Immigration is part of the DNA of the United States. Whether motivated by the search for economic opportunity or by religious and political freedom, immigrants have been flocking to U.S. shores for over 400 years. Yet debates about “who belongs” and “who should be allowed in” are as old as the nation itself. Sometimes the debate focuses on economic issues, such as the supposed threats that new immigrants pose to local jobs. But just as often, the debate is about culture. Each new wave of immigration provokes anxieties about whether newcomers can assimilate into American life or whether they represent a threat to American values and cohesiveness.
In Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash, John Tirman explores this second, more uncomfortable debate with a close look at today’s immigration battles over the status of millions of undocumented workers—most of them from Latin America. Tirman, the executive director of MIT’s Center for International Studies, contrasts the current fears o communities living under constant threats of harassment by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents with the hopes of second-generation Latino youth, known colloquially as the DREAMers—after the 2001 DREAM (Development Relief and Education for Minors) act—who are trying to secure the legal rights to remain.
Today’s debate, he points out, is rooted in the racist and class-conscious attitudes exemplified by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers and was the first law to bar a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the U.S., and the Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894 by three Harvard alumni. “Antiimmigrant sentiment that reigned in elite circles [was] codified into law […] based on race, on the fear of diluting some distinctive American character,” he writes.
Tirman also draws a comparison between the “Great Migration” of African-Americans, who fled racism and poverty in the South and settled in northern cities, and the northern migration of Hispanics. “The enormous numbers of Hispanics migrating to the United States, legally or not, has stirred a reaction much more akin to the pervasive and abiding social/cultural rejection and low-wage-labor acceptance greeting African-Americans than to the nineteenth-century immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe,” he writes.
But the book also focuses on stories of how Latino immigrants have battled these attitudes. For example, the legal debate over the Chicano Studies program in Tucson, Arizona, has served as a major test for immigrants trying to overcome accusations that they are taking jobs and overwhelming city services. In another example, Tirman chronicles the ICE raids in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The trauma of those raids impacted the community and the lives of the families. Caregivers and wage-earners were arrested; children were kept from school; and families withdrew from public life. In addition, Tirman highlights the gross human rights violations that are inflicted within ice detention centers on children and their parents alike.
Such examples are what make this book a unique tool for students studying immigration policy and its interaction with historical race and class issues. Tirman shows the impact of America’s current immigration battles on the communities and people in the fi ring line. But it’s not an unreservedly bleak story. The book provides inspiring examples of how Latino immigrants, particularly young people, have attempted to change majority attitudes— through their lobbying for the DREAM Act, which would grant undocumented youth who live in the U.S. and graduate from U.S. high schools a six-year, conditional path to citizenship after completion of a college degree or two years of military service. “DREAMers achieved what many social movements set out to do,” Tirman writes. “[They] make visible the hidden, make appeals for justice, plead that the raids and deportations stop, advocate for plausible solutions.”
Larger geopolitical issues have complicated the immigration debate—as the recent anxiety about unaccompanied minors from Central America shows. Although Tirman makes reference to those issues, he does not explore the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and today’s immigration battles. Global economic and political forces will continue to drive migration to the U.S. and impact the opinions of government leaders and ordinary Americans alike. Despite the political debates, immigrants are living and thriving in towns and cities across the country, and Americans are welcoming their new immigrant neighbors.
Absent any real immigration reform, employers, communities and policy-makers are forced to work around the logjam in Washington.