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‘Who are we? And who belongs here?’ Panel tackles pertinent immigration questions

A standing room-only crowd participated in Wednesday's panel discussion on immigration. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

In many ways, this presidential race has been unlike others before it—Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is the first female presidential nominee of a major party, while Republican nominee Donald Trump has bucked tradition at nearly every turn on the campaign trail.

Though it generally arises as an issue every four years, an intense debate about immigration policies and reform among political candidates and civilians alike has been stoked by one of Trump’s campaign platforms: a promise to “build a wall” across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Panelists during a Wednesday evening discussion at Northeastern—titled “What is America? Globalization and the new age of migration”—posited that sentiments of accepting then rebuking immigrants has long been a pattern throughout American history, though the tone of the rhetoric during this presidential cycle in particular is new.

The event was a joint collaboration between the university’s civility series titled “Conflict. Civility. Respect. Peace. Northeastern Reflects” and the Myra Kraft Open Classroom series, which this semester is focusing on the

The faculty panel comprised three Northeastern professors: Rachel Rosenbloom, professor of law; Jacob Stowell, associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice; and Amilcar Antonio Barreto, associate professor of political science; and one Northeastern graduate—Suffolk University clinical law professor Ragini N. Shah, L’99. Michael Dukakis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Democratic nominee for president in 1988, moderated the discussion.

The start of ‘self-deportation’

“I suspect that many of you share my sense of alarm about the surge of racist, xenophobic, nativist rhetoric that we are seeing today,” Rosenbloom, an immigration policy expert, told a standing-room-only crowd in West Village F. “On the one hand, it’s very shocking to see this; we’re not used to seeing presidential candidates talk in the way that Donald Trump is talking. We’re not used to seeing violence erupting at campaign rallies.” Rosenbloom continued, saying “maybe on another level it isn’t quite as shocking as we might wish it were, that there’s a context here, there’s a history here.”

Rosenbloom pointed to California Proposition 187, a 1994 initiative whose goal was to make those entering a country illegally ineligible for public benefits. She described this law and others like it as aimed at “self-deportation,” or a process of making life difficult enough for undocumented immigrants that they choose to leave.

Proposed law 187 passed at referendum but was never put into effect, as a federal court found it to be unconstitutional. But Rosenbloom said the effort was the start of “the contemporary chapter of nativism,” setting the groundwork for a “whole wave of immigration laws” that came between 2006 and 2011 and have, for the most part, also been struck down by federal courts.

“On a purely legal level, these legislative efforts have been a failure,” Rosenbloom said. “But I think on another level, they’ve been very effective. They’ve served an expressive purpose: They’ve demonized immigrants…and I think they have in many ways primed people for the message they’re getting now.”

“This history is, whether we like it or not, a part of the story of our country.” —Michael Dukakis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Democratic nominee for president in 1988

“This history is, whether we like it or not, a part of the story of our country.” —Michael Dukakis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Democratic nominee for president in 1988

Changes in immigration sentiments

Shah reached even further back into the annals of history to discuss the origins of Mexican immigration.

She suggested that it began in 1942, when the U.S. signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement and created other laws—collectively known as the Bracero Program, or Bracero Accord—in order to fill much-needed agricultural jobs that were vacated by men drafted into World War II.

“Those accords allowed the United States to import workers who were going to work in agriculture,” Shah said. “Hundreds of thousands of workers came into the U.S. under the Bracero Accord between 1942 and 1964,” when the program was terminated.

Shah noted that debate over immigration during that 22-year period followed economic patterns. “There were cycles during that period,” she said. “When the economy was doing well, there wasn’t a whole lot of debate about whether or not the Bracero workers should be in the United States, but when the economy wasn’t doing well, as happened in the ’50s, then the government started to seek mass repatriation efforts.”

Does immigration increase crime?

A criminologist, Stowell focused on the correlation between immigration and crime rates—a relationship that’s been discussed often during this presidential election cycle.

He cited two recent polls that suggested that more than 25 percent of Americans believe immigration has a negative impact on America and that more than 30 percent think that immigration leads to a higher crime rate.

“That’s a big number,” Stowell said, “but more problematic, I believe, for our purposes, is one of the folks who holds that view is actually running for president of the United States this year.”

In reality, national data from 1994 to 2004 show that immigration rates have grown exponentially, and crime rates have fallen precipitously, Stowell said.

Further, crime rates in cities with the highest immigrant concentrations—New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston—have dropped by at least 65 percent during the same decade, Stowell said. “There’s just no support for this widely-held notion of anti-immigration rhetoric,” he noted.

Remembering our history 

Barreto posed two questions to the audience. “The debate over immigration perennially asks, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Who belongs here?’”

“The answer comes from two contradictory sources: On one hand, we have the classic civic creed: liberty, democracy, egalitarianism; which welcomes everyone,” Barreto said. “On the other hand, we have well-entrenched ethnocentric notions of American identity.”

Barreto offered examples of nativist and xenophobic action throughout history, starting with the Puritan intolerance of what would become the Quaker religion that prompted the founding of Rhode Island. He condemned the “forgetful” nature of American policies and said he feared “our descendants will still be talking about xenophobia 100 years from now, in the land of immigrants.”

Added Dukakis: “This history is, whether we like it or not, a part of the story of our country.”