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Immigration Policy: 'Jasper and the Detention Center'

By Pamela Jean
Review | November 15, 2009

My friend, Angelo Lopez, writes and publishes cartoons at EverydayCitizen.com. He is a talented muralist, political cartoonist and painter. In describing what inspired him to draw the Jasper and the Detention Center comic strip above, Angelo wrote,

I first thought of doing a cartoon on immigrant detention issues after watching the movie The Visitor starring Richard Jenkins. I have relatively little knowledge about immigrant issues, so I began reading books and magazine articles about immigrant detention issues. I especially wanted to know more about the history of immigrant detention in this country and found two books, American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons by Mark Dow, and Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans by Ronald Takai. Mark Dow's book especially documents the abuses of immigrant detention centers before September 11, 2001, including illegal beatings, psychological torment, and prolonged detentions. These immigrant detention centers were under the control of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, which has been incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security.

In the first century or so of the United States, immigration to our country was regulated by the local jurisdictions, usually port commissioners. Ship captains and shipping companies were usually responsible for holding and returning immigrants based on the decisions of these port commissioners. In most cases, deportation was rare, due usually to medical reasons.

The California gold rush of 1849 and the influx of Chinese immigrants that were brought as contract labor to build the continental railroads motivated the drive for federal regulations of immigrations. Ronald Takai notes in his book that the treatment of these early Chinese immigrants would be repeated to other Asian groups that later entered the U.S. These early Chinese immigrants were initially welcomed to the U.S. to fill a shortage of workers. At the celebration of California's admission to the Union in 1850, Chinese participated in the celebrations, and Justice Nathaniel Bennett declared:

"Born and reared under different Governments and speaking different tongues, we nevertheless meet here today as brothers... You stand among us in all respects as equals... Henceforth we have one country, one hope, one destiny."

Sadly, this tolerance did not last.

The early Chinese migrants helped drain the swamps of California's swamplands and worked in the California gold mines. The number of Chinese grew from 2,716 in 1851, to 20,026 in 1852, to 63,000 Chinese in 1870. In the 1850s and 1860s, 24,000 Chinese miners were working in California mines. The large number of Chinese miners spurred the first discriminatory laws against immigrants. American white miners felt threatened by the Chinese competition and pressured the California legislature to pass the foreign miners' license tax. This tax required a monthly payment of three dollars from every foreign miner who did not desire to become a citizen, which aimed at the Chinese immigrants since a 1790 federal law reserved naturalized citizenship to white persons. In 1855, the California legislature passed a law called "An Act to Discourage the Immigration to this State of Persons Who Cannot Become Citizens Thereof", which imposed on the owner of a ship a landing tax of fifty dollars for each passenger ineligible to natural citizenship. In 1862, the California legislature passed a law "to protect Free White Labor against competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into the State of California", a law that levied a tax of $2.50 per month on all Chinese residing in the state, except those Chinese operating businesses, licensed to work in mines, or those engaged in the sugar, rice, coffee and tea industries.

As the Chinese went from being independent mine workers to wage earners in industry, they played a large role in the development of the railroad, farming and manufacturing industries in the Western U.S. In 1867, 12,000 Chinese were employed by the Central Pacific Railroad, comprising 90 percent of the entire workforce. They cleared the trees, lay the track, operated the power drills and handled the explosives for boring tunnels through the Donner Summit. These Chinese laborers were paid thirty one dollars without board and lodging, which saved the Central Pacific Railroad one third the cost that it would've paid white workers. In San Francisco in the 1860s, Chinese workers made up 46 percent of the labor force in the city's four key industries- boots and shoes, woolens, cigars and tobacco, and sewing. In 1870, 18 percent of all farm laborers in California were Chinese. In all of the fields that they entered, the Chinese immigrants were paid less than their white counterparts, and their labor was often cynically used to control the wages of all worker groups. Ronald Takai noted in Strangers from a Different Shore:

"Like the planters in Hawaii, employers of Chinese labor and their supporters had also devised a divide-and-control strategy. Railroad builder Charles Crocker described how Chinese workers would help to defuse the white labor movement by offering white workers hopes of becoming capitalists themselves: 'I think that every white man who is intelligent and able to work... who has the capacity of being something else, can get to be something else by the presence of Chinese labor easier than he could without it.... After we got Chinaman to work, we took the more intelligent of the white laborers and made foremen of them. Several of them who never expected, never had a dream that they were going to be anything but shovelers of dirt, hewers of wood and drawers of water are now respectable farmers, owning farms. They got a start by controlling Chinese labor on our railroad.'

"But the Chinese would also be pitted against and used to discipline white workers. E.L. Godkin of The Nation predicted that the importation of Chinese labor would become a favorite method of resisting white workers' strikes not that American capital had within its reach millions of Chinese 'ready to work for small wages'. In California, a traveler reported in 1870: 'In the factories of San Francisco they had none but Irish, paying them three dollars a day in gold. They struck, and demanded four dollars. Immediately their places, numbering three hundred, were supplied by Chinamen at one dollar a day.' Capital used Chinese laborers as a transnational industrial reserve army to weigh down white workers during periods of economic expansion and to hold white workers in check during periods of overproduction. Labor was a major cost of production, and employers saw how the importation of Chinese workers could boost the supply of labor and five down the wages of both Chinese and white workers. The resulting racial antagonism generated between the two groups helped to ensure a divided working class and a dominant employer class."

The resentments that were building up against the Chinese Americans resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the 1870s, the United States entered a severe economic slump and anti-Chinese groups like the Supreme Order of Caucasians and the Workingman's Party pushed for passage of the act, which excluded Chinese laborers from entering the country and it forced settled Chinese in the U.S. to to obtain certifications for reentry if they wanted to leave the U.S. and return. Anti slavery and anti imperialist Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts denounced the act as "nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination." Yan Phou Lee wrote in the North American Review after the passage of the act:

"But now, looking at the actions of this generation of Americans in their treatment of other races, who can get rid of the idea that that Nation, which Abraham Lincoln said was conceived in liberty, waxed great through oppression, and was really dedicated to the proposition that all men are created to prey on one another? How far this Republic has departed from its high ideal and reversed its traditional policy may be seen in the laws passed against the Chinese."

After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, other immigrant groups were introduced to fill up the shortages in labor. During the 1890s and early 1900s, California farmers worried about the tons of fruit and vegetables that rotted in the fields as a result of labor shortages, and they began employing Japanese immigrants to meet their labor needs. Between 1885 and 1924, 200,000 Japanese went to Hawaii and 180,000 went to the U.S. mainland to work in plantations and farmlands. When Japanese workers demanded higher wages, Asian Indians Sikhs were employed as laborers. Between 1910 and 1917, the Mexican Revolution sparked a migration of one tenth of the Mexican population to seek refuge in the United States. Over 16,000 Mexicans worked on the railroads in the West in 1908, and at least 150,000 of California's 200,000 farm laborers were Mexican in the 1920s. Filipino workers began immigrating to Hawaii in the early 1900s and to the mainland U.S. in the 1920s to work in agriculture. By 1930, over 110,000 Filipinos were in Hawaii and 40,000 were in the mainland.

In each case, the different immigrant groups faced the same treatment as the earlier Chinese immigrants. Ronald Takaki noted this pattern, which fit not only Asian immigrants but also Mexican and other ethnic groups:

"'Color' in America operated within an economic context. Asian immigrants came here to meet demands in labor- plantation workers, railroad crews, miners, factory operatives, cannery workers, and farm laborers. Employers developed a dual-wage system to pay Asian laborers less than white workers and pitted the groups against each other in order to depress wages for both. 'Ethnic antagonism'- to use Edna Bonacich's phrase- led white laborers to demand the restriction of Asian workers already here in a segregated labor market of low-wage jobs and the exclusion of future Asian immigrants."

Racial resentments often led to exclusionary immigration laws. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the National Origins Act of 1924 prohibited Japanese immigration and barred the entry of women from China, Japan, Korea and India. The Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 provided for the eventual independence of the Philippines, but also limited Filipino immigration to fifty people per year. Because of the Naturalization Act of 1790, which specified that naturalized citizenship was to be reserved to whites, Asian immigrants were not allowed to be citizens, couldn't vote and were not allowed to own land in many states. The 1922 Cable Act even stipulated that any American woman who married an immigrant ineligible for citizenship was to cease being a citizen of the United States.

In 1952 the Naturalization Law of 1790 was finally overturned. In 1964 Attorney General Robert Kennedy noted, "Everywhere else in our national life, we have eliminated discrimination based on national origins. Yet, this system is still the foundation of our immigration law." A year later, his brother Senator Ted Kennedy led the effort to abolished the national origins restrictions and Asian immigrants were allowed to come to our country in greater numbers.

For European immigrants, Ellis Island was the port of entry for those coming to America. It opened its immigrant processing operations in 1891, and it was a grueling experience for many of the people. The food was unsavory and lacking in nutrition, and the conditions were unsanitary and overcrowded. In the first 40 years of its existence, over three thousand immigrants committed suicide due to the mental anguish. In its last years, Ellis Island was a grim detention, prompting a U.S. Supreme Court Justice to call it an "island prison" in 1953. In 1954 Ellis Island closed as an immigration center and was converted into a museum.

Mark Dow, author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons, noted the history of the Immigration and naturalization service from the 1950s to the 1970s was relatively casual. The general practice towards undocumented immigrants at this time was to release them to their own recognizance pending administrative proceedings to avoid any unnecessary confinement.

This changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1980, over a six month period, 125,000 Cubans left the port of Mariel for the United States. In 1981, a large influx of Haitian "boat people" left their country for the U.S. At this time, the government began to differentiate between immigrants who were "economic" refugees from those that were "political" refugees. Since the Cubans were escaping a regime that was opposed by the U.S. government, most of these refugees were welcomed into the U.S., although thousands were detained at detention centers. The Haitians had left due to poor economic conditions in Haiti, and were detained in detention centers like Miami's Krome Processing Center. Attorney General William French Smith said at the time:

"Detention of aliens seeking asylum was necessary to discourage people like the Haitians from setting sail in the first place."

The Reagan administration detain many immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala to prevent them from having political asylum in this country. An increased emphasis on the 1980s war on drugs also affected INS policy, as the agency located non-citizens in jails and prisons to more efficiently deport them.

In 1993, the attack on the World Trade Center and the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh pushed President Bill Clinton to sign into law the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Dow wrote about the effect of these laws:

"Together these laws drastically expanded the categories of crimes for which immigrants who had become legal residents were 'deportable' and subject to 'mandatory detention'. In other words, the new laws 'eliminated the INS' discretion to release certain aliens' and required that it detain large numbers of legal resident aliens without setting a bond. The laws also mandated increased detention of asylum seekers and, through a process known as expedited removal, gave low level immigration inspectors wide authority to return asylums seekers encountered at airports. The number of detainees increased dramatically..."

Because of the larger influx of detainees, some immigrant detainees are now in regular prisons among criminals. Since March 1, 2003 the INS was transitioned into a separate bureau of the Department of Homeland Security. Within the Department, detention has become the responsibility of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Mark Dow worries about the lack of public scrutiny of immigrant centers like Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Corrections Corporation of America's Houston Processing Center, and county jails around the country that have contracts to hold Department of Homeland Security detainees. Dow wrote:

em>"During the two years I worked at Miami's Haitian Refugee Center, talking to advocates and attorneys who were trying to help INS detainees around the country, I began to understand that the Krome detention center had many counterparts. In this book I examine the reasons that people are in detention, but I am not concerned primarily with immigration policy. Rather, this book is about prisons- about a particular American system operated by the INS or, since early 2003, by the BICE- with an astonishing lack of accountability, not only to outside criticism, but to the rest of the government as well. It is a prison system that, with a few exceptions, has managed to remain invisible. Once you know about these 'facilities' as the sanitized corrections terminology has it, once you have visited a number of them, the map of the United States starts to look different.

"Communicating from Miami with advocates in New York and California, I leaned about New York City's Varick Street detention center, where detainees have been held for months without seeing daylight or fresh air. From advocates in southern California, I heard about repressive crackdowns on Central Americans' hunger strikes in Los Angeles and long the California-Mexico border."

Reading about these cases makes me sad. But movies like The Visitor give me hope that the plight of immigrant detainees will get a wider hearing among the general public. Our nation is a nation of immigrants. Immigrants have built our industries, worked in our fields, engineered the latest high tech discoveries. They have helped make our nation what it is today. I know that the immigration issues that this nation faces are complex, and that there are legitimate concerns on both sides of the debate.

As the failed immigration reform bill of two years ago that was championed by Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain shows, the road to create a fairer immigration policy will be tough. But I leave this post with a quote from Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino poet who wrote the book America Is in the Heart: A Personal History about his experiences as an immigrant in the 1930s and 1940s:

"America is not a land of one race or one class of men. We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and known oppression and defeat, from the first Indian that offered peace in Manhattan to the last Filipino peapickers. America is not bound by geographical latitudes. America is not merely a land or an institution. America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men that are building a new world. America is a prophecy of a new society of men: of a system that knows no sorrow or strife or suffering. America is a warning to those who would try to falsify the ideals of free men.

"America is also the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job and the black body dangling from a tree. America is the illiterate immigrant who is ashamed that the world of books and intellectual opportunities is closed to him. We are all that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate - We are America!"

If you want to read more of Angelo's words or see his art work - check him out at Everyday Citizen:


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