053_sadowski

053_sadowski - | 779 Unskilled Labor Migration and the...

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Unformatted text preview: | 779 Unskilled Labor Migration and the Illegality Spiral ©2008 The American Studies Association Unskilled Labor Migration and the Illegality Spiral: Chinese, European, and Mexican Indocumentados in the United States, 1882–2007 Claudia Sadowski-Smith T he focus of contemporary debates about undocumented immigration to the United States is almost always on Mexican border crossers who enter the country without legal documents. While statistics are gener- ally unreliable, undocumented immigration is estimated to have grown from about 3.2 million in 1986 to 12 million in 2007. In fact, since the mid-1990s, annual arrivals of unauthorized migrants have exceeded those who come under legal categories. 1 So far, these increases have largely been discussed in terms borrowed from discourses of the early 1990s, which blamed Mexican immigrants for California’s economic recession and resulted in the passage of state laws declaring unauthorized migrants ineligible for social services. Today’s debates similarly center on proposals to curb Mexican immigration by reinforcing the Mexico-U.S. border and by further criminalizing unauthorized immigrants. A federal bill containing such provisions failed to pass Congress in summer 2007 because it also outlined a guest worker program and a path toward legalization. The overall tendency to equate undocumented immigration with Mexican nationals makes sense in terms of their absolute numbers. Since the 1910s and 1920s when they first became subject to regulation, Mexican immigrants have been the largest group to have arrived undocumented in the United States. But while Mexican nationals represented more than 90 percent of the unauthorized population until the early 1970s, by 2002 they made up only about half of this population. 2 The next largest percentage of immigrants comes from Latin, Central, and South America (about 24 percent), and smaller, yet significant groups arrive from every other part of the globe, including Asia, Europe, and Africa. 3 That some of today’s undocumented migrants hail from Ireland, Poland, and Russia—areas with long immigration histories to the United States—complicates widespread assumptions that contrast contempo- | 780 American Quarterly rary “illegals” from Mexico with earlier European immigrants who supposedly all came to the United States legally. And that undocumented migrants arrive from various parts of Asia also rarely enters public debates. Alongside other forms of migration from this region, Chinese immigration has a particularly long history. An emerging body of scholarship on Chinese responses to nine- teenth century exclusion has highlighted the centrality of this population for any theories of immigrant illegality in the United States....
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053_sadowski - | 779 Unskilled Labor Migration and the...

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