America is actually 'land of exclusion'
Updated: May 2
By Morgan Hull
On the outskirts of El Paso, TX a little town with small wooden houses, painted in bright vibrant yellows, greens, and blues, the people who live there refer to the town as “Colonials,” a name that does not come up if you were to google it .
That's where I met David.
David was lean, olive skin that complemented his figure, an older gentleman whose eyes told a very different story than the welcoming smile he wore so proudly.
As we all gathered around sitting on little tree stumps, or old lawn furniture you’d find at a yard sale, David began to tell us his story.
“When I was young I worked in the factories in Juarez, Mexico,” David paused for a moment, and continued, “the factories in Juarez were not safe. I had five children, a wife, conditions in Juarez were becoming more unsafe with cartels. I knew for my family's sake we needed a better life.”
For 208 years, "land of the free" has been a slogan for America.
But in fact this nation has been the land of exclusion - the land of opportunity only for a certain race, a certain gender.
The United States of America was formed with immigrants from all over the world. However, from the late 1700s to the present day, this country has pursued an immigration policy that creates an unjust system for allowing immigrants to become naturalized citizens.
And it is a system that has been broken from the beginning.
Five years ago I saw how broken our immigration system is - and despite president after president vowing to fix it, the fact remains that America continues to ignore a complicated problem.
Brief history of the U.S. immigration system
Our immigration system started with the Nationality Act of 1790, the first law to define eligibility for citizenship by naturalization and establish standards for becoming U.S. citizens. In this early version, Congress limited this important right to "free white persons."
Ninety-two years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act was put into effect, which required Chinese residents, and only Chinese residents, to carry Certificates of Residence to prove their legal entry to the United States, or be subject to detention and deportation.
Exclusion continued with the Immigration Act of 1891, which extended immigration inspection to land borders, and expanded the list of excludable and deportable immigrants.
The Immigration Act of 1917 created a "barred zone" from the Middle East to Southeast Asia in which no one from those areas was allowed to enter the United States without passing a literacy test. The goal was to reduce European immigration.
In 1929, the Undesired Aliens Act criminalized crossing the border outside an official port of entry as a way to restrict Mexican immigration specifically. "Unlawfully entering the country" was a misdemeanor and returning after a deportation became a felony.
When U.S. troops were sent to Europe and Asia during World War II, America looked to Mexico to help keep America fed and its railroad running. This began the Bracero Program in August of 1942, allowing Mexican immigrants to come work on the farms in the United States.
The explosion of job opportunities for immigrants lasted only 12 years, when the program slowed down and Mexicans were still crossing the border for jobs. The U.S. government responded in 1954 by launching Operation Wetback, in which nearly 4 million Mexican immigrants were deported back to Mexico.
More than 11 years later, the main principles for U.S. immigration policy today were set in motion with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended numerical restrictions by country of origin on immigrants allowed to enter the United States. (Instead, the act capped the number of immigrants permitted to emigrate by Eastern and Western hemisphere.)
Pushed by President John F. Kennedy and signed by Lyndon Johnson, the new immigration policy aimed to portray the United States in a better light against the rise of communism and to promote American ideals of freedom and equality.
It wasn’t until 1986 that American leaders attempted to address the problem of unauthorized immigration with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
Congress implemented through bipartisan agreement a multi-pronged system that provided amnesty for established residents, increased border enforcement, enhanced requirements of employers, and expanded guest worker visa programs.
The Immigration Act of 1990 was a revision of the 1965 version by implementing the H-1B visa program for skilled temporary workers, with some provisions for conversion to permanent status, and the diversity visa lottery for populations unable to enter through the preference system.
Immigration post 9/11
The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, set in motion a new fear of outsiders, particularly those from Middle Eastern countries. Enhanced Border Security occurred through the Visa Entry Act/ Homeland Security Act of 2002 were implemented in direct response to the attack.
As part of this effort, the U.S. government expanded the budget, staffing, and powers of the immigration enforcement bureaucracy.
The Homeland Security Act created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by consolidating 22 diverse federal agencies and bureaus. The creation of DHS reflected mounting anxieties about immigration in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
During Barack Obama's presidency (2008-2016), he instituted the DACA program in 2012. This executive order protected deportation and work authorization to people who arrived in America as minors with immigrant parents and those who had lived in the United States since June 15, 2007.
Obama was forced to create DACA via executive order because a GOP-controlled House and Senate refused to pass any legislation.
After Obama’s action to move ahead with his executive order, the following year the “Gang of Eight” introduced an immigration reform bill.
In April of 2013, The Gang of Eight Senators, which was made up of four republicans and four democrats. The most well-known of the Republicans: John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Lindsay Graham, and most notably of the Democrats Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez.
This bi-partisan group filed an 844-page bill that would respond to both political and business interests for reforming the nation’s immigration policy.
The bill passed in the Senate with a historic 68-32 decision. Republicans in opposition cited that the reform wrongly relies on amnesty provisions, and cannot ensure that border enforcement measures are met.
In June of 2014, the Gang of Eight bill expired the 113th day in congress. The GOP continued to push back against amnesty for the 11 million undocumented individuals already living in the United States.
“We go up to congress every year to advocate for immigration reform,” recalls South Carolina immigration attorney Amanda Keaweny. “I remember sitting in and a congressman from Spartanburg, and his staff told us that they were not doing anything until Obama was out of office.”
Keaweny left congress that day feeling extremely frustrated.
“Anything? So we are not doing our job until Obama is out of office is what he was saying. And that was when Obama still had two more years” Keaweny continued, “what frustrates me so much is the congressmen that are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars can just say we are not doing any work until the administration changes.”
After the House walked away, Obama stepped in.
President Obama took matters into his own hands after reports in June 2014 that House Speaker John Boehner said he was giving up on immigration reform for the year.
Shortly after those reports, Obama gave a Rose Garden address promising to look into executive actions he could take on his own.
Obama made some headway with immigration during his time in office, but when a new administration enters, policies tend to change.
Immigration changes under President Trump
Immigration got a new - and very negative focus - under President Trump’s leadership. Having campaigned on the idea of building a physical wall to prevent Latino families from entering the United States, Trump continued to highlight Mexicans and immigrants from other Central and South American countries as criminals and created fear among Americans that they were dangerous and taking away jobs and livelihoods of other Americans.
In 2017, Trump added to this fear with the Muslim Travel Ban to prohibit travel and refugee resettlement from predominately Muslim countries. The ban was revised three times due to sweeping bans that were deemed unconstitutional. But the third version that barred all travelers from five mostly Muslim countries - Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen - plus North Korea and government officials from Venezuela, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018. However, President Biden reversed the ban with a presidential proclamation in January 2021 just after he took office.
In March of 2020, Trump administered a section of the Public Health Service Act called Title 42, that allows the U.S. government to temporarily block noncitizens from entering the United States in the interest of public health. Though Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists initially opposed the policy, arguing that there was no legitimate public health rationale behind it, then-Vice President Mike Pence ordered them to implement it anyway.
Since Biden took office, Title 42 has been revised three times, mainly just exempting unaccompanied children from being turned away. The order remained largely the same as when it was introduced, until most recently.
The Biden Administration announced on April 1 it would lift Title 42 by the end of May.
Focus on the Mexican border
While American immigration policy is complicated and vast, its focus on the southern border has been the biggest problem - both culturally and politically.
Under both Trump and Biden, U.S. immigration policy has allowed American officials at the southern border to rapidly expel migrants more than 1.1 million times without a hearing before an immigration judge. (The exact number of people expelled is unknown because many have been caught trying to cross the border multiple times.)
Even when a federal judge recently blocked the policy from expelling families, the Biden administration chose to appeal the ruling and has continued (with court permission) to enforce the policy while litigation continues.
Exclusion of a specific group of people for reasons not directly related to any real threat has been a common and unfortunate theme throughout America's immigration policy.
It seems as though we have forgotten that our ancestors were all immigrants. America would not be the powerhouse it is today if it weren’t for those who have come to America from other countries to help build this one. Mexican immigrants are coming here for a better life, they’re coming here to do the jobs most Americans would not want to do.
The following section includes comparisons from my mission trip in 2017 to the Colonials near the Mexico-Texas border by El Paso. I used excerpts of conversations and observations from my journal to compare with new interviews and conversations in 2022.
Why immigrants want to come here: 2017
As David began telling us about Juarez, the smile he wore so proudly clenched, his gaze fell to the ground as he started fidgeting with his hands.
“I didn’t want to leave my home,” David paused, “but we had no choice, we had to leave Juarez.”
He refrained from going into detail about his journey across the border with his family to America, but he did say, “we successfully made it across.”
After seeking asylum in the United States legally, David could not work because in order to get a work permit in the United States, an immigrant must have sought asylum 365 days prior to applying for a work permit.
“I had no option but to work illegally,” David said. “How was I supposed to provide for my family and not work?”
The jobs he was able to get under the circumstances required an abundance of labor, whether he was working in the fields through the night and morning or working construction, the work he was able to do was back breaking, and most times than not the people in charge would not pay David, knowing his situation.
“I worked so hard in America I had a heart attack,” he added. “I couldn't take the stress.”
A girl in our group asked David if things are better. His furrowed brows disappeared.
"Yes, all of my children are U.S. citizens since they married U.S. citizens, except for my wife and I,” David said. “ My family is the American dream.”
America is still seen as the land of opportunity for many people. It is appealing to people from all over the world, especially Mexico, because there are more opportunities for jobs, a good education, and an overall better life.
Why immigrants want to come here: 2022
Between 2017 and 2022, there has been a significant increase in the number of immigrants trying to cross the Mexican border into the United States
Headlines reporting “the highest number of border encounters in 20 years” were the result of trends among an entirely different group than previous years—single adults—who were responsible for more than half of all border apprehensions in 2021.
Apprehensions hit levels not seen in 20 years as more than 1.5 million people arrived at the border and crossed for the first time. Border Patrol agents carried out over 1,000,000 expulsions and deportations.
What changed so significantly in 2021 compared to years prior? The economies of countries such as Honduras and Guatemala were battered by the coronavirus pandemic. Two hurricanes pummeled Central America in November 2020. Latin America already suffered from poverty and violence.
2021 was a very dark time not only for countries around the world, but including the United States, however, it was significantly worse for Latin America.
The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition found that Latin America and the Caribbean experienced the worst economic contraction in the region’s history with the economy declining by 6.7 percent in 2020, with unemployment expected to reach 13.5 percent in 2021, the economic downturn could push 28 million people into extreme poverty.
“Nobody walks across three countries because they want to commit crimes here you know,” states Louise Pocock, a South Carolina immigration attorney, “They come here with the hopes for a better life.”
Barriers in our immigration system: 2017
Soledad is an elderly Hispanic grandmother who lives in blue and yellow house. She had a decorative sun with a welcoming smile on the front, a smile that set the tone for our time with her.
She came out of her house with a plate of tamales for the seven of us and found a tree stump to sit down on.
“When I was much younger, the border between America and Mexico you could walk across freely,” she told us.
For many Mexican immigrants in the 20th century, moving to the United States was not necessarily a one-time journey of permanent relocation.
Since the distance was so short, Mexican citizens could return home relatively easily, and many did so because of improved conditions in Mexico, because of family concerns, or because they had earned enough money to live more comfortably.
“I began coming over here to work as a nanny for a wealthy family,” Soledad recalled. “Things started to worsen in Juarez and my husband and I made the decision to rent this house and stay here to start a family. It felt almost overnight that the border was no longer what it used to be; there was no more going home.”
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, border security increased as fears of undocumented immigration grew.
“Eventually my husband and I wanted to get papers here, but my husband's mother was very ill and he had to go back to Mexico,” Soledad said.
She lived in her house by herself for many years. Border patrol intensified and she was afraid to leave her home.
Soledad’s one daughter who lived in Mexico had a visa where she could go back and forth, but she ended up getting cancer and could no longer visit Soledad.
When I met Soledad in 2017 she had applied for a visa in 2007.
“I didn’t have the money to pay for the visa and forms,” she said. “I had to save for many years.”
The fee for applying for citizenship in 2007 was $640 in addition to the $85 biometric fee for a total of $725.
In 2017 she still had not heard anything about her application and spent her time working for a woman who lived just outside the Colonials.
A Pew Research Study published in 2017 found that Mexican citizens applying for U.S. citizenship in 1995 did not receive their papers until 2015, a common theme among many applying for citizenship from Mexico.
“Sometimes I work 72 hours in the fields and the woman I work for will drive me home and not pay me,” Soledad said. “She threatens to call ICE anytime I say something about pay.”
Soledad admits she is very afraid of ICE.
“I hear horror stories of them coming into people's homes randomly and deporting them immediately,” she said. “This is my home and has been for over 20 years. Anytime I hear a knock at the door I am frightened.”
Ceci Herrera, children’s coordinator for Border Service Corps, points out that this kind of constant fear affects a person’s mental health.
“When people don’t have legal status, it affects their life and it goes with self esteem,” she said.
Despite Soledad’s fear, she does have one big thing to hold onto - and even pass down.
“I bought my house,” she says with a big smile and big tears emerging across her face like a child on Christmas. “In case I ever get deported, I want my daughter to have the land.”
Barriers in our immigration system: Today
At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, “senior officials under former President Donald Trump seized upon an obscure public health rule as their latest tool for achieving an objective they had been trying for years to accomplish: shutting down the asylum system."
On March 20, 2020, under pressure from the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a mass migrant expulsion order under a legal provision that came to be known as “Title 42.”
The order allowed border officials to expel people seeking safety in the United States without giving them any opportunity to explain their fears, even though U.S. law guarantees the right to seek asylum and prohibits sending people to places they will be persecuted or tortured.
The Biden Administration kept many parts of Title 42 in place until May 2022. The primary problem with what remained was that asylum seekers could present their case at the border but then had to go back home and wait indefinitely for their day in court.
“Obviously this is a huge problem,” says Keaweny. “They’re sending them back to places like Tijuana and Juarez, to live at the mercy of these people who live in tent cities, and people who will physically attack them and rob them. You wouldn’t go to Juarez and live in a tent city and feel safe.”
Under Title 42’s mass expulsion policy, people seeking safety could be immediately removed from the United States with no consideration of their claims for protection. Depending on their nationality, they were either simply sent back across the border to Mexico — as has happened to thousands of Haitians — or they are sent back to their countries of origin.
People who are expelled to Mexico are stranded in unfamiliar cities, far from family, friends, and support networks in the United States, relying on overburdened shelters and migrant aid organizations. Organized criminal groups, seeing the vulnerabilities of people cast adrift by the U.S. Border Patrol, often prey on them as well
Herera explains that it’s also more difficult for migrants to make their cases to U.S. border agents.
“One of the greatest challenges with Title 42 is in order for an immigrant to seek asylum they need to prove that there is some grave fear, they need to really prove that they’re in great danger,” she points out. “They cannot just say they’re coming here for a better life to be accepted into the U.S.”
Herrera was at the border in 2017 and she believes it was easier for advocacy organizations to help migrants then.
“2017 was easier for our organization to help asylum seekers,” she said. “We would take them to the airport, the buses, to shelters; we could be more hands on with them, and offer them legal offices to attend to to help their cases.”
Title 42 has made it a lot harder.
“We weren’t receiving asylum seekers,” she says about helping present day. “I’d have to cross into Juarez to do any work, it’s been very difficult.”
A broken system all-around
Many immigrants come here illegally because they have no other options, especially due to the visa backlogs.
In the Visa Bulletin for March 2022, it states that family visas will be granted to people in Mexico who applied on September 8, 1999; September 1st, 2000; September 15, 1997; and April 22, 1999.
Over 25 years these individuals have waited to be granted a visa to legally enter the United States.
Most people coming from Mexico are fleeing poverty, cartels, violence. They do not have 25 years to wait to be granted legal access to come to America.
Given so much negative rhetoric from the Right over the past five years has increased much of the racial bias toward immigrants and especially Latinos.
Keaweny highlights the racial profiling that exists even in parts of the Lowcountry. While many police officers rarely pull over most people for having a tail light out, she tells her clients to beware because they will likely be targeted for minor offenses.
"How many times have I driven around with a tail light out for months, and not even known it, and I've never been stopped?" she says, highlighting the obvious bias. "I mean, that's the really, really sad part. ...I have clients who, you know, they file their taxes, they pay into the system that they keep, they'll never see that money that they've paid into the system. Because unless they can become a permanent resident, they just will not ever see it."
The rhetoric on immigration for decades has been extremely negative, especially during the Trump administration when he campaigned on and promised to “build a wall to keep drug smugglers out,” insinuating that anyone crossing the border illegally was trying to smuggle drugs.
“Everywhere we have good people,” Maria Coronado, Immigrant Rights Field Organizer with the ACLU stated. “And you cannot go and say every single American is a racist or every single Mexican is lazy, no, or that every Mexican is a drug dealer? No.”
Like many immigration advocates, Coronado has grown tired of the stereotypes immigrants face, especially those who claim they are taking jobs from Americans.
“Do you want to work 12 hours a day for $25 a week? Go ahead, take it. Do you want to go and work in the field starting at 4am in the sun freezing sometimes for $5 an hour? Go ahead, take it. Do you want to clean restrooms for $7.25 an hour? Go ahead, take it. ...It’s misinformation that people think we are taking jobs.” - Maria Coronado
Immigration has been a contentious issue for decades. A theme in American history of exclusion of certain races, genders, based on stereotypes and fears.
The Obama Administration is actually responsible for deporting the most immigrants in recent history at 1.6 million during his presidency with just over 400,000 in 2012. The high number reflected an increase in criminally charged illegal immigrants but also non-criminal immigrants, according to data from U.S. Homeland Security.
Keaweny knows first-hand that the “criminal” moniker for many Latin Americans trying to cross the border is not even close to the truth.
“We forget what immigrants do for us,” she said. “Not only do they do the jobs most people would not want to do, like landscaping, housekeeping…Immigrants are the backbone of this country. This country was made on immigrants, our ancestors that were after the same thing, a chance at a better life, a chance of freedom.“