La Historia Uncovered Season 2, Episode 3: “The Roots of Immigration Policy”

By Viviana López Green, Senior Director, Racial Equity Initiative, UnidosUS

On December 7, 2021, UnidosUS Senior Cabinet Advisor Charles Kamasaki joined activist and author Julissa Arce for Episode 3 of La Historia Uncovered, “The Roots of Immigration Policy.” Their conversation looked at how race, as much as any other factor, has driven U.S. immigration laws and how the structure of those policies continues to have an outsized impact on Latino communities today.

Kamasaki is the author of Immigration Reform: The Corpse That Will Not Die, and he has written a number of blog posts on the topic, including “US immigration policy: A classic, unappreciated example of structural racism.”

Following the theme of the series, their conversation began by clarifying some of the ways race has been present in U.S. immigration law and policy from the country’s founding, as Julissa Arce discusses in her blog for UnidosUS “The Structural Racism of Our Immigration System.”

For example, when the United States was founded, naturalization was limited to whites of “good character” who had been in the country for at least two years. This limit expanded to include residents of the territories acquired in 1848 as a result of the Mexican-American War, many of whom were Latino—making the idea of white citizenship even more complex, especially since it wasn’t until 1940 that Congress clarified that Mexicans and other Latin Americans were eligible to naturalize. After the U.S. Civil War, citizenship again expanded to include Black Americans. As a result of the Spanish American War of 1898, Puerto Rico became a U.S. colony (and after 1917 its residents became U.S. citizens, but with restrictions). Meanwhile, not all Europeans were considered “white” at this time, and the idea of Europeans as “white” evolved in ongoing conversation and conflict with the world’s non-white peoples.

This longer history underscores how Latino citizenship in America has often come as a result of conquest, war, and colonization—what might be called the nation’s second “original sin.”

How does structural racism (which was discussed in the second episode of this season of La Historia Uncovered) show up in the ways immigrants are treated?

The treatment of different groups of immigrants serves as a litmus test for whether structural racism is present. When America experienced vast waves of European immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not all immigrants arrived legally. Many arrived via what was essentially indentured servitude (their passage to the country was paid for by an employer and the cost of that passage was paid off via work), and while this form of entry “with a tag on” was at the time illegal, few were deported or punished for it. During the Holocaust, immigrants had to leave their countries by use of false names or forged documents or job claims in order to enter. Entry to the United States based on these improper documents was also illegal, yet these immigrants also were not deported and the laws of the time were designed to protect them, including statutes of limitations that no longer exist in our immigration policies.

Much of this has changed since the 1970s, which—not coincidentally—is when immigration to America shifted from being predominately European to predominately Hispanic and Asian, as is discussed in UnidosUS’s paper on systemic racism and Latinos.

The changes to immigration policy since the 1970s indicate the extent to which race drives our current immigration laws and practices.

After the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, the numbers of Latino and other “non-white” immigrants rose sharply. Although the law was designed to fix the problem of restricting immigration only to certain European countries, it opened new problems in terms of racializing immigrants from other places, including immigrants from Latin America.

Changes in access to welfare highlight these differences, as described in this paper from the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Before the 1960s and 1970s, the majority of immigrants came from Europe and could access a wide range of benefits, including a statute of limitations on undocumented entry, ability to receive a Social Security number, access to Medicare, food stamps/SNAP, housing assistance, and welfare, among others. The undocumented parents of U.S.-citizen children would not be deported without them. Ronald Reagan’s rise as governor in California tested and introduced many new restrictions, which denied these benefits to Mexican and other immigrants coming across the border, and the policies spread to the nation as a whole.

As important as it is to understand this history, the media—conservative and mainstream—has played a role in shaping immigration policy. Media coverage of immigration tends to be ahistorical, both unaware of this long history and unattuned to the reasons behind changing levels of immigration.

The U.S. government, for example, has supported or sponsored many Latin American dictatorships, causing civil war and economic instability in their home countries, and driving citizens of those countries to emigrate.

The media prefers to cover conflict, meaning that the most extreme voices, such as anti-immigrant voices, are the ones that are heard. Negative coverage, such as former California Governor Pete Wilson’s series of dark ads about people sneaking across the border or the terms used to describe immigration—like “crisis,” “flood,” and “illegal alien”—racializes the media’s images of immigrants.

It’s been more than 45 years since the 1965 immigration law, and the country is long overdue for immigration reform, an issue that UnidosUS has supported for years.

What is next to fix this broken system?

While President Biden’s comprehensive immigration reforms have little chance for enactment, there is some potential relief for long-term undocumented immigrants in the administration’s “Build Back Better” bill, which offers major fixes to how we treat undocumented immigrants. Although far less than advocates prefer, the fact that some form of relief has remained in the legislation throughout the process is a hopeful sign to Kamasaki of the power of the argument in favor of reform.

This conversation was part of La Historia Uncovered Season 2, a series of thought-provoking conversations intended to inspire and strengthen our understanding of the deeply rooted history of our Latino community in the United States. If you missed this episode (or the other episodes on voting rights and critical race theory), you can find the recordings on our website and YouTube channel, and on our corresponding blogs at We encourage you to spread the word about the series so we can continue to empower our community with the knowledge of our history and fight against systems that have kept us from recognizing our own power as a unified community.

If you want to learn more, watch our short video and blog series with Julissa Arce on “Latinos and Racial Justice.” For the most up-to-date information about UnidosUS efforts on racial equity, follow UnidosUS across all social media platforms at @WeAreUnidosUS and Julissa Arce at @julissaarce.