Why immigrant rights advocates need to understand history

Filed under: Organizing Latino Immigrants for Social Justice |

By Lilia Fernandez, Department of History, Ohio State University

As immigrants rights activists and organizers know well, immigrants do much of the labor that feeds the nation—from the migrant workers who pick our strawberries, spinach, and grapes to those who process those foods and others, immigrants sustain the population.  Yet few Americans understand that the role that immigrants play in the nation’s economy has not changed much over the past century. Immigrants have historically been some of the most marginalized and vulnerable workers in our economy.

Throughout our history we have depended on the most recent newcomers to do the hardest and lowest paid labor (think the Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians in the meatpacking plants of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; the Russian and Italian girls in New York’s garment district; Irish maids and servants).  We have always relied on low-wage immigrant labor but rejected their social difference (their language, culture, appearance, “unassimilated” ways). Immigrants today are very similar to immigrants of the past and recognizing these similarities would go a long way in educating the American public about immigration issues, advocating and protecting immigrants’ rights, and shaping immigration reform.

Those who espouse anti-immigrant, nativist, and xenophobic opinions about contemporary immigration often distinguish today’s “bad” immigrants from the “good” immigrants of the past. Anti-immigrants spokespersons cite that immigrants today bring disease and crime, that they degrade American labor, lower wages, refuse to learn English, have too many children, and are altogether “foreign” to the American body politic. What such critics fail to realize is that these assertions are nothing new: they were used against their own ancestors decades ago.

These very same arguments have been launched against most new immigrant groups in our nation’s brief history—the Scottish in the 18th century were said to be prone to drunkenness; the Germans and Irish in the 19th century had too many children (and the Irish were Catholic to boot); the Italians were thought to be violent criminals; the Hungarians, Russians, Poles, and various others in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were characterized as clannish, speaking their own languages, and being a threat to “American civilization”.  Our most highly respected Congressmen derided these groups for being “alien” to the cultural composition of the nation.

How does knowing this change our understanding of immigrants today? One thing it teaches us is that the alarmist language used against immigrants—that they will ruin society and the country—was as unfounded and preposterous a hundred years ago as it is today.

Immigrants, in particular Latin American immigrants, in 2010 come from similar circumstances and migrate for similar reasons as did their predecessors one hundred years before: They leave small towns or rural areas that are experiencing the impact of capitalist industrialization (i.e., a surplus of labor); they leave farms that cannot compete with cheap, subsidized agricultural imports from the United States (just as Eastern European farmers left the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Poland when they could no longer compete with imported American wheat).

Immigrants today leave big cities where competition in the labor market has become too great (because of the population displaced from rural areas). They come for personal and family reasons. They come escaping political persecution. And yes, most today just as a century ago come seeking better economic opportunities. The same forces and desires that drove Lithuanians to leave the countryside, Greeks to abandon small businesses in their hometowns, and Ukrainians to leave Kiev, drive migrants today from Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras. Just as in the past, immigrants today help grow the economy, not ruin it. More people means a greater need more services. This translates into more small businesses, greater demand for doctors, lawyers, teachers, grocery stores, furniture stores, etc.

The function that immigrants today play in our labor markets is also very similar to that of earlier eras. A century ago migrants from Russia, Italy, Ireland, and Czechoslovakia were the workforce of the American garment, meatpacking, and railroad industries. They were the fuel for the factories in the newly industrializing U.S. economy. Workers faced dangerous and unsanitary conditions in sweatshops that were entirely unregulated and lacked safety standards.

They experienced industrial accidents, disfiguring injuries, and even death in hazardous environments where the profit motive demanded the highest output of production at the lowest possible price. Yet over time, conditions for those workers improved. Progressive reformers protested dangerous conditions, especially those of women and children. They demanded legislation to regulate workplaces and work hours, protect workers, and establish minimum health and safety standards. Thanks to such activism, working conditions improved in many places and as a result, American workers enjoy the protections of unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, labor arbitration, social security, and so on.

Despite these increased regulations and improvements in work conditions, however, today’s immigrant workers toil in environments and under circumstances that are not much better than those a century ago. In many places, conditions have worsened. Immigrants continue to provide the same function—low wage labor that makes industrial production (today, industrialized food production) cheap and profitable for large corporations.

How could labor conditions possibly worsen, one might ask, when we have so many laws regulating the workplace and employee safety? How could we actually regress in workplace conditions and wages when we have made such progress over the twentieth century? What has made this decline and the continued exploitation of immigrant labor possible has been our immigration policy that classifies immigration that a century ago would have been perfectly “legal” as “illegal” today.

One of the most important differences between immigrants of the past and those today is the way in which they are identified by immigration laws. Until 1924, European immigration was fairly unrestricted.[1] A person could be denied entry if s/he were visibly ill or disabled, declared oneself an anarchist or polygamist, was deemed morally corrupt, or failed to meet other criteria. Only a very small proportion of those who arrived at Ellis Island or other ports of entry were denied admittance. Most were admitted within a matter of hours. (In 1907 alone, 1.2 million immigrants—overwhelmingly Southern and Eastern Europeans—were admitted at Ellis Island.)

In other words, there was really no such thing as “illegal” immigration because essentially almost everyone who came would be admitted. Less than 2% were sent back. This contrasts sharply with our policies today, which are highly restrictive and which limit each country throughout the world to universal yearly quotas. The process of migrating then has changed dramatically. Unlike a century ago, today, it is much more difficult to migrate “legally,” especially from countries that have a high demand for visas (the countries that are now experiencing capitalist globalization—Asia, Latin America, Africa).

Immigrants are subject to restrictions and quotas that were not applied to the large influx of European immigrants a century ago. Yet the descendants of those very immigrants, in particular the ones who call for restrictionist policies, fail to understand that their ancestors would never have gained entry into the U.S. had our policies in the past not been so open.  It seems rather cliché: those who entered freely now wish to close the doors behind them.

Contemporary immigration policy makes it very likely that if a person from Mexico, Central America or South America wants to enter the United States, they will most likely do so “illegally.”

The United States simply does not grant a sufficient number of visas.  While some may claim that many more immigrants are trying to enter the U.S. today compared to in the past, the figures are actually fairly equivalent. At the same time, regardless of immigration restrictions American capital continues its unquenchable thirst for low-wage immigrant labor.  Meat and poultry workers, greenhouse workers, migrant laborers, garment workers all contribute to the high profits of agribusiness, clothing companies, and other corporations. These corporations benefit from criminalized immigrant labor as do American consumers who enjoy lower costs at the cash register. What businesses will not openly admit is that they thrive as a result of an exploitable, vulnerable, undocumented workforce.

The matter of the “legal” status of immigrants today then is the most critical question that immigrant activists and reformers must tackle. Advocates of immigrant rights should not be distracted by cultural or racial arguments from nativists and xenophobes who claim that today’s immigrants are unassimilable, they are too “foreign,” and are damaging the cultural fabric of the nation. An overwhelming body of research indicates that most immigrants assimilate rapidly by the second and third generations, speaking English, dropping native languages, and becoming “Americanized.”  While to a certain extent immigrants of course do change our national culture, our nation has not been destroyed because today we eat pierogis, spaghetti, or Swedish meatballs, use Yiddish or Italian expressions in our daily language, or dance to salsa music.

Educating students and the public about immigration in historical context is critical to successfully advocating for immigrant rights and social justice. If the public is more informed about the realities of immigrant labor in our economy, the impact such labor has on our economic growth, and the fact that we exploit immigrant workers as much if not more than we did a century ago, then perhaps we will see immigrants, especially the undocumented, very differently. Perhaps we will not be satisfied with idea that we have “progressed,” are more evolved today, and are morally superior to those who exploited immigrant workers in the past.  Perhaps we can envision more just and humane immigration policies in the present.

[1] This was not the case for Asian immigration, which was actually the first region of the world subject to restriction. See, for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.


Professor Fernandez’s research interests include Latino/a immigration history, race and ethnic identity formation, women’s history, and urban renewal and gentrification. Her current book project examines Mexican and Puerto Rican migration and community formation in Chicago from 1945 to 1975. Professor Fernandez has been awarded various fellowships from such institutions as the Ford Foundation, the University of California, San Diego and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has published articles on Latino/a education, Latino/a youth culture, and community displacement of Mexican Americans in Chicago. Dr. Fernandez teaches courses on Chicana/o and Latina/o History and Latina/o Studies. Her appointment includes an affiliation with the Latino/a Studies Program, Women’s Studies Department, and the Department of Comparative Studies.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

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