By Madeline Y. Hsu
Oxford University Press Blog, November 25th 2016 —
2016 has been a year of bitter political debates fueled in large part by drastic divides regarding how immigrants affect national well-being. The US presidential race, the British Brexit vote, as well as other challenges within the European Union, and growing competition against the otherwise durable German Chancellor Angela Merkel all display deeply rooted fears of inadequately controlled immigration. New immigrants are blamed for the steady erosion of economic conditions for the working-classes; disintegrating cultural and social norms; and rising crime rates and threats of terrorist attacks. Politicians who call for the securing of national borders and eviction of targeted groups of newer immigrants have attracted vocal and vehement supporters.
The appeal of such slogans is obvious, if one considers that regulating immigration is one of the most direct ways by which countries can socially engineer their populations to gain advantages of all sorts.
These days, immigration laws generally welcome immigrants who are believed most likely to contribute economically because they bear useful skills, educational credentials, entrepreneurial energies, and investment capital.
Ideally, immigrants would also share political values and be readily absorbed socially and culturally, although laws that select for such attributes may invoke unacceptable forms of discrimination, as in Republican president elect Donald Trump’s call to ban immigration of Muslims.
Almost no one believes that borders should be completely open, although there is wide disagreement about what rationales should take priority in limiting who can immigrate legally and who can gain citizenship. Should we really prioritize economic migrants? What of people fleeing instability and danger in their homelands—do they have rights to safe passage and new homes as refugees? How do immigrants affect the common good in terms of costs to social services weighed against their economic contributions? How is assimilability measured, and how much and what kinds of diversity can be accommodated into democratic societies?
Disagreements about what priorities immigration restrictions should advance are compounded by the reality that immigration laws have proven almost impossible to enforce completely, fanning fears that unauthorized immigrants are ignoring and undermining national interests.
In this fraught climate, the human realities of those who migrate often disappear from view. Whether they cross borders for economic or political reasons, migrants display high levels of aspiration in the risks and sacrifices they undertake in search of better lives. They leave behind loved ones and familiar homes for uncertain futures, often paying large sums of moneys to brokers who manage their travel, drawn by hopes that their living conditions will improve whether through better job or business opportunities, greater safety, freedom from persecution, environment, or reunification with family and friends.
They are usually driven more than most to succeed precisely because they have given up so much in migrating and are prepared to work hard and undertake employment shunned by others in order to do so.
Whether they cross borders for economic or political reasons, migrants display high levels of aspiration in the risks and sacrifices they undertake in search of better lives.
As a scholar of migration, I write histories of migration that try to strike a balance between the lived realities of migrants, both legal and unauthorized, and the legal and bureaucratic conditions imposed by the nations in which they travel. I have found that immigration laws become more effective when they work with, rather than against, the ambitions of migrants seeking better lives. Channeling their considerable energies and dreams can produce mutual benefit both for their countries of new settlement and for themselves, rather than pitting the two forces in costly and dehumanizing opposition.
Asian Americans became model minorities even though they had been the earliest targets of enforced immigration restriction in the United States, and banned from citizenship for most of US history (1790-1952) because they were viewed as racially inassimilable. Nonetheless, Asians continued to immigrate and made lives for themselves in the process of helping to develop the United States through railroads, farms, fisheries, a plethora of businesses large and small, trade, education, and many forms of civil service. During World War II, laws and attitudes began to shift so that such racial discrimination became unacceptable. With the normalizing of Asian immigration and access to citizenship, numbers grew, as did the high visibility of “model minority” Asian Americans. Most have immigrated through employment preferences in the 1965 Immigration Act, now just past its 50th anniversary, which selects for Asian immigrants trained and educated for professional, entrepreneurial, and white-collar livelihoods and success. That Asian Americans in the aggregate have such high levels of employment and educational attainment demonstrates the power of laws and bureaucracies to screen for “highly skilled” immigrants who succeed economically, but also to brand as illegal and invasive those who share many of the same aspirational traits and capacities to gain employment, but don’t fit into legislatively imposed categories of welcome immigrants.
Madeline Y. Hsu has served as director of the Center for Asian American Studies and is currently an Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her first monograph, Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration Between the United States and South China, 1882-1943 received the 2002 Association for Asian American Studies History Book Award. She is the author of Asian American History: A Very Short Introduction.