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7.9: Migration and Immigration

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    • Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick & Ulysses Acevedo

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    Overview of Migration

    When examining migration from Latin America, it is important to recognize that the term “immigrants” often also refers to Latin American Indigenous peoples. For example, immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico may also identify as Indígena (Indigenous) and speak their native language of Mixteco. Although immigrant and immigration policy sound alike, they each play different roles in shaping the ways immigrants experience life in the United States. Immigration policy is about the laws and policies that determine the process and number of people who can immigrate in various ways, whereas immigrant policy refers to the laws and regulations that impact immigrants currently residing in the country. For example, immigration policy reflects systems such as visa lotteries and temporary worker programs, whereas immigrant policy is enforced by federal institutions such as Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE). ICE was formed in 2003, following the creation of the Department of Homeland Security following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and adopted a militarized, policing framework for immigration enforcement. While some policies attempt to curtail migration by restricting access, the economic and military policies of the United States continue to encourage migration, including through dangerous and unauthorized migration.

    Immigration Policy

    In the United States, early immigration acts (e.g., the Immigration Act of 1875, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act enforced racial and ethnic (national) quotas on immigrants coming to the United States and, ironically, called for the removal of Native Americans. The use of quotas creates a baseline expectation that migration to the United States will be carefully limited and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship will be restricted. This process is rooted in white supremacist ideas and has historically targeted specific countries and regions in attempts to restrict legal migration for Black and Brown people from around the world.

    While the U.S. uses a logic of restriction and exclusion, it has also created specific policies to recruit migrants to work in industries where the domestic labor supply is failing. For example, the Bracero Program (1942-1965) encouraged a pattern of cyclical migration by legalizing migration for individual men working seasonally on farms (See "Labor Movements - Agricultural Workers"). This served to separate working men from their families, who often stayed in Mexico, while the workers would send back their earnings, a practice called remittances. In 1965, the program was ended and the amended Immigration and Nationality Act removed all country-of-origin quotas, which led to an increase in the number of migrants coming from Latin American countries. At the same time, the U.S. government has continued to encourage the flow of migration by facilitating military and economic campaigns that destabilize Central and Latin American countries. Widespread corruption, crime, and violence are exacerbated by continuous external interference, resulting in vulnerable individuals and communities seeking out new opportunities and protection in the United States.

    The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 was a major shift for immigrant communities, as it offered amnesty to millions of undocumented Mexican migrants living in the U.S. It also promised more punitive policies and restrictions for immigration moving forward. Since then, policymakers have not made any structural changes to immigration policy that facilitate pathways to citizenship or offer amnesty to undocumented workers living in the United States. Instead, politicians have focused on encouraging immigration among educated and professional immigrants, also known as “brain drain,” while providing more punitive and militarized immigrant policies, like border patrol, deportation, immigrant detention, and family separation. Pervasive immigration and anti-immigrant policies at both state and federal levels perpetuate nativist discourses of “us” versus “them,” where Latina/o/x immigrants are overwhelmingly portrayed by the media as criminals, invaders, and terrorists. This leads to an illegalized identity that can have serious ramifications. In recent years, elected officials like ex-President Donald Trump have amplified these stereotypes, encouraging the formation of anti-immigrant groups and emboldening unregulated militias who treat the southern border of the United States like a war zone. Hegemonic institutions, like ICE, instill fear among migrants by threatening their livelihood and family life. Further, racial profiling in immigration enforcement extends this fear to Latinx communities and people of color.

    Immigrant Policy and Immigrant Justice

    Advocates focused on immigration have used creative strategies to advance policy goals for groups who are formally excluded from political representation and legal rights in the United States. Immigrant justice movements mobilize around a range of issues that include, but are not limited to, legal reforms around immigrant rights. This takes into account the heterogeneity of immigrant communities whose concerns also include dignity, health, economic justice, and connections with mixed-status family members. While activism focused on legal rights emphasizes the state’s control over citizenship, immigrant communities also include Indigenous peoples from Latin America and advocates focused on sovereignty and cultural preservation. The range of concerns present among Latinx immigrant and Indigenous communities leads to movements that combine direct action with community support and policy change at every level (local, state, and federal).

    One common issue facing both immigrant and Indigenous communities is language barriers and access. For Latinx migrant communities, access to multilingual translation and interpretation facilitates inclusion for Spanish speakers and Indigenous language speakers within Latinx communities. In California, the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) centralizes language interpretation in their work and lifts up Indigenous language access within networks of immigrant and health advocates. The group launched Radio Indígena in 2014, a local FM station with over 40 hours of weekly live programming featuring at least seven Mixteco languages, Zapoteco, and Purépecha. This service provides information and entertainment that is relevant to Indigenous farm working communities, such as support for low-income individuals to receive rental assistance, energy payment programs, and family-paid leave (Espinoza-Kulick, 2022). These groups put into practice a human rights framework for providing holistic support to communities. In Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), an artist has depicted a family traveling in a pick-up truck accompanied by the phrase “Freedom of Movement and Family Unity are Human Rights.”

    A poster with a family traveling in a yellow truck. Details in text.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): “Freedom of Movement and Family Unity are Human Rights." (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0; Kim Dinh via Justseeds)

    Content from this section is drawn from the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 source:

    Espinoza-Kulick, M. A. V. 2022. “Chicanx and Latinx Social Movement Activity.” Chapter 7 in New Directions for Chicanx and Latinx Studies. OER: LibreTexts.