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Push me, pull you, around the world

U.S. policies in the Afghanistan war, and our attitudes toward the refugees it produced, have recapitulated the catastrophes we have aided and abetted for two generations.

Part three of a three-part series.

(CN) — Scholars broadly define “push” and “pull” factors in immigration, “push” being hard times at home, be it war, government repression or disasters, and “pull” the lure of other, more prosperous lands, such as the United States offered throughout most of its history as a nation.

One of the purest examples of a push factor was the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 to 1852, which killed 1 million people and drove another 1 million overseas, at least half of them to the United States.

Caused by a mold called Phytophtora infestans, the potato blight upended Western economies as severely as our present disaster of Covid-19.

Nearly half of the immigrants to the United States were Irish in the 1840s. From 1820 to 1930, roughly 4.5 million Irish emigrants arrived here. This mass emigration led to mass prejudice against the Irish, due in part to their Catholicism, in a generally Protestant nation.

The pull factors were just as obvious. In the 19th century, when the United States was avidly seeking immigrants to cultivate its vacant lands — effectively giving away land to settlers — the prospect of land ownership attracted emigrants from around the globe.

Today, the pull factor of the United States has diminished, with more prospective emigrants from Russia, for example, seeking to move to Germany rather than the United States, for reasons cultural, governmental and geographical.

Since the Reagan administration, and increasingly under Trump, the United States has sought to discourage emigration through punitive policies, including separation of families, denial of work permits, and jailing refugees of war in immigration prisons, where they are subjected to kangaroo courts and summarily deported.

In short: the United States, certainly since 1954, has focused its immigration policies on reducing the pull factor, through harsh laws and enforcement policies, rather than trying to reduce the push factors, such as war, government repression, torture, poverty, disease and hunger overseas.

In fiscal year 2021, Congress appropriated $55.6 billion for the U.S. Agency for International Development, our primary source of humanitarian aid for the rest of the world: easing the push factors.

Also that year, Congress appropriated $703.7 billion for the Defense Department — the push factor — 12,656% more money for military pushing rather than reducing the push from overseas.

Minor adjustments to this ratio could surely help to curtail immigration to the United States.

Operation Wetback

The U.S. Border Patrol packed Mexican immigrants into trucks when transporting them to the border for deportation during Operation Wetback, as seen here in this Border Patrol photo taken circa 1954.

The most egregious example of Washington’s frivolous approach to its own immigration laws was the insultingly named Operation Wetback of 1954. The Eisenhower administration that year arrested and expelled, or returned, more than 1.1 million Mexican farmworkers whom we had invited here under the Bracero Program during labor shortages of World War II and its aftermath.

(A similarly named program, enacted in California in 1855, was known as the “Greaser Act,” as Section II of the “Anti-Vagrancy Act” referred to people of “Spanish and Indian blood” as “greasers.”

(Deportations, returns, and removals are technically distinct under immigration law, but the effect is the same: a person in the United is “removed” from the United States.)

Congress authorized the Bracero Program on Aug. 4, 1942. In its peak year of 1946, almost 450,000 Braceros were admitted. Through the 22-year life of the program, 4.5 million “guest workers” were admitted — an average of 204,500 a year, or 180 a week.

Braceros were guaranteed a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour, but often didn’t get it.

The “wartime Bracero program” ended in 1947, but workers kept coming because there were no legal penalties for hiring “wetbacks,” whose numbers quickly exceeded the number of legally admitted Braceros.

The massive removals that came to be known as Operation Wetback effectively began under the Truman administration in 1951, when it expelled 690,497 Braceros, and another 725,903 in 1952. The mass removals intensified under the Eisenhower administration, which expelled 908,873 Braceros in 1953, followed by another 1,104,541 in 1954, by which time the government had given it, and advertised, its insulting name. (Bear in mind that over the life of the Bracero Program, the United States admitted 4.5 million guest workers: The term “wetback,” therefore, was not only insulting, but untrue. We invited the workers here.)


Removals declined rapidly after the clean-sweep year of 1954, to 249,464 in 1955 (a decline of 77.5% in a single year) and 89,897 in 1956 (a decline of almost 92% from the peak year). However, by then the U.S. government-sponsored program had spawned and institutionalized networks to move workers north.

Agribusiness loved the Bracero Program, as it made union organizing difficult because it supplied growers with labor if farmworkers went on strike. Congress terminated the Bracero Program in 1964, in part because reports of widespread abuse of guest workers had begun appearing in the press.

Two years before that, however, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta had organized the United Farm Workers in Delano, California. Paradoxically, the end of the Bracero Program actually helped UFW organizing, as agribusiness could no longer depend on a reliable supply of Mexican workers. Delano, in the heart of California table-grape country, was an ideal organizing center, as grapes require year-round care, unlike the tree-fruit orchards of the Pacific Northwest.

The UFW called for a boycott of California table grapes in 1965, which gained widespread public support and ended in 1970 with major concessions from farm owners. The long-lasting results of the two programs showed the perverse results of Congress’s short-term thinking about immigration.

First, invite millions of laborers here, on a short-term basis. In doing so, intentionally or inadvertently set up pipelines for mass immigration to the North. Then, no longer in need of short-term gains, expel millions of the workers we invited here, after subjecting them to years of labor abuses, which emerge in the press. Whereupon hundreds of thousands of guest workers decide life is better here, and, with diminished chances of returning, decide to stay. Finally, after years in the shadows, the guest workers can avail themselves of U.S. immigration laws and become legal residents and citizens.

California passed the United States’ first farm labor act in 1975.


In this April 29, 1975, file photo the helicopter zone at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, showing last minute evacuation of authorized personnel and civilians. (AP Photo, File)

Vietnamese emigration to the United States was virtually nonexistent until we entered the war there. The Immigration and Naturalization Service reported only 650 Vietnamese immigrants from 1950 and 1974: twenty-six a year.

In the week before the April 30, 1975 fall of Saigon, 15,000 Vietnamese fled the nation on scheduled flights, and the United States helped evacuate another 80,000 by air — numbers eerily similar to today’s mass emigration from Afghanistan.

Then, as now, Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the United States were often resented here. According to U.S. polls in 1975, only 36% of Americans were in favor of Vietnamese immigration.

Despite this public disdain for a onetime ally, President Gerald Ford and Congress showed some political courage by passing the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, which granted special refugee status to 130,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian citizens who had allied with the United States during the war. (Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, abstained on the final Senate vote on the Act.)

Many opponents, including prominent Republican politicians who had supported the war, objected to the $305 million cost of the Refugee Assistance Act (though Congress had appropriated $828 billion to the U.S. military during the war, and another $111 billion in ancillary spending — 3,078 times more than was appropriated by the Act).

U.S. politicians and citizens also objected that Vietnamese would not be able to “assimilate” to the United States.

The plight of the Vietnamese “Boat People” — about 300,000 of whom drowned at sea — softened U.S. attitudes toward refugees, leading President Jimmy Carter to sign into law the Refugee Act of 1980, which eased restrictions on refugee admissions. It declared that people with “a well-founded fear of persecution” for reasons of “race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” are entitled to political asylum in the United States — a standard that U.S. immigration courts have honored more in the breach than in the observance.


More than 1.1 million people of Vietnamese descent live in the United States today.

Push Comes to Shove

This series has focused on immigration policies of the United States, which have been, almost uniformly, a result of short-term, stopgap thinking. But the U.S. Congress is hardly alone in this.

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, his repressive, fascist policies have caused Chinese emigration to the United States and the rest of the world to more than septuple in eight years.

In 2012, 15,362 Chinese people sought political asylum overseas. Xi took power late that year.

In 2020, 107,864 Chinese citizens sought political asylum in other countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. That year, about 70% of them sought asylum in the United States.

In Xi’s first 8 years in power, more than 613,000 Chinese nationals have applied for asylum in another country. But after years of political incoherence and a major defeat in Afghanistan, the United States has little if any means to influence Xi to reduce his “push” factors.

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the screen, via video conference in Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 28, 2021. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Meanwhile in Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, emigration has increased from 1.74 million in 2009 to 4.65 million in 2019 — an increase of 267%.

More than 10 million Russians live abroad today, according to the World Population Review — third-highest in the world. China ranks fourth, with 9.7 million of its native-born population abroad. Only India (15.9 million) and Mexico (12.5 million) have more emigrants scattered around the world. These raw numbers far exceed the numbers of expatriates even from countries suffering from civil and foreign-sponsored wars (Syria, No. 6 at 6.2 million; Pakistan, No. 7 at 5.9 million; Ukraine, No. 8 at 5.8 million; and Afghanistan at 4.9 million.)

Jewish Emigration

The United States’ shameful treatment of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany is well-documented. Widespread anti-Semitism, immigration quotas and political cowardice, from President Franklin D. Roosevelt on down, was responsible, epitomized by Roosevelt’s refusal to allow the passenger ship St. Louis to dock here, carrying nearly 1,000 passengers, nearly all of them German Jews.

“On the eve of World War II, a bill that would have admitted Jewish refugee children above the regular quota limits was introduced in Congress. President Roosevelt took no position on the bill, and it died in committee in the summer of 1939. Polls at the time indicated that two-thirds of Americans opposed taking in Jewish refugee children,” according to the (U.S.) Constitutional Rights Foundation.

The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where most of its passengers were captured by Nazi Germany and sent to concentration camps. This despite the fact that the Roosevelt administration had known of Hitler’s widespread murder of Jews since 1933. Nonetheless, “Since 1933, the State Department had opposed nearly every attempt to help Jewish refugees,” according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation.


Civilians prepare to board a plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 18, 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)

A primary lesson to be drawn from the historical record is that Congress, and U.S. citizens, are far more likely to support military aid for foreign wars than “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”

For instance, Congress appropriated $5.8 trillion for the 20-year war in Afghanistan — $300 million a day for 20 years. For fiscal year 2022, to begin Oct. 1 this year, Congress previously set aside $136.5 million for an Afghanistan Economic Support Fund — practically none of which will be spent, as it was to underwrite government salaries — and $52 million for humanitarian aid there, Reuters reported on Sept. 4.

A congressional aide told Reuters that Congress instead might appropriate from $144 million to $279 million for FY 2022 for “humanitarian needs,” an amount the aide said Congress has appropriated annually for Afghanistan in the past decade.

Accepting that number at the high end, that comes to $2.8 billion in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan over the past 10 years, compared to $2.9 trillion for fighting the war.

In other words, after 20 years of war, at $300 million a day, Congress is willing to appropriate nine days worth of war funding for humanitarian needs: less than 1/1,000th the amount we’ve spent on war.

As we said above, minor adjustments to this ratio could surely help curtail immigration to the United States.

Goodbye to my Juan, farewell, Rosalita,
Adiós mis amigos, Jesus y María
You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees. …

The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
The great ball of fire it shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends who are falling like dry leaves?
Radio said, ‘They are just deportees’

Woody Guthrie, “Deportee”

(Courthouse News reporter Robert Kahn wrote the first history of U.S. immigration prisons, “Other People’s Blood: U.S. Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade,” Westview Press/HarperCollins, 1996.)

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