By Katie Rice, Medill, Immigrant Connect
This past January, when discussing proposed protections for people entering the United States from El Salvador, Haiti and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, President Trump reportedly asked lawmakers, “Why are we having all these people from s–thole countries come here?”
During his campaign and in the first two years of his administration, the President has been outspoken in his desire for the United States to have stricter policies on immigration and refugees, particularly toward those immigrating from Latin, Central and South America and predominantly Muslim countries.
Two early Executive Orders – 13769 and 13780 (commonly called Trump’s “travel ban” or “Muslim ban”) – and his rescission of the DACA program — have tested the limits of his presidential power in the eyes of the law and the public alike.
In the United States, national immigration policies and rhetoric that deem immigrants from certain nationalities, ethnicities or races as dangerous or in other ways unwelcome is nothing new. Historically, perspectives towards certain immigrant populations have shifted in light of the economic, social and political contexts of the respective time periods.
As a shorthand way to sort these groups, I’m defining two categories, “welcome” and “unwelcome” immigrant populations to denote groups that in United States history have been respectively encouraged or excluded from immigrating into the country as a result of U.S. immigration policies.
Who are the current “model minorities?”
In discussions of “welcome” immigrant groups, the term “model minorities” is often used against which other minorities are compared. Since the 1960s, the dominant “model minority” group in the United States — and a broad group at that — has been Asian immigrants.
Asian Americans are stereotyped as being hardworking, intelligent, obedient and submissive, among other things, said Stacey Lee, a professor in the department of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lee’s research focuses on the role of schooling in the incorporation of immigrant youth into the United States, and Lee is the author of “Unraveling the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth.”
These stereotypes create the image that Asian Americans and Asian immigrants are industrious contributors to the economy of the United States and successful as immigrants and minorities, Lee said.
During the same meeting at which Trump inquired about “people from s–thole countries,” a White House official said Trump “suggested he would be open to more immigrants from Asian countries because he felt that they help the United States economically.”
Since 2010, there have been more Asian immigrants arriving in the United States than Hispanic immigrants, reports the Pew Research Center. In 2016, Asian immigrants made up 37.1 percent of immigrants arriving in the United States. Hispanic immigrants accounted for 31 percent.
Asian Americans were not always considered model minorities, Lee said, and having this historic context is vital.
“Prior to being considered model minorities, Asian Americans were characterized in many of the same overtly negative and racist discourses that are used for many immigrants — say, Latinx [and Muslim] communities — today,” she said. “If you look historically at Asian American experiences in the 19th century and early 20th century, Asian Americans were the target of extreme discriminatory immigration policies.”
At times in American history, Asian immigrants were considered dangerous and threatening, she added. “Yellow Peril” (also referred to as “Yellow Spectre”), which according to historian Tim Yang emerged in the 1870s, and the fear that Asian immigrants were stealing jobs from white laborers led to the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Lee observed that recent research has suggested that African immigrant populations are starting to be included in discussions of “model minorities.”
Unwelcome immigrants: Latinx populations
Mario Garcia, a professor Chicano studies and history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said prejudice against Mexican immigrants in the United States dates to the early 20th century. Garcia has written several publications on Chicano history, focusing on issues like immigration and the second-generation immigrant experience.
Often, people erroneously use “Mexican” as shorthand to refer to immigrants from Latin, Central, and South America, applying stereotypes for Mexican populations to a diverse group, Garcia said.
In the 1920s, educators, politicians and journalists in the American Southwest started dialogue about the “Mexican problem,” or the increase in undocumented immigration of Mexican populations to the United States for economic reasons. Around the same time, the characterization of Mexican immigrants “stealing jobs” began to spread, and the stereotypes of the “dirty” and “lazy” Mexican followed.
“These racist images and stereotypes all surface in those first three decades of the 20th century,” Garcia said. “They set a pattern that will continue to characterize Mexicans.”
The Bracero Program, a contract labor program between the United States and Mexico, began in 1942 and brought Mexican workers into the U.S. until its termination in 1964. As many as five million Mexican laborers came into the U.S. through the program, Garcia said. It authorized laborers to reside and work in the United States. Many workers who couldn’t get into the program came into the U.S. undocumented, causing a significant hike in undocumented immigration. The sudden influx of immigrants helped fuel anti-Mexican sentiments.
Though they were stereotyped as stealing jobs from other groups, Mexican immigrants and Mexican American populations were hired into “Mexican jobs,” low-skill jobs in areas like construction and agriculture that paid low wages (called “Mexican wages”), Garcia said.
“One way of justifying [paying Mexican immigrants low wages] is to suggest Mexicans are members of an inferior race, and so [those stereotypes suggest] they really don’t have the ability to do more skilled labor, much less professional work,” he said.
Descendants of Mexican immigrants had to attend segregated schools (“Mexican schools”) which focused on educating students on how to work with their hands, reinforcing a system that channeled Mexican Americans into low-skill jobs for generations, Garcia said.
The stereotyping of Mexican immigrants and Mexican American populations continues, in one form or another, into the present day.
“A lot of this is simply based on a lack of knowledge, in the sense [of] how much Mexican Americans and other Latinos and Mexican immigrants have given to the history of this country, how American they are,” Garcia said.
Unwelcome immigrants: Arab and Muslim populations
Arab American populations, particularly Palestinians, have been perceived as terrorists in the U.S. since at least the 1970s, said Randa Serhan, assistant professor in the department of sociology at American University and former director of AU’s Arab World Studies program.
Serhan has written extensively about immigrant identity and second-generation integration among Palestinian Americans in the United States.
During the 1970s, the oil crisis and the Dawson’s Field plane hijackings by Palestinian radicals shaped the stereotypes of Arab immigrants as buffoons and terrorists, Serhan said. These stereotypes have shifted over time in accord with international politics.
This perception of Arab Americans as terrorists has led to them being surveilled by the government in ways other ethnic groups or populations haven’t experienced, Serhan said.
Though many people erroneously think the terms “Arab” and “Muslim” are interchangeable now, Arab and Muslim populations weren’t conflated until after 9/11, Serhan said. Now, all Arabs are considered Muslim — a generalization that erases Arab Christians and that mistakes all Muslims as Arab, though of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, only about 15 percent are Arab, according to the Pew Research Center.
“[Before,] most of the Muslims were Southeast Asian, and Asians were the model minority,” she said. “You think of them as the IT folks, you think of them as your doctors, so until 9/11 they were actually held in fairly high esteem by the general public.”
The Pew Research Center estimates that there are 3.45 million Muslims in the U.S. and that the group makes up around 1.1 percent of the total U.S. population.
Post-9/11, Muslims were considered to be terrorists. By extension, Arab Americans began to be considered “the enemy within,” and were suspected of fostering “homegrown terrorism” of the type that the Trump administration worries about, Serhan said.
“Prior to 9/11, when they saw a woman in a veil, people would say ‘Oh, you’re pious like us,” she said. “‘You’re God-fearing [and] God-loving, so you’re good people too. After 9/11, the headscarf becomes, ‘Oh, you’re the mother of a terrorist’ or ‘You’re a terrorist yourself.’”
Recent polls show the general public still has a very negative view of Muslim Americans, Serhan said, despite the “Muslim American community” being a political construct that didn’t exist prior to 9/11.
Portraying Muslims as terrorists is a trope that the government uses to create a scapegoat, Serhan said, and the policies against Muslim and Arab Americans that the U.S. government has tried to push haven’t been very successful. The Bush-era surveillance of Muslims and Arabs was done away with because the Department of Homeland Security deemed them unsuccessful, but Trump is calling for the reinstatement of the same ineffective policies, she said.
“Nothing he’s suggesting is new,” Serhan said.
“You could get away with this stuff after 9/11 because there was a terrorist attack, but there hasn’t been one and [Trump]’s acting like something happened to ignite it again,” she said.
A 2017 Pew study on race, immigration and discrimination found that 65 percent of Americans said immigrants strengthen the country through their “hard work and talents” while 26 percent considered immigrants a burden “because they take jobs, housing and health care.” These American attitudes toward immigrants represent a dramatic shift from as recently as 1994, seven years before Sept. 11. Pew data from that year shows 63 percent of Americans said immigrants burdened the country.
After the 2016 election that resulted in Donald Trump becoming President, signs welcoming immigrants in various languages popped up in residential yards and storefronts. If their popularity, paired with that of recent potoll results, is any indication of immigrant “welcomeness,” most people of Trump’s America don’t ascribe to it and continue to vilify immigrant populations.
Trump’s vitriol against immigrants is nothing new in American history, but public attitudes may be are shifting beneath his feet.