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John Nieto-Phillips
Department of History

Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Department of History

Issues in Immigration: Perspectives from historians at IU

July 3, 2007

EDITORS: John Nieto-Phillips and Khalil Muhammad are professors of American history at Indiana University who study immigration and race relations. Both are available to comment on issues related to immigration in the U.S. and the likely legacy of current immigration debates. Contact information is provided below. For additional assistance, contact Elisabeth Andrews, IU Media Relations, 812-855-2153 or

Immigration's coming storm: Crises intensify in education, healthcare, housing, poverty and disenfranchisement.

John Nieto-Phillips

John Nieto-Phillips

Even after failing to advance in the U.S. Senate last week, immigration reform remains a top issue in the U.S., especially at the local level, said John Nieto-Phillips, a professor of history at Indiana University.

"The defeat of major immigration reform will only defer solutions to problems that affect communities nationwide," he said. "Immigration -- legal and illegal -- will continue to grow. Local officials and lawmakers will continue to feel the effects of a growing undocumented population, including strains on community resources, the education system and law enforcement. Legislative, political and even physical attacks on undocumented immigrants will not disappear. As long as undocumented immigrants are segregated from and not integrated into society, the chances of addressing issues fundamental to the well-being of communities are nil. I think a storm is brewing in the form of growing crises in education, healthcare, housing, poverty and disenfranchisement."

Standing in the way of beneficial reforms are widespread misconceptions about the impact of foreign-born workers on the U.S. economy, Nieto-Phillips said.

"The media continue to promote misperceptions that undocumented immigrants lower wages, take 'American' jobs, and take more in social services than they contribute in taxes. In fact, research shows no direct association between immigration trends and native-born employment or wages. Undocumented workers accept types of jobs that many American workers refuse. And, they pay up to $7 billion a year in Social Security taxes which they will never be eligible to receive. This amounts to a subsidy of the federal system that never trickles down to the communities."

Mistaken beliefs about the impact of illegal immigration feed attitudes towards immigrants and their families that are clearly inhumane, he said.

"The de-humanization of undocumented immigrants is evident from the use of the term 'illegals' as a noun to describe people. Then you look at proposals like Texas state Representative Leo Berman's plan to deny U.S. citizenship, healthcare and public education to their U.S.-born children -- which is a profound challenge to the Constitution. It's a fundamental concept of the developed world that children cannot be punished for the alleged crimes of their parents. We don't punish the children of drunk drivers or serial killers, yet there's a segment of American society that is tempted to use children as leverage or as hostages in the immigration debate."

Nieto-Phillips said it's time for lawmakers and the public to come to grips with the reality of ongoing immigration, which he says will not be slowing down anytime soon. Attempting to build an impenetrable wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, he said, is clearly absurd and a waste of taxpayer money that could be used on education and healthcare.

"The idea that we can somehow shut our doors to immigrants by spending billions of dollars on a Berlin Wall-type thing is terribly naive," he said.

Nieto-Phillips studies race and citizenship in the United States, with a particular focus on 20th-century immigration from Latin America. He is available for interviews in Spanish and English. He can be reached at 812-855-8589 or by email at

History is on the side of immigrants succeeding in the U.S., but mass detentions following 9-11 could cause some groups of Latinos to be viewed as criminals into the foreseeable future, said Khalil Muhammad, a professor of history at Indiana University who studies race relations and immigration.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Khalil Gibran Muhammad

He referred to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system established in the 1920s, as a move primarily intended to correct a racist past. The current debate, in contrast, is framed around questions of amnesty. This approach casts Mexican immigrants as law breakers first and foremost, unlike earlier waves of immigrants who were seen as settlers pursuing a better life.

"Here we have a moment where the rationale is defined by a problem of security, and forgiveness seems to be, at best, economically motivated," he said.

Wide-scale INS detentions in the wake of 9-11 effectively reinforce the criminal characterization of undocumented immigrants, especially Mexicans. He drew a comparison to the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans who are incarcerated, and how this phenomenon is seen as proof of black criminality.

"In this country, if you are incarcerated it is ipso facto proof that you are a criminal," he said. "The fact that 50 percent of the prison population is African-American is seen not as evidence of a problem with the criminal justice system, but as a problem of racial inferiority."

Similarly, the 275,000 immigrants who are now held in custody may be regarded as a testament to the criminal tendencies of some Latin-American groups.

"The use of detention to deal with immigrants is likely to result in an enduring cultural association of criminality and immigrant status, regardless of how legislation eventually plays out," he said.

Muhammad studies race relations and racial ideology, immigration and urbanization, and social science and social reform. He can be reached at 812-855-7504 and