Lara Putnam: Families and the Cost of Borders

Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age, by Lara PutnamWe welcome a guest post today from Lara Putnam, author of Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age. In the generations after emancipation, hundreds of thousands of African-descended working-class men and women left their homes in the British Caribbean to seek opportunity abroad. But in the 1920s and 1930s, racist nativism and a brutal cascade of antiblack immigration laws swept the hemisphere. Facing borders and barriers as never before, Afro-Caribbean migrants rethought allegiances of race, class, and empire. In Radical Moves, Putnam takes readers from tin-roof tropical dancehalls to the elegant black-owned ballrooms of Jazz Age Harlem to trace the roots of the black internationalist and anticolonial movements that would remake the twentieth century.

In the following guest post, Putnam brings historical insight to the current public debate over reforming immigration laws in the United States and highlights the importance of supporting family networks with the policies we make.—ellen

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We’re finally starting to talk about the costs of our broken immigration system.  As Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick write in a recent Wall Street Journal op ed,

The best way to prevent illegal immigration is to make sure that we have a fair and workable system of legal immigration. The current immigration system is neither.

“Our immigration system should reward anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules,” argued President Obama in his “commonsense immigration reform proposal” this week. What some listeners may not realize is that making it possible to work hard within the rules will be a radical change.

I am always amazed by how many students tell me they assumed undocumented workers enter illegally by choice: that they choose it to “avoid paying taxes” or “jump in line.” All parts of this are wrong. There is no line moving toward legal entry for the vast majority of people who want to come and work. And working illegally is the opposite of a free ride. Undocumented workers do pay taxes: sales taxes, property taxes, social security and other deductions from paychecks. Indeed, our Medicare and Social Security systems are currently subsidized eleven billion dollars a year by contributions taken out of undocumented workers’ wages (via fake social security numbers), whose benefits those workers will never see.

Just like with Prohibition’s attempt to ban alcohol in the 1920s, outlawing something that is an integral part of your economy and society doesn’t end it: it just makes it illegal, adding risk and violence, hiking enforcement costs, creating new ways for criminals to profit.

Some of the deepest costs of our prohibitionist immigration system have to do with family. And they’re not just emotional costs—they’re economic costs as well.

The way family and work fit together is one point that Bush and Bolick get wrong, and in doing so they miss one of the strongest arguments in favor of their proposals. Noting (accurately) that two-thirds of legal immigrants today come under family reunification rules, Bush and Bolick argue that these entries are “crowding out work-based immigration and placing increased pressure on social services. . . . This chain migration does not promote the nation’s economic interests.”

Bush and Bolick are wrong to think that the mobility of children, parents, and siblings adds nothing to our economy but needy mouths. Families do all kinds of things, from raising children to caring for the elderly to turning raw materials into meals. Just how efficiently families match resources, labor, and need in a constantly shifting balance only becomes visible when you make it impossible.

Making border-crossing risky, costly, even deadly, our Prohibitionist system makes coming to the U.S. a one-way valve. Once you get across, you’re unlikely to head home, because you know how hard it would be to get back in.

Families divided by borders pay huge costs, economically and emotionally.

It’s a matter of the life cycle.  What we’re capable of and good at changes over the course of our lives. Extended families take advantage of that to produce food, wages, and care all at once. Picture a home in rural Jamaica. The land belongs to a woman in her eighties, who can no longer walk about as she used to. But she supervises her grandchildren as they feed the goats, and she cares for the trees growing around her yard, so that there’s not just food on her own table, but more to be shared with sons and daughters who work in the city an hour away. Their wages help out in turn. Children may live with Grandma while they’re toddlers or in elementary school, then join their mother or aunt in the city when they need more advanced schooling.

Families spread internationally rely on the same kind of intergenerational efficiency. If you’re the child of immigrants you know this. Perhaps you were sent home to Delhi for a summer here and a year there, or perhaps you spent your first years in the corner store your parents owned and your Korean-born halmoni ran, minding the till and keeping you out of trouble at the same time.

Undocumented workers can’t create this kind of flexible support. Maybe I’m a young woman cleaning houses in Pittsburgh, sending money home to Guatemala so that my own mother can pay the bills and keep my children in school. What if someone falls ill? Do I risk everything to return home? Do I pay hundreds of dollars to an illegal guide, and spend months in terrible fear until my eight-year-old is finally by my side?

My historical research shows me these costs in vivid detail. In 1924, immigrants from the British Caribbean were placed under the emerging U.S. prohibitionist system for the first time. Before that date, any Caribbean immigrant who was healthy, literate, and could demonstrate they had resources or a job waiting and so would not become a “public charge” was allowed in. After that date, only a tiny handful of visas were allotted, and they went disproportionately to the islands’ white elites.

U.S. consular files for the years before 1924 show us Caribbean migrants making highly efficient use of long distance ties to facilitate reproductive labor—although of course they didn’t call it that. They called it taking care of family.

Listen to the words of one man, residing on West 143rd Street in New York City, asking for a visa for his sister in Jamaica:

I please to State that I intend to keep her here for about 6 month with us as it is fully 13 years Since I left home—And she is the only sister I have, and my wife is very anxious to know her, besides my wife is in delicate health then I would want [my sister's] assistance here for about 6 months to keep the house untill she is better.

Or the words of a woman on West 139th Street, writing to the same U.S. consul about her plans to pay for her youngest sister’s schooling in New York:

I want her to learn nursing so that when she get back there she will be able to make a living by it. For as mother is dead and father marries again I want to do my best for her. While I have the opportunity. Of course she will have to do a little work during her study for every body does it here so as to assist their assistant. . . . So kindly grant her, her departure, dear Consul, for I shall devoted all my care on her as a dear sister.

In 1923 the answer to those petitions, and hundreds like them, was yes. After July 1924, the answer was no. No brothers, no sisters: and no opportunity for children or spouses to rejoin immigrants either, unless the immigrant had already become a citizen. U.S. consular files from 1924 become a heartbreaking litany of families rent apart by borders, struggling to find ways to reunite.

Ultimately, families endured, despite new costs and risks, inefficiencies, long absences. Those who could, continued to rely on loving homes far away. Indeed some key contributors to twentieth-century U.S. history—from Stokeley Carmichael to Shirley Chisholm, Harry Belafonte to Kenneth Bancroft Clark, and more—are Caribbean Americans who received part of their education “back home” on the islands in the care of grandparents.

Our current prohibitionist system makes it impossible for family to do the work family does best. The one-way valve created by illegalization means that the eleven million unauthorized immigrants among us face only painful and costly choices when it comes to family ties. Resources they could draw on—to work harder, invest more, give back more to the communities around them—are cut off. They’re wasted.

The second “pillar” of the bipartisan senators’ proposal put forward this week urges:

Reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families.

It may be a throwaway line—”family” isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the document—but it’s truer than they realize. Reform can hugely strengthen families: as much by allowing immigrants to leave and reenter as needed, as by making it possible to bring family members here when needed. The results will build our economy, and our humanity as well.

Lara Putnam is associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age and The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870-1960.

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