Things to Remember When Talking About Immigration

Things to Remember When Talking About Immigration
Photo Source: Rawstory

Photo Source: Rawstory

Another year has passed with a failure to bring a comprehensive immigration reform to the Congressional floor. With this in mind, the greater organizing community has even shifted away from reform and brought new attention toward ending deportations by asking President Obama to use his executive powers. But now with the increasing number of child migrants currently in the news, immigration has once again been the subject of ridicule and condemnation from mass media outlets and even our own political leaders. Oh, how easily we seem to forget history.

Seriously, we have really forgotten key parts of the immigration conversation.

Many people around me don’t seem to know how to talk about immigration. Most play it off with a simple “Yeah, it’s a difficult situation” in an attempt to appease my feelings, while a few others charge head first into the economics of allowing more citizenship. Between the fear of insulting my Latino heritage and purposefully trying to insult it, many of those I’ve run in to seem to have forgotten a lot of details that really frame why we need an immigration reform.

So this is a note to all of those out there talking about immigration — students, political leaders, self-proclaimed Liberals, community organizations, friends, and family: when talking about immigration, let’s not forget…

1. The History of US Intervention

“They never teach us in school that the huge Latino presence here is a direct result of our own government’s actions in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America over many decades — actions that forced millions from that region to leave their homeland and journey north.”

That’s one of the opening lines in the film Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, originally a book written by journalist Juan Gonzalez. This book outlines the long history of the United States’ intervention in Latin America, including countries like El Salvador, Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico. Now, if there was one book that I could recommend to all those immigration “experts,” it would be this one. As a historian, it’s important to me to acknowledge the US’s intervention, military aid, and financial assistance to oppressive government in Latin American throughout the 20th century.

One of the biggest examples out of these is Guatemala. In 1944, a civilian government was finally elected on a platform of ambitious land reforms. However, The US’s C.I.A. helped orchestrate a government overthrow against President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and installed a right-wing military dictator that would benefit them and the United Fruit Company. For the next forty years, Guatemala was plunged into political civil war.The leftist groups against the government aligned with the Mayan tribes, which eventually turned the right government against all Mayans. This soon became a ‘dirty war’ tactics: In 1966, Guatemala pioneered the use of forced disappearances through U.S.-trained death squads, tortures and executions, and even dropping bodies into the Pacific Ocean.

Photo Source: Wikipedia

Photo Source: Wikipedia

The height of the civil war was reached under dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who was a graduate of Fort Benning military base in Georgia. Ríos Montt enjoyed close ties with the Reagan administration and with conservatives in the United States and his reign is known as the bloodiest period in Guatemala’s history. During that time, the Guatemalan government led a campaign to wipe out an estimated 70,000 indigenous peoples.

When Fox New correspondences claim that immigrants come with a history of violence, I only shake my head at the thought that the true history of violence comes from the United States. What would have these countries been today without North American political manipulation?

And just think — this is only one summary of the US’s intervention in Latin America. Interested in the history of other countries? Check out the Center for Justice and Accountability’s easily accessible one-pagers.

2. This Isn’t Just a Latino Issue

We frame immigration as solely Latino issue and that’s a problem. Although Latinos may be statistically the highest number of undocumented immigrants currently in the US, we are by far not the only ones.

Remember how a few seconds ago we outlined how the US liked to put its two cents in Spanish-speaking countries? Well, the same is true in a lot of other places.

Take Haiti, for example, which shares an island with the Dominican Republic. When the U.S. invaded in 1915, they drafted a new constitution and founded the Forces Armées d’Haiti (FADH), an institution that ultimately become an obstacle in creating democracy in the country during the 20th century. Outside of Haiti, the US government is notorious for supporting the Dominican dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who made it a mission to wipe out any trace of Africanism while in power. In 1937, Trujillo ordered an attack on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, slaughtering tens of thousands of Haitians as they tried to escape. The American occupation and support for Trujillo left a strain on Haiti-U.S. relations and disparity in Haiti.

Escaping the results of this, many Haitians live abroad, chiefly in regions by North America. In the United States alone there are an estimated 975,000 people of Haitian ancestry, according to the last census. The Center for Immigration Studies claims that at the best estimate, there are between 75,000 to 125,000 undocumented Haitian immigrants in the country.

The story of Asian immigration isn’t all that nice either, even when taught in classrooms. This can date back to 1882 and the Chinese Exclusion Act. During the early stages of the gold rush in the 1840s, Chinese immigrants were barely tolerated and generally not well received. The exclusion act ceased all immigration of Chinese laborers.

At the same time, the American government began targeting Asian immigrants by passing the Page Act of 1875. This said that anyone considered “undesirable” would not be allowed to enter, with a special emphasis on Asian women. By not allowing women to enter through the US borders, the Chinese were unable to create families that fostered their cultures, as well as leaving American men married to Asian women during World War I ultimately helpless. The act was also successful in keeping the ratio of females to males low.

It wasn’t until the 1940s when these acts were fully repealed, allowing growing waves of Asian immigration. Currently, Indians, Chinese, and Filipinos are the largest Asian ethnic groups immigrating to the United States.

Immigration is not just a Latino issue. By excluding other groups from joining talks about immigration, we lose support, allies, and a true unification to bring progressive policy forward on the Congressional floor.

3. Our Most Marginalized

Like most of history, men seem to be at the forefront. I will continue to push back and say that there are 3 vital groups that we need to include in any talk of reform, too: children, women, and queers.

The current child migration crisis has actually brought a lot of light to youth and immigration. The importance of the “new” crisis is that the numbers have reached a peak.

It’s about damn time we addressed the crisis with our youth.

The reality, however, is that youth and children have always been crossing our borders. In 2010, the film Which Way Home documented the hardships youth between the ages of 12 and 18 faced when crossing the US-Mexico frontier. By that point, about 8,000 children were being led in either alone or through smugglers across the North American border. And why were they leaving? Many haven’t seen their parents in years and this is their attempt at a family reunification. But others are assuming responsibility as young adults and they want to get jobs in the United States to work and send money home for their parents.

Those left back at home are also important people to think about. The decision to emigrate to North America is big for all members of the family, but wives remaining in native countries are too often left out of the dialogue.

Photo Source: Feministing

Photo Source: Feministing

A majority of the time, men are the ones to leave for the states, leaving wives and children at home. And the journey into the US is not easy and immigrants cross knowing that they may not make it to the other side. Statistics show that deaths along the Mexican border have gone up almost 30% within the last two years. This leaves women to raise kids alone without that extra income. They can be left with few options: lean on family for financial support and care, send their kids out to work instead of school, or take the risk of trying to cross the borders themselves.  And there is no need to argue to growing levels of violence against women on the border.

When their partners do make it across, wives are often left without communication from their partners starting from the first day of leaving up until they can find a source of communication — which can be weeks. And then there is always the possibility that their husbands may decide to never communicate with them. I’ve seen men fall in love with other women here in the states and leave their families back at home in favor of their new ones. What are mothers to do then?

And then we take a look at the queer community.

Before the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down last year, LGB people could not benefit for marital benefits like heterosexual couples. This meant that although a couple, one being a US citizen and the other an immigrant, may have been together for as long as an international visa permitted, the couple could not get married in any state and the non-citizen partner could not file for citizenship if (somehow) married. Once their visa was up, the couple was forced to separate or stay in constant fear of being deported. Luckily, DOMA was struck down and immediately couples rushed to the altar.

The new challenges comes when policing queer bodies. Last year, the National Center for Transgender Equality released a report, stating that undocumented transgender immigrants are “among the most vulnerable to discrimination and violence in employment, housing, healthcare, and opportunities for citizenship under current US immigration law.” Approximately 39% of undocumented transgender people say that they have lost their jobs due to workplace discrimination. And with the accessibility of public documents, transpeople could easily be outed by someone else.

If a transgender person is arrested, they face the possibility of time in immigration detention centers. According to the report, that could mean being forced into segregated detention similar to solitary confinement. In a worst case scenario, they can be sent back to their home countries.


Immigration is an issue that can be brought forward with policy that benefits those that most need it. I completely understand that is not an easy conversation to have. With the back-and-forth game our government plays with immigrant lives, many have slipped out of this important conversation. But here is to loud call to our community and political leader to remember our people — ALL people.


This post was crossposted with permission from the writer.

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