A visit to the Statue of Liberty could lead one to believe that the United States, a nation founded by immigrants seeking a better life, has through its history rolled out the red carpet for new arrivals. But many of those who passed through the eastern gateway to the land of opportunity in the 19th Century--Italians, Irish, Jews--were considered unwanted interlopers by earlier settlers and faced discrimination when they arrived.
America continued to have an official open-door policy until 1882, when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusionary Act. For the first time, one ethnic group was completely barred from entering the country. Since then, a variety of groups--Japanese, Filipinos and Koreans--have encountered anti-immigrant bias and legislation to limit their numbers.
“The group that comes before always turns their back on the next immigrant group,” says Antonio Gonzalez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration Project in Los Angeles. “That tends to be a recurrent theme in history.”
That theme appears to be repeating itself in California with the introduction of Proposition 187, which seeks to limit health care and education services to undocumented immigrants. In today’s Platform, members of the Latino community argue the pros and cons of the initiative that some have labeled “Save Our State” and that Gonzalez calls “Help Sink Our State.”
“This proposition creates a climate of discrimination, fear and scapegoating of many people in California--not only of immigrants but of people who might look like immigrants,” Gonzalez says.
“This discrimination always coincides with a period of economic problems,” says Gonzalez, whose organization tries to increase the political participation of Latinos throughout the Southwest. That is especially true in Southern California, where even the arrival in the 1930s the “Okies"--immigrants ‘from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri--caused many to fear they would drain the local economy.
“The basic problem was that they were poor and they were considered to be a load on the welfare system,” says David Heer, a sociology professor at USC.
In fact, laws restricting the Okies’ access to welfare were passed, a highly punitive move, since migrant workers depended on supplemental income to survive in the off-season, says Lisa Lawson, a public policy specialist.
“World War II saved them,” says Lawson, a member of Proponents of Responsible Immigration Debate and Education. “All of a sudden, the defense industry moved to California and the Oakies went to work in the factories.”
Still, the pattern of discrimination remains. “When times are harder, people say that immigrants are going to take away jobs from Americans,” says Gary Galles, an economic professor at Pepperdine.
“The problem isn’t immigration,” Galles says, but minimum-wage laws and other policies that keep new arrivals from becoming productive job-holders. “From the time this country was started, says Galles, “immigrants have always been a source of economic growth.”