America’s fickle welcome mat


The Obama administration has set a record for deportations of illegal immigrants, much to the dismay of immigration reform advocates who had hoped the president would reverse the enforcement policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

In fiscal year 2009, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 387,790 people, a 5% increase in “removals” (in the parlance of immigration officials) over the previous year.

President Obama may have made immigrant-friendly promises during the campaign, but viewed in the context of history, the deportations were practically inevitable. Anti-immigrant sentiment and immigration crackdowns have always paralleled America’s economic fortunes. Immigrants have been welcomed during good times, only to find themselves vilified when times get tough.


In the latter part of the 19th century, nearly 250,000 migrants from China -- many recruited by U.S. companies -- crossed the Pacific Ocean to work in America’s fields and mines and on the railroads. About 15,000 Chinese miners joined the California Gold Rush.

But after the boom went bust and an economic depression took hold, virulent anti-Chinese hatred -- motivated by a combination of racism and the fear that Chinese workers were depressing wages -- started in the West and rippled through national politics. Mobs attacked Chinese businesses and homes in San Francisco. The California Workingmen’s Party adopted the slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” and rallies decrying the “Chinese curse” were held around California.

In an effort to bring a halt to most legal immigration from China, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was the first time that federal law had been used to control and limit migration to the United States by a particular nationality.

During World War I, agribusiness, worried about a labor shortage, prevailed on Herbert Hoover, then head of the U.S. Food Administration, to pressure Washington to open the migration valve and allow in more Mexican farmworkers.

But with the onset of the Depression at the end of the 1920s, Americans showed little tolerance for the migrants it had so recently courted. Hoover, now president, initiated a mass deportation program that continued into the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Immigration agents were ruthless in their raids, chasing down Latinos, ignoring due process and failing to distinguish between legal and nonlegal residents of the United States. Authorities deported as many as 1 million people.

The prosperous 1940s and 1950s gave birth to the Bracero Agreement, a “temporary” worker program to address World War II labor needs that ended up lasting 22 years.


But then an economic downturn at the end of the Korean War brought yet another crackdown. In 1954, President Eisenhower’s immigration chief, retired Gen. Joseph “Jumpin’ Joe” Swing, launched Operation Wetback. Government personnel rounded up migrants in border communities and deported them by bus, truck, train and ship, transporting them to the Mexican interior. By the time the deportations ended a few months after they began, the Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed to have forcibly removed 1.1 million Mexicans.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, migration from Mexico accelerated, pushed by economic conditions south of the border and fueled by relatively higher wages in the United States.

In 1981, as U.S. unemployment climbed, Atty. Gen. William French Smith sounded the alarm: “We have lost control of our borders.” As the country headed into a 16-month-long recession, the Reagan administration unveiled an immigration reform plan to combine increased enforcement with legalization. It took five years for President Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act to become law. During that time, the INS budget (measured in constant dollars) jumped by 28%.

The Reagan reforms did little if anything to stop illegal immigration, which ticked sharply upward in the early 1990s as a rise in the U.S. service economy created a need for low-skilled workers. The combination of continued migration and economic uncertainty made for a volatile political brew. In 1994, anti-immigration activists campaigned for a California ballot initiative designed to eliminate public social services for illegal migrants. Politicians seized on an emotional issue.

“They keep on coming!” an announcer ominously intoned over black-and-white video of Mexicans rushing across the border near San Diego, a campaign commercial for Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson, then running for reelection.

Stepped-up immigration enforcement was hardly a partisan issue. With initiatives such as Operation Blockade in El Paso, followed by Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, President Clinton continued the militarization of the border, a pattern that continued under President Bush. In eight years, Bush more than doubled the staff of the Border Patrol, raising the total from about 9,000 to 20,000 agents, even as he unsuccessfully pushed for comprehensive immigration reform.


In the face of declining congressional prospects for his own reform package, Obama is using executive powers to follow through on his other immigration-related pledge to step up enforcement. In doing so, he is following a long bipartisan tradition: Namely, as goes the economy, so goes immigration policy.

Jeffrey Kaye is a journalist and the author of “Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration,” to be published in April.