When it comes to immigration issues, it’s useful to keep in mind that the United States of America was born as a white supremacist state. Although the ideology of white supremacy was not officially stipulated, it was an implicit assumption, made explicit by the pitiless genocide of the indigenous population and the ruthless kidnapping of enslaved Africans. The nation’s first Naturalization Act, of 1790, made it official by restricting American citizenship exclusively to “free white persons.” That legislation codified the disenfranchisement of the growing population of enslaved Africans and allowed the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made illegal aliens of slaves who escaped from so-called “slave states.”
It also allowed this fledgling nation to deport thousands of Chinese immigrants who had been imported to build the transcontinental railway. After the coast-to-coast system was completed, in 1869, Chinese labor was no longer needed. This set a pattern that has since become well worn: The media began the process of dehumanizing the Chinese as opium-smoking purveyors of alien evils; they became the “yellow peril”; and in 1882 Congress easily passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, forbidding further immigration from China.
This pattern, repeated throughout US history, makes clear that laws of citizenship ratified and reinforced white supremacy. Asians were the most consistent targets, but other non-Europeans also felt the sting of xenophobic immigration policies–including those Eastern and Southern Europeans once deemed nonwhite. The House’s Sensenbrenner bill–HR 4437, or the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, named for Republican James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin–is just the latest iteration of this pattern.
These occasional flare-ups of anti-immigrant discourse historically leave African-Americans ambivalent. Earlier spurts of (primarily European) immigration dampened their job prospects, and many black leaders openly expressed their opposition to unchecked immigration. The link between European immigration and black unemployment was crystallized when World War I shut off the flow of immigrant labor. In one of this nation’s largest internal migrations, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans left the rural South for the industrial North to fill those jobs.
But African-Americans also felt empathy for those darker-skinned immigrants, who were victims of colonial domination in their home countries and fellow targets of discrimination in the United States. That ambivalence is apparent in this latest immigration ruckus, which is focused primarily on Latinos. Most African-Americans in leadership positions express support for the goals of immigration activists, and several national polls show that black citizens back liberal immigration measures more readily than other groups.
There is, however, considerable opposition to such measures within the black community. This antagonism is based largely on issues of employment and on fears that immigration issues and Latino concerns will suspend efforts to redress the legacy of slavery. For example, a Pew Hispanic poll released in March found that 41 percent of African-American respondents in Chicago said they had lost a job to an immigrant compared with 15 percent of white, non-Hispanic residents. Some labor researchers have found that employers would rather hire illegal immigrants, because they will accept lower wages in cash, and have little power to redress abuses.