Johnson and Chin Link Race and Immigration

By M. Rossi – How has immigration policy historically been affected by race? What role does racism play in the current administration’s treatment of immigrants? On April 24, 2018, the School of Law’s “Immigration in Crisis” lecture series concluded with a frank discussion of such questions by two UC Davis experts.

Kevin Johnson (Dean and Mabie-Apallas Professor of Public Interest Law and Chicano/a Studies) began by describing the role of racial discrimination during the Great Depression, when immigration laws were strongly enforced in order to reduce welfare rolls. As state and local governments took enforcement into their own hands—during Operation Wetback 1954, for example—raids on churches and other places where people congregated led to repatriation of Mexicans, as well as the rounding up of those who were citizens by birth. More recently, deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border attributable to border enforcement policies have increased. Fortifications near San Diego and El Paso, for example, have led to a rerouting of migrant streams into areas more afflicted by natural hazards.

Jack Chin (Edward L. Barrett Jr. Chair of Law, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law and director of Clinical Legal Education) explained how the Naturalization Act of 1790—passed by Congress and signed by George Washington—limited naturalization to free white persons and remained in effect until 1952. Today, white nationalists claim that the act proves that the U.S. was established as an all- white republic. Chin also held up the Asian Exclusion Laws 1882-1965 and the National Origin Quota System 1921-1965 as racialized policies that clearly encouraged immigrants from some European nations while discouraging them from others. Germany, England, and Ireland were the favored nations, while south-eastern Europeans, Catholics, and Jews were degraded and perceived as an “inferior type of white.”

Current distaste for amnesty

Johnson described current policy as being at a new level of “discriminatory.” Twentieth-century Immigration Acts and color-blind admission Kevin Johnsonschemes have been amended, setting per-country ceiling limits in illogical ways. On its face, this sort of policy is neutral, but waits can be 10, 15, or 20 years long. Johnson specified this as a “facially neutral system with racially disparate impact,” affecting developing nations disproportionately, failing to reunify families, and incentivizing illegal immigration.

Johnson also made the case that crime-based removal is racially discriminatory. He argued that if the criminal justice system is also racially skewed, the result is compounded disparities in a deportation system where 95% of deportees are Latino. Finally, he explained the 1997 social and legal constructions of “non-persons” as an example of how language influences immigration policy and discussion. Code words can be used to signal and delegitimize rights, in this case making it is easier to rationalize harsh treatment.

Chin described the current distaste for amnesty as a change in public attitude towards immigration. Since pre-1965 immigrants were largely Caucasian and European, there existed a “bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh” mentality. This sentimentality fueled relief for the unlawful immigrant. Not anymore. Chin went on to illuminate the idea of a “tradition of enforcement” as not true. Indeed, it was largely after 1965 that attitudes to immigration became less lenient. Is it a coincidence, he asked, that this change coincided with Civil Rights Movement? 

A message of hope

Addressing the current administration, both Johnson and Chin noted the proposed cuts to and attacks on even legal immigration. Chin recalled Jack ChinTrump’s Phoenix pre-election speech in which he laid out his plan to cut legal immigration because there are “too many foreign-born.” The implication, of course, is that non-citizens of all kinds—including highly educated skilled workers—create a cultural problem. Trump’s rise to power relied on transforming “discomfort with difference” into a palpable fear. Chin admitted that he is “in shock that [Trump] can say these things about people in our community and still be president of the U.S.”

Trump has also reconstructed the “refugee problem.” Instead of embracing our refugee and asylum policy as a human program, the United States, even as a leader in the world, is now suspicious of all and sends the new message that the suffering people of the world are now on their own.

When asked how we can change the downward sloping trajectory, Johnson and Chin ended with a message a hope. Enough voting U.S. citizens can change views of immigration policy and fix the conversation. Action must come from the community and the legislature. He optimistically reminded us that the nation is now where the state was in 1994. Once plagued by restrictive attitudes, California is now a Sanctuary State. 

Learn more about Kevin Johnson and Jack Chin.