And a smart conversation starts with history. As discussed below, the notion of "illegal" immigration is a relatively modern term. That is not to say that there were not disfavored ethnic groups in the past. Obviously, there were, but those disfavored ethnic groups were not considered "immigrants" at all, and so there was no need to add the phrase "illegal" to them. Likewise, when many folks say "my great grandparents came here legally," the idea is nonsense. By and large, those ancestors were of a favored (Northern European) ethnic group that were considered "immigrants" and, thus, eligible for citizenship. Other ethnic groups - moving, living and working in the U.S. - were, by definition, not "immigrants" and thus not eligible for eventual citizenship. There was not a concept of legal or illegal; just immigrants (Northern Europeans) and workers (most everyone else).
Understanding this distinction is important because today's debate about immigration and "illegal aliens" is the exact same, long running argument about which ethnic groups can be eligible for U.S. citizenship. And that is precisely the terrain that Trump is playing on.
So, the history part: the Founding Fathers passed the the Naturalization Act of 1790 (subsequently amended) that laid out residency requirements for citizenship but also restricted citizenship to immigrants who were "free white persons." Anyone white was an immigrant; anyone not white was not an immigrant.
After the Civil War, and after passage of the 14th Amendment, citizenship was expanded to include African Americans. And the 14th Amendment's language - "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside" - introduced a radical new concept. Now, unsettlingly, people outside the designated ethnic groups (then Northern European Whites and African-Americans) could not be citizens, but their children born here could . . . Aviva Chomsky in the video above helpfully summarizes the ensuing panic:
We often hear people saying this is a country of immigrants, as if that explains something. But I think when we say this is a country of immigrants, we’re actually—we’re actually hiding as much as we’re explaining.... [W]e need to think about how immigration and citizenship work together. That is, those who the law has considered immigrants and those who were considered to be potential citizens.
Now, citizenship law in the United States restricted citizenship to white people until the Civil War. And after the Civil War, citizenship was restricted to white people and people of African descent. — so, prior to the Civil War, many people who were not white were brought into the country, were physically present in the country, came into the country on their own, were conquered and incorporated into the country, but they could not be citizens. And they were not considered immigrants when they entered the country. The only ones who were were considered immigrants were the Europeans. After the Civil War, not only is citizenship extended to people of African descent, . . . but other people, for example, the Chinese, who are coming into the country, are still not eligible for citizenship. In fact, they’re legally defined as racially ineligible to citizenship.
And what really makes things complicated for immigration law is, when citizenship by birth is created with the 14th Amendment in 1868, also in the aftermath of the Civil War, because it creates this sort of logical impossibility that people who have been declared racially ineligible to citizenship, people who are not considered immigrants even when they come to the country—they’re considered workers, but not immigrants—that they can then obtain access to citizenship by birth. And it’s this logical impossibility of people who are legally defined as racially ineligible to citizenship, and then, because of being physically present, able to obtain immigrant citizenship by birth, that leads Congress to start setting up restrictions on immigration, and restrictions against people who are considered to be racially ineligible to citizenship—that is, the Chinese and eventually all Asians, and Asia is very broadly defined under this law
. You can see where this is headed. Sure enough
After the immigration of 123,000 Chinese in the 1870s, who joined the 105,000 who had immigrated between 1850 and 1870, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which targeted a single ethnic group by specifically limiting further Chinese immigration. Chinese had immigrated to the Western United States as a result of unsettled conditions in China, the availability of jobs working on railroads, and the Gold Rush that was going on at that time in California. The xenophobic "Yellow Peril" expression became popular to justify racism against Asians.
The act excluded Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States for ten years and was the first immigration law passed by Congress. Laborers in the United States and laborers with work visas received a certificate of residency and were allowed to travel in and out of the United States. Amendments made in 1884 tightened the provisions that allowed previous immigrants to leave and return, and clarified that the law applied to ethnic Chinese regardless of their country of origin. The act was renewed in 1892 by the Geary Act for another ten years, and in 1902 with no terminal date. It was repealed in 1943, although large scale Chinese immigration did not occur until 1965
And while this was going on, Mexico in particular was singled out for special treatment. Again, Aviva Chomsky explains:
But as immigration started to be restricted for groups, including Asians and eventually even for Europeans who were considered to be inferior Europeans, like southern and eastern Europeans in the 1920s, Mexican border crossing was never restricted. And Mexican border crossing was never restricted because Mexican labor was so utterly necessary in the Southwest of the United States and because Mexicans were not considered immigrants, so therefore their immigration did not have to be restricted. They were considered to be workers, legally discriminated against for—on what were considered racial grounds—that is, they were racially so-called "Mexican." That was perfectly legal. To deprive them of citizenship was perfectly legal. And the system worked from the perspective of maintaining the United States as a white country, because unlike the Asians, Mexican migration was generally a circular migration. That is, Mexicans came, worked for a season or year or couple of years, and returned to Mexico. So the history of border migrations for 150 years was one of circular migrations that were basically either completely unregulated or, as, for example, during 1942 and 1964, extended through ’67, government-sponsored through the Bracero program, but migrations that denied citizenship and denied rights to the Mexicans who were in the country.
So, the creation of illegality and starting to call this migration illegal happens in 1965, really, when Mexican migration is for the first time considered to be immigration and is legally restricted—that is, a quota is put on Mexican migration, as it is on every country of the world. And in a situation where tens of thousands of Mexicans have been crossing the border legally and recruited and sometimes even coerced every year, all of a sudden this is made illegal. It’s not stopped, but it’s given a different name. Instead of calling it the Bracero program, it’s called illegal migration. It’s still just as necessary to the economy of the Southwest, it’s still encouraged by all different sectors, but the discrimination against these workers is now justified by the introduction of this new terminology and status of illegality. I hope I explained that; it’s a little complicated.
So, Mexicans were not "illegal immigrants," they weren't even "immigrants" to begin with, until it became useful to call them "illegal" immigrants. Btw: the "Bracero program"
referred to above is also sobering alone:
The bracero program (named for the Spanish term bracero, meaning "manual laborer" [lit. "one who works using his arms"]) was a series of laws and diplomatic agreements, initiated by an August 1942 exchange of diplomatic notes between the United States and Mexico, for the importation of temporary contract laborers from Mexico to the United States. At the start of the program, train loads of Mexicans immigrants ready to work were sent over during the heart of WWII for the "emergency wartime agricultural and railroad importations". Shortages of food and other goods throughout the U.S caused chaos throughout the nation, leading to the bracero program as a solution.
American president Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Mexican president Manuel Ávila Camacho in Monterrey, Mexico, to discuss Mexico as part of the Allies in World War II and the bracero program. After the expiration of the initial agreement in 1947, the program was continued in agriculture under a variety of laws and administrative agreements until its formal end in 1964.
But where does all this leave us? Exactly where we started. "Illegal" is just the new code word. Nobody today is any more "illegal" than your own grandfather. The distinction remains race. Trump is raising questions with a disturbingly long history: Who gets to be called an American? Are we really going to allow brown or black people to be citizens, to have a vote, to get social security or health insurance? Can't we just let them be "workers," you know like the Chinese in the 19th century?