LOWELL GRISHAM: Expressions of racism

Nation’s immigration laws can reflect ugly attitudes

Posted: January 30, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Claudia is a 19-year-old Dean's List student at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith. She's lived in Northwest Arkansas since before she was 2. She ran track for her high school -- 400 meters specialty -- and she graduated with honors. She qualifies for a college scholarship, but she is paying out-of-state tuition, approximately doubling her costs. To help pay for her education she works at Target and serves as a certified nursing assistant. Her drive and energy come through in her conversations. Claudia says she learned about hard work from her parents.

Claudia is one of the young people caught in our debate. She is a Dreamer -- a DACA resident, referring to the now canceled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program. When she was an infant, Claudia lived on a small ranch in Mexico with her parents and an older brother and sister. They were impoverished, struggling to eat day to day. Her father saw no future for his children: No possibility for education, no path out of deep poverty. The "waiting line" for legal immigration was about 17 years with no guarantee for acceptance. He brought the family to Northwest Arkansas.

"My parents work night and day, weekends, too," Claudia says. "They showed me what hard work and dedication is. You have to work for what you want. Things can be taken away from you."

Her parents can be taken away from her. They are undocumented.

Claudia is active at Christ the King Catholic Church, especially the Friday 7-9 p.m. Bible teaching. Claudia volunteers at the Reynolds Crisis Center five days a week. She serves on the hot line. Sometimes she sits as a supporter for women who have suffered sexual or physical abuse. "They are American citizens. They don't even know I'm undocumented. But I'm just there to help."

Thanks to DACA, she has a driver's license and can work legally. Three-fourths of Americans think DACA residents like Claudia ought to have legal status and a path toward citizenship. But politicians are using Claudia and the Dreamers like pawns in a power struggle.

Whenever we start talking about immigration, my radar goes up. America has a pretty ugly immigration history. Immigration law has often been an expression for our nation's racism, bigotry and false pride.

My ancestors got here just like Claudia's family. They just traveled here. Like most future Americans, my ancestors were seeking economic freedom and escape from hardship. From 1607 to 1882, immigrants just came to America, most to follow a dream. Some came as families. Some came as individuals, making a new foundation for later family arrivals. Others came as enslaved property.

Immigration law got its start in a thoroughly racist way -- the 1875 Asian Exclusion Act and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. So Chinese dreamers entered the U.S. illegally through the largely open U.S.-Canadian border.

The Immigration Act of 1917 included a very long list of "undesirables" including contract laborers, illiterates, paupers, and persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority, like homosexuals.

The National Origins Formula of 1924 restricted immigration and set quotas favoring some Europeans, but strictly limiting Italians and other Southern Europeans as well as Russians. That act inhibited many Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

In 1965 the Hart-Celler Act replaced geographical quotas with categories based on family relationships and job skills. Legal immigration without family connections became virtually impossible for common laborers.

But the law of supply and demand is powerful. Poverty, violence and hardship in Latin America created a supply of labor. U.S. agriculture, manufacturing, construction and service industries created a demand for labor. The synergy incentivized significant unauthorized immigration. The U.S. has successfully absorbed around 11 million undocumented immigrants. That number peaked around 2007. More than two-thirds have been here over a decade.

Immigrants have been good neighbors. Research evidence is clear: Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or to be incarcerated than native born people. They are twice as likely to start a business. All pay taxes -- sales and property taxes. Most file using an Individual Tax Identification Number. Many pay payroll taxes without qualifying for future benefits. Immigrants, legal and undocumented, pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

Immigrants are our neighbors. We can love our neighbors as ourselves.

Immigration law has long been an outlet for racism and prejudice. Many of the current proposals for immigration reform continue that ugly tradition. Several proposals imperil family well-being. Can't we find a compassionate way to share the American dream?

Immigrants do not threaten us; they enrich us. Let's give Claudia and her family a chance to prove that.

Commentary on 01/30/2018