California Studies Association

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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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