California Studies Association

The latest news, events, and perspectives from the CSA


Elaine Elinson reviews two books on immigration, by Bill Ong Hing and Peter Schrag

Blog editor’s note: Elaine Elinson has forwarded the CSA blog the following review of two new books about immigration, a topic obviously relevant to California Studies. The blog is open to submissions of reviews of other relevant books.


Ethical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization And Mexican Migration, by Bill Ong Hing, Temple University Press, 2010

Not Fit for Our Society:  Immigration and Nativism in America, by Peter Schrag, University of California Press, 2010

By Elaine Elinson

Hope is waning for those who counted on the Obama administration to come up with a comprehensive immigration reform package before the end of  its first four years.

To be fair, the President did speak passionately in his 2010 State of the Union address about the failure of the DREAM Act, which he had previously called his “biggest disappointment of the year.” That simple slice of immigration reform would have allowed children who came to this country before they were 16 and who graduated from a U.S. high school, to go to college and gain a chance of citizenship – instead of facing deportation.

But he also vehemently vowed to step up enforcement of the border, already the site of an arsenal of high tech surveillance and weaponry that has not been able to stem the flow of migrants desperate for work.   In the last decade, the Border Patrol has almost doubled from 11,000 to 20,000 agents – making it the largest federal enforcement agency in the country.

Like many presidents before him, President Obama has discovered that there are many contradictions, and no easy solutions to this vexing problem.

Before the Obama administration and Congress put forward concrete proposals for comprehensive immigration reform, they would be well-served by looking at two new books by prominent Californians, law professor Bill Ong Hing’s  Ethical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization And Mexican Migration (Temple University Press) and Not Fit for Our Society:  Immigration and Nativism in America (University of California Press) by veteran journalist Peter Schrag.

Though Hing and Schrag bring very different experiences to the debate, both come to similar conclusions.  Comprehensive immigration reform must encompass viewing the region – North America – as a whole, and addressing the deep economic and political inequities that drive immigration.

Without that holistic view, any new policy is bound to fail.  Increased militarization of the border will not work. Neither, they assert, will piecemeal reform.

Hing brings decades of first-hand experience as an immigration lawyer to the table. Currently a professor of law at the University of San Francisco and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, Hing teaches Immigration Law and Policy.  The founder of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Hing has represented hundreds of immigrants in all levels of the judicial system, including serving as co-counsel in the U.S. Supreme court asylum case INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca (1987).

Schrag served for many years as editorial page editor and columnist at the Sacramento Bee.  A visiting scholar at the Institute for Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, Schrag has followed the immigration debate since the 1980s, and has written about it for the Bee, the Los Angeles Times and numerous other publications.

Though Hing has extensive practice in dealing with the day-to-day legal problems of immigrants, in this book he takes a very expansive view,  focusing on the political economy of the North American region.  He argues that as long as the great economic imbalance between Mexico and the U.S. exists, Mexican immigration will persist.

Hing digs back to the roots of the 1910 Mexican revolution to show how economic relations between Mexico and its powerful northern neighbor have been skewed.  But he targets NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed under the Clinton administration) as exacerbating and institutionalizing Mexico’s dire economic woes. Mexico, he asserts, “gambled its economic future with NAFTA and it lost.”

He cites the egregious example of U.S. subsidized corn being sold in Mexico at prices cheaper than Mexican corn – thus driving Mexican peasants off the land and into the migrant work force. Moreover, NAFTA’s  promise of new jobs in Mexico was not fulfilled, and today the second largest source of foreign income after oil for Mexico, are the remittances that Mexican immigrants send home from the United States — more than $25 billion a year.

Hing contrasts this with the European Economic Community where the establishment of the European Social Fund moderated significant immigration from poor countries to wealthier nations within the EEC.  The fund boosted the standard of living in Spain, Portugal, and Ireland – before they joined the EEC – narrowing the disparities in income between rich and poor members and mitigating the push for massive immigration.

Schrag takes an equally long, but substantively different view.  With the research skills of a social historian and the deft pen of a veteran journalist, he describes the contradictions of U.S. immigration policy as “a sort of double helix, with strands of welcome and rejection wound tightly around one another.”

Schrag highlights the early impact of California on federal law, starting with the first California Constitutional convention in 1849.

He notes that while the conventioneers debated whether free blacks should be allowed to migrate to California, they never even considered denying citizenship to the Californios – Mexicans who lived on the land prior to annexation and statehood.

Schrag also notes that California’s anti-Chinese laws and violent purges led up to the passage of the federal Exclusion Act of 1882, forbidding the entry of almost all Chinese into the country.

But America’s industrial growth required additional labor, and capitalists eagerly sought immigrant workers, sometimes, as during the Bracero Program, directly contracting for them to fill domestic labor shortages. The problem, put succinctly by UC Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin was that we wanted workers but we got people.

Schrag’s most trenchant observations –eerily prescient given the current crop of challenges to the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision of citizenship to all who are born within U.S. borders – are devoted to the debates over who is fit for citizenship, debates historically dominated by eugenicists and racial purists.

He meticulously dissects of the eugenics movement, led by some of the leading intellectuals of their day – like David Starr Jordan, first president of Stanford University, botanist Luther Burbank, and            Alexander Graham Bell, who was named president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics in 1921.  Opening that meeting, Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History, stated, “As science has enlightened government in the prevention of disease, it must also enlighten government in the prevention of the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society.”

Delving deep into historical record, Schrag shows how this dangerous false science laid the groundwork for race- and ethnic-based immigration laws. As early as 1910, the Dillingham Commission, was established by Congress to gather information on which future immigration policy should be based.  After three years, the Commission concluded 63% of southern Italian schoolchildren were “retarded,” as well as nearly 67% of Polish Jews.

Anthropologist Franz Boas, responded full bore to the eugenicists that race is a social construct, not a scientific one, but the racial purists had already ignited the popular imagination and the gained the ear of lawmakers.

One thing both authors agree on is that spending billions on border enforcement has failed.

Since President Clinton launched Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, border crossings have not decreased; they have only become more deadly.  As the high-tech fence (built partly by undocumented workers employed by the Golden State Fence Company) and beefed-up Border Patrol push migrants deeper into hostile regions, deaths have climbed to disastrous levels.  In 1994, 23 migrants died along the border; since 2000, there have been 300-400 a year, as the new routes have literally become death traps. In 2009, 450 bodies were found in the desolate mountains and sweltering deserts that line the border.

Immigration officials know that a higher wall is not the answer.  As Janet Napolitano said before Obama appointed her Secretary of Homeland Security, “ Show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.”

Both authors know that comprehensive immigration reform is fraught with knotty questions, and neither proposes to have all the answers. But, as Hing notes, “Failure of current militarized and racialized enforcement strategies to stem the flow further challenges us to address the issue more thoughtfully.”

These two volumes give lawmakers the tools to do so, if they will only pick them up and read them.

CSA Steering Committee member Elaine Elinson is the coauthor of the prize-winning Wherever There’s a Fight:  How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California.

An earlier version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.


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Gray Brechin to Speak on the Living New Deal in Southern California; July 23, 2011 in Long Beach

Gray Brechin, the Project Scholar at the Living New Deal Project at UC-Berkeley, will be giving at talk entitled “Excavating the New Deal in Southern California at the Long Beach Historical Society  at 3:00 PM, July 23, 2011. From the description of the talk:

The powerful earthquake that emanated from Long Beach six days after President Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933 coincided with the kickoff of New Deal programs to lift the U.S. out of the Great Depression. A plethora of public works agencies soon put legions of the unemployed to work rebuilding and embellishing the wrecked schools of Long Beach and beyond. They did far more than that, however, in a spasm of public building that left an indelible mark on Southern California and improved the lives of generations. Dr. Gray Brechin will show what lessons those public works have for us today if we would only see and understand them.



Long Beach Historical Society

3:00 PM, July 23, 2011

4260 Atlantic Avenue
Long Beach, CA 90807

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Prisoners at Pelican Bay on Hunger Strike since July 1

A hunger strike by California prisoners centered at Pelican Bay State Prison to protest the alleged over use of “Security Housing Units” — where cells are windowless and soundproof, and in which prisoners are kept 23 hours a day — to isolate non-violent prisoners in California prisons entered its 11th day today (Monday, July 11.) As reported in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, July 9:

The protest started July 1 at the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay, a prison near the Oregon border that houses some of the state’s most hard-core offenders. The isolation units there — part of a trio of such units statewide — are reserved for prisoners considered to be extremely violent, many of them with gang ties. The units have cells that are windowless and soundproof, to limit inmate communication. Prisoners are released for about an hour a day so they can walk freely in a small area with high concrete walls.

Inmates involved in the strike have a number of complaints, including a need for better food, warmer clothes and improved educational opportunities.

As described on the website California Prison Focus, the five demands of the striking prisoners are the following:

1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.

2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.

3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.

4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.

5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).