Skip to Main Content
Maxwell School
Maxwell / News & Events / Maxwell Perspective Current Issue

From Maxwell Perspective...

 Making Sense of a Crazy Mixed Up World

Crossing Borders

Faculty experts on immigration and refugees remind us that, in many senses, this has all happened before.

By Renee Gearhart Levy

President Donald Trump set off a firestorm of protest in January after signing an executive order designed to implement “extreme vetting” of foreigners entering the United States, including a temporary ban on immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia — predominantly Muslim countries. Although the order and its amended version have been blocked by federal courts, uncertainty lingers.

“A lot of people were shocked by this, but it’s important to remember that we’ve done things like this before. It’s precedented,” says Elizabeth Cohen, associate professor of political science. “In some ways, we’re re-enacting Yellow Peril.”

"In some ways, we’re re-enacting yellow peril."
ELIZABETH COHEN

Cohen, an expert on the politics of citizenship and immigration, is the author of Semi-Citizenship in Democratic Politics (Cambridge University Press). Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mellon Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation, where she was a visiting scholar during 2014-15. She’s a member of the editorial board of Citizenship Studies and is frequently called on for commentary, including invited opinion pieces in the Washington Post and Politico.

The Yellow Peril was a period of Chinese exclusion in the late 19th century, when the United States invalidated the travel papers of people of Chinese descent and made them ineligible for citizenship, actions she says were prompted by racism and fear of competition by members of American unions. “Treating non-western migrants with suspicion is a deeply unfortunate tradition in the U.S.,” she says. “It is also inevitably something we later apologize for.”

Special Series: International Issues
>>Crossing Borders
>>Partners No More
>>China: It's Complicated
>>Fragile States
>>The Enemy Online
>>Putin the Meddler
>>Beyond Anyone's Control
>>Helping Hand

Another much-discussed piece of President Trump’s immigration reform plan is the proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Some experts caution that rather than keep undocumented people out of the U.S., it could have the unintended effect of keeping them in. According to Cohen, approximately five percent of the U.S. workforce is undocumented, around eight million immigrants in total. They work in the United States, but they aren’t eligible to become permanent residents and many consider this country a temporary worksite. “We know the Mexican population in the U.S. is quite mobile. Maybe they do work here; maybe they have family here. But their home could be in Mexico,” she says.

Sociologist and demographer Amy Lutz says the circular migration pattern between Mexico and the United States began to change as the border became militarized, beginning with the Immigration and Control Act during the Reagan administration and continuing with Operation Gatekeeper, which increased the number of border patrol agents and militarized the border. People still came to the United States, she says, but fewer left. A wall may only worsen that situation, “as it will make it more expensive and dangerous to get here,” says Lutz, whose research focuses on children of immigrants and race ethnicity.

Forced to make a choice to be stuck on one side of a wall or the other, Cohen says, some of those people are going to find it impossible not to be in the United States. “The thing that compels people’s choices are their most pressing attachments,” she says. “If their attachments are here — their livelihood or their family — that may push someone to overstay a short-term visa and become undocumented.”

“If Trump extends the existing border fence and deploys an enormous deportation force of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, he effectively seals in and immobilizes anyone who overstays a visa,” she wrote for Politico.

Based on empirical evidence, the perceived threat from Mexico is misguided, says Jamie Winders, O’Hanley Faculty Scholar in geography and editor of the International Migration Review. “The flow of undocumented Mexican immigrants has been decreasing since 2007, and by 2013 more Americans were moving to Mexico than Mexicans moving to the U.S.”

While controversial, Trump’s border wall proposal is not unique. According to Corri Zoli, research assistant professor of political science and research director of SU’s Institute forNational Security and Counterterrorism, there have been more than 65 border walls built around the world since 2000. “We’re entering a new period in which nationalism in its various forms is making a return, and globalization appears to be challenged on many different fronts — in the case of Brexit, which also involved popular anti-immigration feeling, as well as in successive elections in Europe,” she says. “Even across the Middle East, Central and South Asia, there are walls going up between Turkey and Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and elsewhere.”

In Europe, anti-immigrant parties and candidates have been getting elected for decades, says Cohen. “Although there is xenophobia on both sides of the ocean, the xenophobia in Europe has had an institutional outlet for a lot longer and those parties are very well entrenched,” she says.

"For a growing number of people, migration is complicated, dangerous, and prolonged."
JAMIE WINDERS

During the latter half of 2015, more than 1 million asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East crossed the Mediterranean or traveled over land to enter the EU, causing the greatest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. According to Winders, who studies the geography of global migration, these migrants spend extended periods of time in transit while risking starvation, drowning, and kidnapping. They are often detained in refugee camps indefinitely. “For a growing number of people, migration is complicated, dangerous, and prolonged. An act that previously took one or two days now stretches into months, if not years, for some,” she says.

Cohen recently finished a book that scrutinizes the waiting periods immigrants and others face awaiting citizenship, The Political Value of Time: Citizenship, Duration, and Democratic Justice (Cambridge University Press), to be published in November. “All countries impose various waiting periods on immigrants who want to become citizens. We know that the waiting periods exist for a reason but we don’t always agree on what it should be,” says Cohen, who serves on the advisory board for the American Bar Association’s Citizenship in the 21st Century project. She examines what those waiting periods are supposed to mean and how people are affected when they organize their lives around arbitrary time boundaries.

Her next work examines the concept of “waiting in line” for citizenship. There are so many different trajectories for citizenship seekers, she says, you couldn’t place them in a single line. But, she says “the metaphor has stuck.”

“Sociologists talk about the white working class in the U.S. and the notion that immigrants are pushing ahead of them regarding the American dream,” she says. “That’s what the psychology of being told we’re in line does; it puts us in competition with each other and creates hostility toward anyone we believe is cutting in line.”

But there is no finite amount of citizenship, she says. “It’s not something that has to be mined out of the earth. There is enough for everyone.”

Photo Credit: Csakisti/iStock

This article appeared in the spring 2017 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2017 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.