Deirdre M. Moloney: State and local immigration policies affect U.S. foreign affairs

National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy since 1882, by Deirdre M. MoloneyWe welcome a guest post today from Deirdre M. Moloney, author of National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy since 1882. In the book Moloney places current debates about immigration issues in historical context. Focusing on several ethnic groups, she closely examines how gender and race led to differences in the implementation of U.S. immigration policy as well as how poverty, sexuality, health, and ideologies were regulated at the borders. In the following guest post, Moloney examines the domestic and foreign relations at stake in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling over Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070.


The potential for racial profiling has been widely debated in the four key provisions of the Arizona immigration law, S.B. 1070. In the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of that law, handed down in June 2012, the Court upheld the right of police in that state to ask for proof of citizenship status during routine traffic stops, while striking down the other components of the law. In response to widespread concern that this provision would lead to racial profiling, the Court acknowledged that it might have to revisit the Arizona law if such a trend emerges.

But there is another historically significant dimension to the decision that has received less media attention: ceding to states greater authority to regulate immigration would have represented a significant devolution in federal power.

Until the late nineteenth century, and especially before the Immigration Act and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, states exercised the power to regulate immigration. Such laws often targeted impoverished immigrants who might become dependent on charity or require institutional care.

Part of the rationale for the shift to a federal immigration function was an understanding that immigration regulation was a vital aspect of diplomatic relations, a power that resided with the federal government. Indeed, in the first decades of the twentieth century government officials in France, Turkey, and Mexico intervened in U.S immigration cases and voiced their concerns about controversial U.S. policies involving their citizens.

They objected to U.S. rules that aimed to prevent the migration of young French immigrant women thought to be victims of sex trafficking, the exclusion of Turkish Muslims from the U.S. because of their religious beliefs, and the widespread deportation of Mexican workers during a little-known 1920s agricultural downturn that preceded the Great Depression.

The significant role that immigration policy continues to play in U.S. foreign affairs has been lost in current debates about immigration in the U.S. Immigration has always had critical consequences for immigrants’ countries of origin, from money sent to family back home to the brain drain for educated workers. Immigrants and their children have long continued to shape political and cultural developments in their homelands.

The flow of people across borders is a natural consequence of global expansion and economic growth. As the United States forged closer trade, economic, and military ties with specific countries, that relationship often ignited interest in migration to the U.S. Americans’ long tradition of religious missionary work abroad, and the ensuing familiarity with American belief systems and institutions, has long fueled immigration to the U.S. The export of American consumer products, whether Singer sewing machines or popular music, leads to further global interactions.

How the U.S. treats those within its borders reverberates internationally, by influencing its global reputation, as well as its international economic relationships. That was true during the days of steamships, letters, and telegraph cables, and it remains true in our world of jets, Skype, and YouTube.

Although rising hostilities toward immigrants can be partly attributed to post-9/11 concerns about border security, the trend was becoming evident at the state and local levels before that tragic event. Immigrants’ rights have been under steady attack since 1994, when California’s Proposition 187 was approved. Though that state law, which would have rendered non-citizens ineligible for social services, was ultimately found unconstitutional, it took particular aim at undocumented immigrants from Mexico. And it led to a wave of state actions treading on federal legal turf and a steady erosion of immigrants’ rights, as well as intensified prejudice and discrimination.

Most recent attention has focused on laws passed in Arizona and California, historical Mexican territories that have long been magnets for immigrants. But laws have also proliferated in places lacking long traditions of immigration, including Alabama, Hazelton, Pennsylvania; and Prince William County, Virginia. Throughout the United States, state, local, and county ordinances have been designed to deny services or to expel immigrants.

The modern civil rights movement illustrated quite dramatically that federal power is often necessary to secure the rights of disenfranchised people in the face of defiance by local authorities and communities. State, county, and local governments, already stretched by recessionary cuts, have inadequate resources to enforce the laws, leading to less humane treatment and lengthy detention. In its recent decision, the Supreme Court rightly reaffirmed that the power to regulate immigration resides with the federal government, not state and local governments.

Our immigration policy has consequences far beyond the arrest, detention, and deportation of undocumented immigrants. Such laws affect family members, who are increasingly likely to be U.S. citizens. And they also weigh on local communities and businesses, which are often punished by harsh immigration laws when such hostile actions lead to an exodus of immigrants.

Immigration remains vital to U.S. growth and innovation, as it has since America’s founding. Just as immigrants’ and citizens’ rights are now inextricably linked, we need to remember that when we act locally, those effects are felt globally.

Deirdre M. Moloney is director of fellowships advising at Princeton University and author of National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy since 1882 and American Catholic Lay Groups and Transatlantic Social Reform in the Progressive Era.