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Immigration: Federal Policies, Local Conflicts

By Donna R. Gabacia, Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota

Minnesotans may not realize that angry debates about immigration are not
limited to their home state—or to the present.

The Twin Cities this week continues its discussions of Governor Pawlenty’s
proposals to encourage “legal? immigration (especially of highly skilled,
educated, and entrepreneurial foreigners) while cracking down on “illegal?
immigrants, who are disproportionately poor laborers whose labor is eagerly
sought in the construction, meat packing, agriculture and the
hotel/restaurant/ and cleaning industries. Specifically, the Minnesota
legislature will soon consider whether or not local police should begin to
enforce federal immigration law (see Pioneer Press “Today at the Capitol,?
March 1, 2006).

Georgia--where estimates put the number of immigrants without proper visas
at 250,000—is taking a somewhat different approach. There, a State Senate
bill proposes to deny state benefits to undocumented adults and to use the
tax code to penalize employers who employ any workers without
documentation. (http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/13983851.htm)

Along the U.S./ Mexico border participants in “Minuteman Projects? claim
they are “Americans doing the job that Congress won’t do.?

Meanwhile, in California, where state voters in 1994 tried to prevent
immigrants without proper visas from using state welfare services, Cardinal
Roger M. Mahony, as quoted by a L.A. Times reporter, said that “he would
instruct his priests to defy legislation — if approved by Congress — that
would require churches and other social organizations to ask immigrants for
legal documentation before providing assistance.
(http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-me-mahony1mar01,1,3463213.story?co
ll=la-headlines-politics)

Whether fearful or supportive of immigrants, many American recognize that
federal immigration policy is “broken,? “not working,? or not being
enforced. But does that mean that the only solutions to this problem are to
found at the local level?

As an historian, I doubt it.

In the middle years of the nineteenth century it was the states, and not
the federal government, that determined most immigration policies. There
were few restrictions on human movement but when states imposed them it was
usually to drive off poor people or to prevent racial minorities from
moving into their areas.

Local control of immigration did mean that Americans welcomed the “legal?
immigrants from Europe as unproblematic in the 1850s. On the contrary, that
decade saw the rise of a powerful movement and a new political party,
usually called the “Know-Nothings.? These “Know-Nothings? tried to convince
voters that immigrants were too influential and their power should be
limited by denying them basic rights, like land ownership and religious
freedom.

Rather than repeat the mistakes of the Know Nothings of the 1850s,
Americans today might want to devote careful thought to the kind of federal
immigration policy they would like to have—and then demand change from the
federal government.

____________________________________________________________

Contributor Contact Information:

Donna R. Gabaccia Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History
Research and Director Immigration History Research Center
311 Elmer L. Andersen Library
222-21st Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
612-625-5573
612 625-4800
FAX: 612-626-0018
Email: drg@umn.edu