People like to say that the United States is a nation of immigrants. However, some immigrants have been more welcome than others.
In the 1920s, immigration quotas favored northern and western Europeans nine-to-one over other immigrants. In 1965, an immigration overhaul gave priority to immigrants with in-demand skills or close relatives in the U.S., regardless of their skin color or country of origin.
One compelling reason to control population flow is the potential for a cheap labor supply. With an abundance of fertile land to till, the founding fathers relied on an involuntary form of immigration — slavery — to reduce labor costs.
After the Civil war, waves of Irish, Italian, Chinese, Mexican and other immigrants fed the low-wage worker pool. During Reagan’s 1983 amnesty program, employers arranged for their poorly paid, mostly Mexican farm and factory workers to become citizens.
The 1993 North American Fair Trade agreement, also known as NAFTA, gutted Mexico’s economy, driving marginalized workers north to seek economic opportunity. Those who endured the exploitative wages and harsh conditions stayed, along with their young foreign-born children. Like LGBT school teachers of yesteryear, they have been hiding in the shadows, waiting for their lives to come crashing down at any moment.
So why did civil rights and immigration reform bills both pass in that glorious year of 1965? Because presidents Kennedy and Johnson understood that racial/ethnic profiling of immigrants was as much a civil-rights violation as segregation in the South.
Fifty years later, the American public has come to recognize that LGBT rights are human rights. With Eric Holder’s recent announcement, same-sex- marriage prohibitions in the states have been all but defeated. Americans also increasingly understand that undocumented people living in the nation — some estimated 11 million — have unalienable human rights.
Just like in the 1960s, young people have been the catalysts for this change of heart. Many were brought here as small children, not knowing that they were “illegal aliens” until they wanted to get a driver’s license or apply for college as in-state students. They are known as DREAMERS, because they want to fulfill their American dream of making a better life for themselves than their parents.
These youth have taken a page from the LGBT activism playbook by coming out as “undocumented and unafraid.” In fact, “undocuqueers” dominate the leadership of the DREAMER movement. Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order allows law-abiding undocumented young people to get work permits and driver’s licenses for two years. At a DACA public-education workshop, one young man looked in awe at the sea of undocumented youth in attendance. “I never knew there were so many people like me,” he exclaimed.
On Feb. 3, state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa introduced two bills in the Wisconsin Legislature: one to allow undocumented Wisconsin high school graduates to pay in-state rather than pricey international student tuition in the University of Wisconsin system. The other creates driver’s license cards for undocumented drivers, who currently risk detention or deportation for something as simple as a traffic stop.
I invite you to join this newest civil-rights struggle. Urge your state representative to support Zamarripa’s bills.
Lesley Salas is associate director of Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera.