The Immigrant Integration Complaint Addressed

When it is claimed that Hispanic and nonwhite immigrants to the U.S. do not want to integrate, as is maintained by Stephen Miller and many others, does it stem from concern about the nation’s social fabric? Are they simply forgetting of Irish, Jewish, Italian and Chinese who, after immigrating, largely stayed to their own neighborhoods for safety and security, but generations on, have fully integrated? 

Beyond feigned social concern and historical amnesia, the integration complaint is a projection. Many Americans do not want immigrants to integrate. As evidence for Americans’ nativist sentiment against the integration of nonwhites into white communities, we need look no further than to historic and contemporary racial segregation.

America has lived with de jure and private segregation for nearly all of its history and lives with its effects – remaining segregation and a disproportionate number of African Americans in poverty. In the post-slavery era, blacks were allowed only subpar jobs, housing, education and tenuous suffrage rights. In the mid-1960s, laws addressed discrimination but could not eliminate the main factor of racial wealth inequality: housing. 

The discrimination against African Americans in housing is perhaps the most widespread and disturbing. One’s home is where the heart is, but, more importantly, housing and home equity are prominent vehicles in how wealth is transferred throughout generations. Until the 1960s, blacks were denied access to single-family homes and were refused the right to live in cheap, government-subsidized housing, such as Levittown, during the post-World War II suburbanization housing boom. If they tried to cross the color line by attaining a private mortgage, after being refused an FHA-insured mortgage, local zoning laws would often change to bar them. If that didn’t prevent African Americans moving into white neighborhoods, there was frequent mob violence against African American families who moved in. 

As Richard Rothstein notes, over three generations, the wealth transfer of subpar African American housing is only 20 percent (p.182) of whites-only Levittown properties and other similar government-subsidized housing that was provided to whites exclusively. When the civil rights era came, the cheap housing boom had ended, and suburbs were mostly established. Large numbers of blacks were stuck in multiple unit apartments in inner cities, with nonunion jobs (as many unions excluded them) and little wealth to pass down to their children.

Pre-1965 U.S. immigration policy had similar roots to the de jure and private exclusion of blacks from white spaces. With the exception of temporary Mexican workers in the Southwest and California, until the 1965 Nationality and Immigration Act, most nonwhite immigrants were excluded from the U.S. Where African Americans were barred from white suburbs and neighborhoods, global nonwhites were prevented from crossing the U.S. border for residence. 

While color-blind policies have in many ways prevented desegregation and racial equality, nonwhite immigrants posed a different problem in the eyes of many Americans and policymakers. On the surface, the push of businesses for cheap, exploitable labor conflicted with a strong xenophobic and racist outlook prevalent in much of the population. In this context, the illegality of undocumented immigrants makes perfect sense: businesses have a readily available labor supply of people they can pay under the minimum wage, without labor protections. But illegality also satisfies the nativist sector of the population, by preventing nonwhite immigrants from becoming legal, integrated American citizens who can live normal lives.

 The 12 million undocumented second-class citizens serve business and nativists equally well, although extreme far-right xenophobes would prefer mass deportation. In recent history, the U.S. government has served business interests more than extremist nativist sentiment, but the Tea Party’s rise and the election of Donald Trump has given xenophobic racism not merely a daily loudspeaker but a harsh, anti-immigrant policy.

 Just like the segregation of African Americans throughout history, the nativist goal is to exclude nonwhite immigrants. It is not that Hispanic and nonwhite immigrants do not want to integrate. Many Americans simply do not want to let them in.

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