History Untaught: How illegal immigration came to be

Hannah Figueroa-Velazquez, Co-Editor-in-Chief

“Illegal alien”- a term that ignites an emotional response in most, but more importantly, one that didn’t use to exist. As we work to repair the immigration system that separates families and perpetuates racist stereotypes, it’s vital we consider the “birth” of illegal immigration. In other words, by facing our past we can better understand how to fight for a brighter future. 

 Up until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, there were no federal laws banning people from coming into the United States. Rather, there was an influx of both African-American slaves being forcibly brought in as well as European settlers coming to enforce their own ideals. 

However, there was a shift in policy following the Opium Wars between Great Britain and China that left China with a weak economy. In need of work and hoping to escape the natural disasters that were hitting China, over 20,000 Chinese immigrants fled to San Francisco to join the California Gold Rush frenzy. They only made up .002 percent of the United States population, but due to illogical racial targeting, Chinese immigrants were largely blamed for an economic downturn. Great conflict between white workers and Asian-American immigrants ensued, prompting unjust laws that were intended to ease the worries of those who resented Chinese immigration.

 In 1917, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act was implemented, which worked to ban most people who were coming in from Asia. Later, the attempt to soothe European-American concerns was furthered with the 1924 Immigration Act that banned all people who could not become naturalized citizens. For the most part, the title of “illegal” began with Asian Americans, but even then the breaking of such laws wasn’t met with criminal prosecution, but deportation. It wasn’t until a new racial group was targeted – Mexican immigrants – that illegal immigration began to be seen as a federal crime. 

For the longest time, Mexican immigrants weren’t greatly attacked, as their cheap labor was necessary for the American economy and Southern farmers needed a replacement for what once were Asian American workers. There was a conflict between nativists, who condemned the entrance of non-white people into the United States, and the agricultural needs that depended on immigrant labor.

 In 1929, senator and white supremacist Coleman Blease proposed a solution to this dilemma. Instead of capping the number of South and Central American workers who could come in and therefore limiting the workforce, he proposed to criminally charge those who entered without passing an entry point that charged a large fee and required tests. The law was unethical not only in its racist nature, but it was also unreasonable, as most Mexican immigrants moving to the U.S. in search of employment lacked the literacy or money to qualify. Additionally, Mexican workers were humiliated upon arrival, as they were deloused and often subjected to kerosene baths with the assumption that all Mexicans were dirty, disease-carrying foreigners. Senator Blease managed to pass the law officially criminalizing illegal immigration under Section 1325 of Title 8. In only the first 10 years, approximately 44,000 immigrants were prosecuted. 

Today, we continue to see the heartbreaking effects of this law that created what we know to be “illegal immigration.” Stories of children ripped away from their parents at the Mexican border and the perpetuation of Asian exclusion course through our history and maintain relevance even now. Cries for reform to the immigration system are loud, but we as a country must understand the formation of what we’re experiencing. What does it mean to be illegal? Up until recently, nothing at all. Our competitive Visa process only highlights the illogicality behind criminalizing immigration while at the same time making it nearly impossible for workers to pass legally. 

The mass deportation of immigrants under Obama, Trump and now Biden are great indicators that we need to hold our world leaders accountable, political parties aside. Human rights shouldn’t be treated as a red-versus-blue issue, but rather something we all hope to protect. It’s time we begin to critique the language surrounding immigration that demonizes those searching for opportunity. We must remember that what unjust laws label as “illegal aliens” are, in fact, people.