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Political scientist updates students on immigration

Tori Roeck | Monday, October 14, 2013

Rogers Smith, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a lecture Friday that amid the government shutdown, the immigration debate in the United States stands in a similarly “gridlocked” state.  
The talk, titled “Immigration and American Identity in the 21st Century,” sponsored by the Constitutional Studies program, explored the notion of American civic identity with regard to immigration issues.
“The controversies surrounding immigration, I’ve argued, are bound up with many factors – economic concerns, partisan concerns – but also with very deep concerns about what American civic identity should be in the 21st century,” he said.
Smith said those advocating the opposing sides to the immigration debate do so passionately to defend their conception of the United States.
“Immigration is a critical battleground in a long-running and now severely polarized struggle for American identity, a struggle in which many on both sides feel they cannot lose because they’d be effectively giving up on the America in which they genuinely and profoundly believe,” he said.
The traditional idea of America conflicts with the country’s current state, Smith said.
“Our problem is that for a powerful minority of Americans, the America that is distinctly instilled [is] subliminally a predominately white, predominately Christian, predominately male-led country, and in contrast, it’s still growing to figure out what the concentrated majority believe in and now comprise an America where its leaders are far more ethnically, racially, religiously and sexually diverse,” he said.
The notion of an all-white America originated with the Jacksonian Democrats who specified citizenship as only available for white males, Smith said. A new racial consciousness emerged after the Civil War, but it then led to immigration restrictions in racial terms, he said.
“The first actual immigration restriction law is the Chinese Exclusion Act that excluded Chinese laborers but only Chinese laborers,” he said. “The Chinese were singled out exclusively on grounds that they were racially unfit.”
Smith said the United States initiated immigration quotas based on national origins in the 1920s.
“In the 1920s, we got the national ordinance quota system, which was explicitly invented as an effort to prevent racial transformation of America by assigning countries quotas that represented their nationality’s share of the U.S. population toward the end of the 19th century,” he said.
The 1965 immigration law put a cap on immigration from Mexico, which created the illegal immigration problem the United States has today, Smith said.
Now, the immigration debate has become a partisan issue, but still unites groups that would not necessarily align in other political issues, Smith said. For example, labor unions and extremely conservative politicians both agree on restricting immigration, while economic conservatives and social liberals agree on loosening restrictions, he said.
Smith said the current “gridlock” on the issue of immigration reform derives from a shift in focus within the Republican Party.
“In the spring and summer 2013, Republican strategists began arguing explicitly that Republicans could win in the future without catering to Latino voters,” Smith said. “They took notice of the fact that according to exit polls, no Democrat has carried white voters since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.”
Despite a shutdown in the political debate, Smith said he is confident the new diverse conception of America will prevail.
“A predominately white, predominately Christian, predominately male-led America will finally be driven off stage,” Smith said. “… The question is, ‘How much damage will be done to this country by the politics gridlock that began before this change comes?'”