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Hirota Talks Historical Stigma Around Undocumented Immigrants in the U.S.

The difference between the terms “legal immigrant” and “illegal alien” lies in racial prejudice, according to Hidetaka Hirota, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It’s simply racist, in essence, because the native has associated a figure of the ‘illegal alien’ with non-white immigrants, especially Mexicans in particular, you know, by willingly [overlooking] the simple fact that the undocumented immigrants do include Europeans,” Hirota said.

Boston College’s Irish studies and history departments welcomed Hirota on Wednesday night to speak on the origins of the term “illegal alien,” specifically when referring to Irish, Japanese, and Mexican immigrant populations in the 19th century.

According to Hirota, historians have identified two legal origins for the term—one of them being the Chinese Restriction Act of 1882 that banned Chinese laborers from entering the United States. 

“[It] … created the category of unlawful Chinese who entered the United States in violation of this law,” Hirota said. “So the Chinese Restriction Act did create the very category of illegal Chinese, like unlawful Chinese.” 

The other legal origin of the term is the Immigration Act of 1924, according to Hirota. This act not only eliminated immigration from Japan, but it also only granted immigration visas to two percent of each nationality living in the U.S., further hindering undocumented immigrants from gaining employment.

“The history of both laws is relatively well known among historians of the United States,” Hirota said. “It is no doubt that the modern concept of illegal alien[s] originated from these laws.”

Hirota then pivoted toward discussing the history of the Foran Act of 1855, which he said resulted from fears of immigrant workers threatening standard wage and employment rates in the U.S. 

“This act penalized individuals or companies for importing contract workers, foreigners and foreign workers under contract, and the law was eventually, in the following years, amended to ban the admission of foreign workers who were imported under labor contract by the employers,” Hirota said.

This act soon became known as the Alien Contract Labor Law, and Hirota said it divided immigrants in America by punishing and isolating those who migrated to America under a working contract. 

“[There] was this idea that those who came to the United States with pre-arranged labor contracts or assistance from a third party, such as employers, were degraded and undesirable,” Hirota said. 

Hirota said the British government, for example, financed the migration of the Irish to America. As a result, some Americans at the time believed they would also eventually have to financially support Irish immigrants through their tax payments, according to Hirota.

“So that’s the kind of perception that Americans got, and our civil immigration left some tangible impact on immigration law,” Hirota said. 

Hirota said Japanese immigrants were similarly criticized for working in America under contracts, leading to the racial stereotype that all Japanese immigrants were contract workers.

“The point is that those Japanese were sort of, you know, categorically thought [of] as contract workers, you know, degraded unfree contract workers coming to the United States with systems from third parties,” Hirota said. “And as such, they weren’t going to be great people. So it’s not just about labor competition.” 

Many Mexican immigrants also worked as contract laborers for the large number of employers and companies in the border towns of Texas and Arizona, according to Hirota. 

“Those companies routinely sent recruiters or agents into the interior of Mexico, where they kind of disseminated information about employment in [the] U.S. among the local Mexicans,” Hirota said.  

Hirota concluded that the origins of the term “illegal alien” come from legal acts put in place in the 19th century, as well as ideological conditions such as racial prejudice. 

“This distinction really [laid] some of the crucial foundations for the modern-day distinction between the ‘illegal alien’ and ‘illegal immigrant’,” Hirota said.

February 19, 2023