Elliott Young: Unrealized Dreams for Immigrants

Roundup: Historians' Take

Elliott Young teaches history at Lewis & Clark College

When President Obama announced that he would stop enforcing deportation proceedings for a select class of young immigrants, pro-immigration advocates cheered. While this is welcome news to the about one million immigrants whom the executive order affects, it is also a Faustian bargain that serves to authorize the continued harassment and deportation of ten million other immigrants who do not qualify for special treatment.      

This is not the first time that a president has sought through executive decree to soften the harshness of immigration restrictions. In 1905, in the wake of a boycott on American goods started by Chinese merchants in Shanghai, President Theodore Roosevelt also ordered immigration authorities to relax their enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Roosevelt directed immigration officers not to subject merchants and students, who were exempt from Chinese exclusion, to humiliating interrogations and invasive inspections that required measuring of their body parts. Furthermore, he ordered officers not to arrest Chinese in the interior of the country who were suspected of coming in illegally.

As President Roosevelt put it, “We cannot afford either from the standpoint of our national interests or from the standpoint of civilization to be put in the attitude of failing to do complete justice and to show courtesy and consideration to Chinese who are entitled to come here.” The result of the 1905 boycott and Roosevelt’s directive was a victory for Chinese merchants and students who managed to gain some relief from harsh immigration legislation.

But in bargaining for their own rights, Chinese merchants and students solidified the idea that Chinese laborers were not “entitled” to come to the United States, and thereby strengthened the Chinese exclusion laws that remained in place until 1943. In the same way, Obama’s embrace of certain young immigrants bolsters the idea that there are undeserving illegal immigrants who should be deported.
Obama has deported about 1.7 million immigrants in his time in office, more than under any other president in American history. More than half of these have no criminal record, or have only minor misdemeanors. As one million young immigrants gain a temporary reprieve, another ten million immigrants face the most extreme deportation regime in history.

In his speech, Obama declared that these immigrants are “Americans in their hearts [and] in their minds.” They are “dreamers.” What about other immigrants? The president emphasized his increased deportation of “criminals” to make it clear that there are deserving “American” immigrants who should be able to remain in the U.S., and the undeserving who should be deported.

In the very same speech that hailed the young immigrants as “Americans” and “dreamers,” President Obama said that this was not a “path to citizenship.” The message is clear. Come work and study in this country, but don’t expect full rights. In states like Georgia, these dreamers are not even able to attend public universities. Until all immigrants are given a chance -- not only to work, study and join the military, but to become citizens -- the American dream will remain just that.

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