Immigrants and Race

Anti-immigrant sentiment goes by a lot of names. Most broadly, people who don’t want the presence of immigrants in the U.S. are accused of “xenophobia,” which is “an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners.” On a more localized level, individuals who disapprove of immigrants on the basis that they hurt the U.S. economy are termed “protectionist” and the most extreme opponents of an “open border” are sometimes referred to as “isolationist.”  But at what point does anti-immigrant sentiment become just another pseudonym for plain-old racism?

In a society that strives to seem politically correct, one must feel very secure in one’s company to voice opinions that denigrate a person or group of people solely on the basis of race. I have noticed, however, that the same taboo does not appear to apply to conversations about immigrants (and particularly illegal immigrants), where society seems to assume that “reasonable” minds might differ. Our comparative tolerance of anti-immigrant views has allowed remarks that disparage immigrants to become a convenient cloak for views that would not be tolerated if they were correctly identified as being fueled by racism.

Of course, racism and immigration law are hardly strangers to one another. Our country and countless others have a long history of restricting immigration on the basis of race. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigrants to the United States solely on the basis of race, is one of the most well-documented examples of the formalized exclusion policies that dictated admission at the turn of the twentieth century.

What is new, however, is the fact that the modern-day U.S. explicitly rejects race as a basis on which to talk about immigration, despite the fact that it serves as the bedrock on which so much anti-immigrant sentiment thrives. It may not be acceptable to exclude a racial minority from a restaurant or other public gathering place, but uttering epithets that tell groups of people to “go back to Mexico” or “learn how to speak English” are tolerated to the extent that they ultimately manage to exclude a specific racial group from participating in certain segments of American community. Likewise, when Americans make an exception to our blanket ideology of religious tolerance to objectify and harass Muslim worshippers, we unfairly isolate a specific racial group. In other words, anti-immigrant rhetoric achieves a social and cultural segregation that was previously achieved through overtly racist ideology.

In using anti-immigrant language to disguise a racist agenda, we are travelling down a slippery slope. I read recently that Denmark is offering immigrants from “non-Western” countries 100,000 Danish Kroners (around US $20,000) if they volunteer to give up their legal residency and return to their country of origin. And Denmark is not the only country adopting such a policy. Sweden, Ireland, Japan, Spain, and the Czech Republic all offer some form of remuneration for certain classes of immigrants who are willing to return to their home country. In Japan, this policy is reserved only for immigrants from Latin American countries. And while I feel ill-equipped to comment on the basis on which these countries have arrived at these policies, I feel a very strong sense of dread at what government- approved anti-immigrant policies may lead to.

Imagine if the United States publically declared a preference for “Western” immigrants above immigrants from any other country! Imagine if our government offered legal U.S. residents that were citizens of African, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries a sum of money as incentive to leave. Or that our country instituted a policy of religious tolerance to everyone except Muslims. Would we still recognize ourselves as Americans? Could we adopt such policies and still uphold the Constitution?

This past weekend our country celebrated an honored cultural tradition of giving thanks. And I am thankful that we live in a country that rejects principles of racism and white-supremacist ideology. But we will never completely abandon our history of state-endorsed racism until we have entirely rejected the habit of using anti-immigrant rhetoric as an excuse to discriminate against racial groups.