As the debate over immigration policy has languished for years without Congress producing comprehensive legislation that satisfies immigration supporters and opponents, communities have taken matters into their own hands. Earlier this month, protesters in Murrieta, CA turned back three busloads of undocumented immigrants who were sent to be housed in the town. Additional anti-immigration protests have since occurred in anticipation of the arrival of more buses. Likewise, people in Oracle, AZ have staged protests against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s plan to house 40 or more child migrants there, and protesters even stopped a bus full of YMCA campers they thought were illegal migrants.
Against the backdrop of an increasing number of anti-immigration protests and the high number of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. (57,000 caught since October), Obama met with the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras last week. Obama encouraged them to do more to stop the migration of children in particular, and the Central American leaders asked for the U.S.’s help in combating two major motivations for migration: drug-related violence and stagnant economies. In making the request, they emphasized the U.S.’s shared responsibility for the problem. Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez argued that the U.S.’s demand for illegal drugs fuels the violence in his country that causes child migration. The White House meeting ended with the four leaders issuing a joint statement saying there is “a spirit of shared responsibility to address the underlying causes of migration by reducing criminal activity and promoting greater social and economic opportunity.”
Immigration issues and tensions are certainly not new to the U.S.; action at the local level directly prompted presidential action a century ago. Even though an 1894 treaty allowed Japanese workers to move to the U.S., a strong anti-immigration movement developed on the west coast. Hostility toward Japanese immigrants increased as it became clear they were not just migrant laborers but permanent residents with growing families and an increasing population.
Anti-Japanese sentiment created the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League in 1905 and passed the San Francisco Board of Education’s 1906 policy that required all Asian students to attend the Oriental School. Japan took offense, and so President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration entered into talks from 1907 to 1908. The Gentlemen’s Agreement was reached whereby Japan agreed to stop issuing passports to U.S.-bound workers (family members of immigrants already in the U.S. were still permitted to move), and President Roosevelt agreed to pressure the San Francisco Board of Education to rescind its segregation policy, which it did.
These two instances show what happens when the federal government fails to comprehensively address immigration in a way that satisfies immigration supporters and opponents. Without responding to the concerns of communities most directly impacted by immigration, anti-immigration attitudes grow from privately held opinions of individuals to organizations willing to take collective action. The federal government is then forced to act in an environment of hostility between entrenched viewpoints that are not easily assuaged. Ultimately, the Gentlemen’s Agreement did not end the anti-Japanese push. The Supreme Court ruled in 1922 that Japanese immigrants were ineligible for U.S. citizenship in the Takao Ozawa v. United States case, and the Immigration Act of 1924 stopped all Japanese immigration for decades along with other restrictions for people of other nationalities.
With the introduction of children in the crosshairs of the immigration debate, an agreement that satisfies both sides has become more urgent. However, as the Gentlemen's Agreement shows, an immigration agreement may not mean the end of an anti-immigration movement. Thus, for now there’s only the hope that Obama’s meeting and any subsequent agreements will prove to be more successful in stopping the flow of undocumented minors and forestalling future anti-immigration actions than the Gentlemen’s Agreement was in preventing greater discrimination of Japanese immigrants.
What provisions are necessary for an enduring immigration agreement? Leave a comment.