The Issue with Immigration is Race

Immigration is shaping up to be a definitive issue in the next presidential election. In particular among core Republican voters, immigration ranks at or near the top of their list of concerns. While those same voters express their concerns in a multitude of ways (border safety, job competition, adherence to laws), they share the view that immigration is a problem the government needs to “get a handle on.”

But what frames this concern? While the issue has occupied a center stage in the public political discourse for at least two years, and the media’s coverage presents American voters with no shortage of images of “illegals,” at the local level, the foundation of people’s concerns becomes less certain. A recent article spotlighting the immigration “frenzy” among Republicans in South Carolina helps shed some light on the gulf between the voters’ beliefs and their experience. While the core Republican voters in this southern state see immigration as the most important issue in the upcoming election, “all immigrants, legal and illegal, make up just 3 percent of the population” in the state as a whole.

The trend we are witnessing here is one of racial beliefs and assumptions shaping stances on policy. Most of South Carolina’s Republican voters are not competing with any immigrants (illegal or legal) for jobs; most have probably never even met one. But they are seeing an increasing number of Latinos moving into the South. While many of these are immigrants (those 3% of the state’s population), a growing number are also second and third generation Latinos from other parts of the U.S. As the South becomes slowly yet increasingly “Latinized,” the local residents who witness this small and seemingly new phenomenon taking place in their neighborhoods often connect it with a broader perceived threat, one framed for them by restrictionist segments in the media.

The way they experience the issue, then, is bearing witness to an America that doesn’t look like what they think America should look like. Simply put, their concern is the “browning” of a nation they perceive to be rightly “white.” As one resident of South Carolina expressed it, “We’re becoming a Third World country.”

In the 1880s, the federal government passed the first major piece of legislation regulating immigration. The 1882 Chinese Exclusions Act created, by law, the first possible subject to be legitimately categorized as an “illegal immigrant.” Debates voiced concerns over the presence of Chinese in the nation. Supporters said they were unassimilable, took jobs away from jobless whites, and threatened to change the culture of America. Interestingly, less than one percent (1%) of the U.S. population at the time was Chinese. Americans supported the Chinese exclusion, yet the vast majority of them had never even seen a person from China before. With the act becoming law, most would not for generations to come.

To call this stance by present-day Americans “racist” fails to miss the complexity of the processes we are talking about. We live in a society whose political and social cultures–for two centuries–framed inclusion by the degree to which you were considered “white.” This notion of whiteness evolved over time (to include Eastern and Southern Europeans, for example) but these evolutions did little to dislodge the favored position of whiteness within the “American nation.”

That we continue to struggle with these issues is not surprise. But if we are to forge a better future in this country, issues like these are the ones we are going to have to confront.

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