It really hit me in the 1980s while
living in Boston. At that time the southern Irish economy was
a complete mess. People were the greatest export from Ireland,
and a lot of them were coming to the USA. At the same time, immigration
from Haiti and the Dominican Republic was increasing, and into
Boston these three groups came.
Documented or undocumented all three groups found
themselves looking for work and housing. As a struggle for the
rights of immigrants and against discrimination emerged, Haitians
and Dominicans began to coalesce, but the Irish were a bit stand-offish.
Immigrant rights activists were at first perplexed until they
uncovered that the Irish were being encouraged by Irish American
politicians to keep themselves separate from other immigrant groups
because it was likely that a ‘special’ deal could be cut for them.
To put it another way, the Irish were being trained
to become and accept becoming white.
The public face of immigration in the USA is not
a rainbow; it is brown. Don’t get me wrong. People from Asia,
Africa, Europe AND Latin America are migrating to the USA, among
other places. Yet in the popular media the portrayal of the immigrant
is usually that of a Latino. Periodically one sees the face of
an Asian or African. Rarely, unless one is discussing the Russian
mafia, does the European face of immigration come to be unveiled.
This deserves exploring. If one goes to New York
City, for instance, one will find that East European immigrants
have made significant in-roads in the construction industry as
both documented and undocumented workers. In fact, much of the
work that has been carried out to rid buildings of deadly asbestos
has been carried out by East European and Latino immigrants.
Yet, East European immigrants seem to be almost invisible.
When anti-immigrant forces mobilize, they focus
on creating a ‘Berlin Wall’ between the USA and Mexico. I have
not heard about any walls keeping East Europeans out. I have
not heard about stopping the East Europeans at the borders, when
they exit planes or ships, or perhaps cross over from Canada.
In order to make sense of this we have to recognize
that this racialization of immigration is not new and has
very little to do with the numbers. In the 19th century while
Asian immigrants were being persecuted, particularly on the West
Coast of the USA, immigrants from Europe were coming to North
American shores en masse. While it is certainly the case
that there was widespread discrimination and prejudice by non-immigrants
against southern and Eastern European immigrants, it never compared
with the terror faced by Asians.
The problem for much of the USA with immigration
is not so much immigration, but that there is so much immigration
from South of the border, and specifically from Brown countries.
This immigration upsets the racial balance—that is, the domination
of a ‘white bloc’—that the ruling elites have attempted to hold
in place since the founding of the USA (when it was declared that
whites could become citizens, whoever the whites happened
to be). Although there is a section of the Republican Party that
would like to turn a segment of Latinos (and Asians) into honorary
whites, this does not go down well with the more extreme Right-wing
that would rather that the USA be a more ‘pure’ white republic.
What is odd is that many African Americans ignore
the reality of this racialization. While it is the case
that among lower waged workers there is job competition with Latino
workers, it is also the case that there is job competition with
many other unskilled immigrants. Yet, anti-immigrant forces EVEN
within Black America will tend to focus on the Latino or Brown
Recognizing the racialization of immigration should
help one understand that much of what we are witnessing is a scapegoating
of Latinos for much larger forces and factors that are underway
in US society. In previous commentaries I have written about
this, most especially the restructuring of capitalism that has
been underway and that immigrants are the victims rather than
the source. I have also addressed immigration to the USA as a
major result of US foreign policy that has destroyed the
political and economic infrastructure of so many countries, e.g.,
El Salvador. The scapegoating that we are seeing, including the
rise of violent militias and public demonstrations against immigrant
day laborers, tends to focus on the Latino as if it is the Latino
who is the source of all of our problems.
Were there to be a serious discussion of immigration
in the USA, it would have to address why there is a differential
in treatment between East European and Latino immigrants in the
public mind and in reality. There would need to be a discussion
as to who is and who is not threatening the jobs of non-immigrants—if
anyone. There would need to be a discussion as to why nearly
200,000,000 people have been in the process of migrating to places
outside of their homelands and what that says about contemporary
Yet those who scapegoat the Latino want no such
discussion. As long as the face of immigration—documented and
undocumented—is an ‘evil’ Latino we are absorbed in a madness
out of which there is no escape and for which there are no answers.
Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a labor and international
writer and activist, and the immediate past president of TransAfrica
here to contact Mr. Fletcher.