Politics & Profiling: The Personal Effects of Immigration Policy
“If you don’t know what your history is, if you are denied that history, a portion of you is missing.”
Ted Gong, a retired Foreign Service officer, pointed to the other panelists onstage.
“You’re allowing somebody else to tell you what is important in the history that made you and you and you.” He shifted his gaze to the audience. “That is a civil rights issue. I should know my history. I should be allowed to hear my history.”
During the On the Move session called “Conversations on Immigration: Where Policy Meets the Personal,” each participant highlighted the different ways in which immigrant communities occupy cultural spaces, particularly regarding issues of poverty, racial profiling, and historical erasure.
Kumera Genet, a second-generation Texan whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia in the 1970s, discussed the complications of obtaining refugee status in the United States, where all applicants must belong to a “persecuted group,” as defined by the United Nations. Once these candidates are legally recognized as refugees, they require a U.S. sponsor who will pledge financial responsibility for them and their relatives. Members of the extended family often act as sponsors.
In this way, a stark difference exists between refugees and undocumented immigrants: refugees obtain an official legal status from the United States. They also might receive social and economic benefits, including English language classes, job training, and rent subsidies.
However, as the panelists stressed, the first refugees fleeing their countries tend to belong to the upper echelons of the social strata. The privileges of wealth grant them the financial resources to acquire legal help when seeking asylum.
A comprehensive infrastructure for social change includes acknowledging overlapping trends of oppression, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. Rather than mute difference in an effort to introduce one “immigrant experience,” it is crucial to recognize how various life stories contribute to understandings of social, political, and economic inequality.
An assistant professor of American studies and Latina/o studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, Perla Guerrero touched on the volatile nature of immigration policy in the United States. The capricious roots of bias against immigrants swing across a spectrum—moving from the “model minority” to the “illegal alien.”
“We need to think about the way in which ideas about race or immigration or immigrants change over time, how we displace our anxieties about race and difference, or the economy, onto different groups of people at particular times,” she said.
Brenda Pérez Amador, a board member of Many Languages One Voice, shared the ways in which Mexico and the United States maintain a politically fractious yet symbiotic relationship.
“A lot of the stuff that happens here in the U.S. directly impacts Mexico.”
When the United States experiences immigration “problems” and reprimands Mexico, the latter often compensates by strengthening its own border patrol on the boundary of Guatemala. Amador’s grandmother, who resides in Mexico City, has described the daunting situation the Salvadoran community in her neighborhood faces: in response to a heightened backlash against immigration, Mexico has begun deporting many of its own immigrants. Like undocumented workers in the United States, these marginalized groups work “under the table” to make money.
“A lot of them have issues trying to learn Spanish because a lot of the Central Americans that came in through Mexico are from indigenous cultures, so Spanish may not necessarily be their first language,” Amador explained. She also addressed prejudice against immigrants and widespread racism. “Immigration and government corruption is very similar in Mexico and the United States. It’s kind of like the same girl with a different dress.”
At the age of nine, Amador was brought from Mexico City to the United States by her parents. She is registered in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children. While the system supplies immigrant youth with a work permit and social security number, it does not offer lawful status in the country. Moreover, the program is provisional. Candidates must reapply for DACA status every two years, frequently incurring significant financial costs. They also risk the possibility of having their applications rejected and publicly exposing their status to government officials.
“Those programs don’t benefit the large population of undocumented folk, and it doesn’t fix the refugee problems that we have,” Amador said.
Under President Trump’s administration, the survival of DACA appears uncertain. [Editor’s note: the DACA program was rescinded on September 5, 2017.] In 2017, Trump stated that DACA candidates “shouldn’t be very worried.” Yet, Juan Manuel Montes, a twenty-three-year-old immigrant protected under DACA, was deported to Mexico in April. According to The Atlantic, the Department of Homeland Security released a number of contradictory memos surrounding his deportation. United We Dream, a nonpartisan organization led by immigrant youth, reported that ten DACA recipients are in federal custody. Due to the discretionary nature of the program—and its lack of legal permanence—the administration maintains the ability to dismantle DACA completely.
Structural racism permeates migrant spaces as well, creating a disparate cultural zone that leaves black communities particularly vulnerable to extradition. As reported by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, black immigrants are detained and deported five times more often, proportionately, than other undocumented groups.
“In any part of the immigration discussion, there are black issues,” Genet stated. “The travel ban affects Sudan and Somalia also—those are black countries. And so, that visibility isn’t always acknowledged when folks are talking about immigration.”
According to a report released by the Pew Research Center in 2015, 3.8 million black immigrants reside in the United States, largely hailing from the Caribbean, Africa, Central America, and South America.
Throughout the panel, Genet examined the racialized form of policing that targets specific minority communities. He grew up in a “black and brown community,” where, he said, “the criminal justice system is often a mechanism for putting predominantly young men into immigration detention for very minor offenses.”
The UndocuBlack Network, launched in 2016, seeks to broaden the conversation surrounding immigration and establish a distinct forum for black voices. Organized and led by African, Afro-Latinx, and Caribbean undocumented individuals, the network aims to consolidate resources for the black undocumented community.
Genet also emphasized the importance of listening to a variety of immigrant voices.
“Be inclusive. Have people like me in discussions like this.”
He urged the audience to remain aware of how foreign policy will impact immigration programs in the future.
Similarly, Gong underscored the responsibility of American civilians to understand the long-lasting ramifications of obstructive immigration policy in order to perceive when it manifests, again, in the present.
Gong heads the 1882 Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that educates the broader public about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As a federal law, the act prohibited Chinese immigrants from entering the United States or acquiring American citizenship—solely based on their race. Although originally conceived as a temporary provision, the law garnered re-approval in 1892 and was later made permanent in 1902. It was not repealed until 1943.
By fighting for Congress to officially apologize for its discriminatory immigration reforms, Gong hopes to establish a legal precedent that would shield immigrants from facing similar racial and ethnic prohibitions in the future.
“By passing these type of laws, you force Congress, who represents all Americans and has to respond to the constituency to say, ‘I reaffirm our founding principles, the Fourteenth Amendment.’ That reaffirmation is for all Americans, not just for the victims of that period.”
Michelle Mehrtens is a documentary production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied English and history. Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program.