History is repeating itself with current immigration issues, says Vanderbilt historian


NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Immigration must be stopped before newcomers overwhelm our generous welfare system, producing babies with full citizenship rights who add even more strain on social services. So goes a familiar argument for sealing the borders of the United States.

“In a lot of respects we have the discussion about immigration and the economy exactly reversed,” says Paul A. Kramer, associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University. “There’s a way that Americans often talk about immigration as if they’re doing this enormous favor to immigrants by letting them in. In fact, immigrants play a crucial role in the U.S. economy and subsidize American consumer society with their labor, their consumption and the taxes they pay.

“Often, they can’t receive those taxes back in benefits.”

Kramer has written about immigration and border issues for the New Yorker and Slate, and been featured on National Public Radio. He has spent the last decade studying U.S. immigration history, and he’s working on a book about the forces that push people into leaving their home countries and immigrating, including the United States’ influence.

“In a globalized economy, people are trying to make their way and put food on the table for their families in places where often the local economies aren’t able to do that for them,” Kramer says. “Often this is the result of dictatorship or post-dictatorship societies, where predatory political forces have made it impossible for people to survive and thrive where they live. So they’ve been uprooted.

“In some cases the United States has been behind some of those dictatorships.”

Much of the angst Americans are experiencing today over immigration has been felt by previous generations, Kramer says. For example, there are those who warn that immigration numbers are at a dangerous all-time high.

“That’s simply not true,” Kramer says. “We’re definitely at a high moment, but there have been other high moments. We’re more or less about where we were at the turn of the century, that fabled era of European immigration between roughly 1880 and the mid-1920s. We’re certainly not being overrun.”

Birthright citizenship has emerged as an issue in the Republican presidential primary race, a sign that concern over immigration has reached a new plateau, Kramer says.

The Republican Party was largely responsible for the passing of the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born on American soil. During Reconstruction after the Civil War, birthright citizenship was a tool to build a more inclusive population and move toward equal rights.

“Birthright citizenship is at this point a venerable American legal tradition,” Kramer says. “It’s one that sets the United States apart from most other societies, who often have much more rigid and exclusionary definitions of who gets to be a citizen.”

Race is really what’s at the heart of a lot of the current antipathy to immigrants, Kramer says.

“When people talk about ‘illegals’ it’s … not Canadians crossing into Maine,” Kramer says. “They’re talking about black and brown migrants whom many Americans are uneasy with. … The fact that there’s that legal kind of cover for racism is a really important part of its success.”

Picking on immigrants can be done without much risk because of their need to stay in the shadows. “They can and do fight back, but the formal avenues available to non-citizens are limited, thus making them likely scapegoats,” Kramer says.

“But he says immigrants are going to keep coming no matter what.

“The question for me is not whether the United States can or should stop immigration,” Kramer says. “Immigration is going to continue to happen because the United States doesn’t exist apart from the rest of the world.

“The question is whether U.S. immigration policy is going to punish and stigmatize and marginalize people who come here or whether it’s going to treat the people arriving here in the spirit of justice.”