle even a fraction of the millions of Syriansin refugee camps in border countries and displaced within Syria.)

Discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion of people because of the color of their skin, their national or ethnic origins, the language they speak, and/or their religion are still very much part of the world. It is wrong and it needs to be exposed, understood, and addressed. Immigration cannot be understood apart from other social institutions and structures which sadly remained racialized. Understanding and criticizing racism should be a central task for normative theorists.

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