History of Discrimination Against Immigrants
Since its founding, the United States has been a destination for immigrants searching for a better life for themselves and their families. At the base of the Statue of Liberty, a plaque reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It stands as a symbol of welcome for immigrants from countries around the world coming to the United States. Since its foundation, immigrants have been making their homes in a wide variety of US states and communities.
The first large groups of immigrants came from northern and western Europe. In the 1850s, groups of Irish immigrants settled along the East Coast and in the southern states. In the 1880s, German immigrants became the largest immigrant group, settling in the Midwest and South. In the 1880s, Chinese immigrants were the largest foreign-born population in the western states. In the early 1900s, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe arrived in the United States. By the 1930s, Italians had become the largest immigrant group in the country. After 1965, the makeup of immigrants changed again. Mexicans became the country's largest immigrant group in thirty-three states by 2013.
According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the United States in the past fifty years, making up a near-record 14 percent of the US population. The foreign-born population is defined as all people who were not US citizens at birth, including documented and undocumented immigrants. Since 1965, the majority of immigrants have arrived from Latin America (51 percent) and Asia (25 percent).
Although they came to the United States to improve their lives, immigrants throughout history have found that settling into American communities has not always been easy. Many have faced discrimination at work, at school, and in the community. Discrimination involves treating people negatively because they look, sound, or dress differently or because they appear to be from another country or from a different ethnic background, even if they are not.
Many immigrants encounter discrimination in their daily lives. Often, this discrimination takes the form of microaggressions, which are everyday nonphysical slights, snubs, or insults. Whether intentional or unintentional, microaggressions send hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to a person based simply on their immigrant status. In many cases, these messages are meant to demean, threaten, and intimidate another person or treat them as if they are inferior. Microaggressions can be subtle. For example, a person who overly compliments an Asian immigrant Page 11 | Top of Articlefor speaking English well may be sending a message that the immigrant is not a “true” American and will therefore always be a foreigner who does not fit in. Other microaggressions are more direct. For example, a person may try to pull at a Muslim woman's hijab, asking her what her hair looks like and whether she is forced to wear it.
DISCRIMINATION AT WORK
Many immigrants face discrimination in the workplace. Coworkers may intentionally and unintentionally give slights, snubs, or insults. Discrimination also occurs when employers make rules that require employees to speak English only or to dress a certain way. Not considering a person for a job because he or she has an accent or an ethnic appearance is also discrimination. For example, if an Indian woman is passed over for a job as a receptionist because the interviewer says she does not have an “all-American” front office appearance, that is an example of outright discrimination.
Many immigrants do not feel comfortable standing up for their rights, which can lead to some employers and others taking advantage of them. Recognizing the immigrants’ desperation to keep their jobs, some employers pay them less and make them work in undesirable and even unsafe conditions. Undocumented immigrants in particular are targets for discrimination at work, as they are often reluctant to make complaints and may not be fluent in English. An undocumented immigrant living in Oklahoma, Ignacio says that he has lost more than $100,000 to fraud, as a supplier for Page 12 | Top of Articlehis secondhand toy store took his money but failed to deliver a trailer full of merchandise. Afraid of being deported, Ignacio never reported it to the police.
Immigrants also face discrimination when trying to find a safe, affordable place to live. Realtors may not show them all available apartments or homes for rent or sale. Landlords may charge immigrants increased rents and fees. Some landlords will take advantage of immigrant tenants. In Utah, one landlord knowingly rented apartments infested with bedbugs to families of Myanmar refugees. If a family reported the bugs, the landlord charged them expensive fees to have the bugs removed. If they did not pay, the landlord threatened to have them evicted. Unable to speak English well and unfamiliar with their rights, many of the families agreed to the landlord's demands, even though they were being exploited.
Another example of discrimination against immigrants is when schools ignore the needs of immigrant students. It is discriminatory for service providers to require identification of both parents and children before processing requests for services or denying service requests entirely because of a parent's limited ability to speak English. When this happens, immigrant children or children of immigrants may have trouble accessing health care or necessary educational services.
WHAT CAUSES DISCRIMINATION AGAINST IMMIGRANTS?
Many times, discrimination against immigrants is fueled by racism. Immigrants from different parts of the world may look, sound, or dress differently from the majority of people in the communities where they live. Studies have found that immigrants with darker skin and thicker accents are more likely to experience discrimination than light-skinned, English-speaking immigrants. According to a 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute, darker-skinned Latino immigrants are more likely to earn lower wages and be stopped by the police than lighter-skinned Latino immigrants.
Discrimination against immigrants is also caused by fear. Many people fear that an influx of new workers into the economy will cause them to lose their jobs and their ability to support their families. According to a 2014 Reuters/Ipsos poll, 70 percent of Americans said undocumented immigrants threatened traditional American beliefs and customs and jeopardized the US economy. Others feared for their personal or national Page 15 | Top of Articlesafety after terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida, were tied to immigrants.
UNDERSTANDING LEADS TO AWARENESS
In recent years, the increase in state measures aimed at cracking down on undocumented immigrants in the United States has also fueled anti-immigrant sentiment. As a result, many immigrants, and those who appear to be foreign born, have experienced more incidents of discrimination. For example, Arizona passed a controversial law in 2010 that required law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of everyone they encountered during a lawful stop, detention, or arrest if they had a reasonable suspicion that a person was undocumented. Opponents of the law protested that it encouraged police and community discrimination against immigrants. “A vastly disproportionate number of Hispanic Americans or Hispanic people in Arizona will be subjected to extra police intervention,” said Jack Glaser, an associate professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, in an article posted on the American Psychological Association website in September 2010, after the law's passage. “Even people who are completely legal, natural born citizens will now have a different existence in Arizona.”
After several legal challenges to the law, Arizona announced in 2016 that police officers would no longer be required to demand immigration papers from people suspected of being undocumented.
Understanding the history of discrimination against immigrants in the United States and how and why it occurs is the first step toward creating awareness. When people learn to recognize discrimination in their day-today lives, they can take measures to stand up, speak out, and safely confront it.