In 1987, reports that agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) were entering schools and arresting and deporting undocumented Latino children, raised concern with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). ''Somebody needs to put the administration’s feet to the fire,” LULAC president Oscar Moran, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told the Chicago Tribune at the time. Citing a much-needed “attitude change,” the organization called for the resignation of then INS Commissioner Alan Nelson, who angered the civil rights organization for striking fear and terror among undocumented immigrants.
Condemning the INS’s heartless tactics, LULAC expected support from Sen. Joe Biden, someone with oversight powers to reign in Nelson. But LULAC was unable to make headway with the Delaware senator who was cautiously gearing up for his first presidential run, hoping to win back the blue-collar white voters who had left the Democratic Party a few years prior. Ronald Reagan consolidated support among these voters by painting the Democrats as overly concerned with minority rights, while Reagan promised to “make America great again” for union workers.
Nelson continued on as director and in 1994 co-authored California’s draconian Proposition 187, a bill that denied state services to undocumented immigrants and momentarily rebranded the GOP into an anti-Latino, anti-immigrant party. The label has been a hard one to shake. Twenty-five years after its passing, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla reflected on what NPR called the “permanent wedge” Prop 187 lodged between California Latinos and the GOP. “For all the emphasis on family values or entrepreneurship or anything else, it's really hard for a Latino to accept that if what you hear much more loudly is, we don't want you here,” Padilla, a Democrat, said.
In one of his latest moves, President-elect Biden nominated a Cuban American, Alejandro Mayorkas, to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the federal agency responsible for overseeing border security, immigration and customs. With a Hispanic person and an immigrant at the helm of DHS, Biden is hoping to send a conciliatory message to Latinos, and Latino immigrants, who have endured four years of a Trump-controlled DHS. A time during which, the agency has expanded its capacity of punitive enforcement by separating migrant families from their children, and made migrant “cages” a household word designed to strike fear across the Americas.
The appointment is also a recognition that even though Trump increased his support among Latinos, the majority of this electorate went for Biden. That Mayorkas was a top official in President Barack Obama’s DHS, which was responsible for increasing deportation procedures and ramping up the privatization of the migrant-prison industrial complex, has raised concern among a large swath of the Latino electorate that voted for Biden, and who have grown leery of the use of politics of identity in political appointments.
Since the 1970s, both parties have utilized identity politics in making cabinet appointments as symbolic overtures to Hispanic Americans in the arena of housing, education, labor and immigration policy. In 1977, during President Jimmy Carter’s first year in office, he appointed the first Mexican American to lead the INS, a recognition of the long-contentious relationship Mexicans in the United States have had with la migra since 1924, when the Border Patrol was created. Both Carter and his pick, Leonel Castillo, believed this could be repaired with a son of Mexican immigrants. “I would rather have people come to this country in broad daylight, walking straight across the border with their rights fully protected,” Castillo told a reporter. But Castillo didn’t last long, resigning two years later, unable to fundamentally change the agency from within to include a more human rights approach toward immigrants from Latin America.
In the ensuing years, Latino organizations tussled with administrations from both parties, challenging appointments made high on representation but short on substance. In 1983, the Cuban American community in Miami, which was as solidly supportive of President Ronald Reagan (as it was of Trump in 2020), bristled at some of his appointment missteps. When Reagan appointed a Cuban American to a presidential commission on Central America, the Miami Cubans immediately protested his appointment, charging that he was soft on Castro and would therefore be soft on communism in Central America.
The foreign policy-minded Cuban Americans became even angrier at Reagan when his INS deported a “Marielito” exile to Cuba, threatening to undermine the special asylum status they enjoyed since the 1960s. During the 1980 mass emigration of Marielitos — exiles fleeing from Port Mariel, Cuba on flotillas numbering around 125,000 — the agency built detention center facilities across Florida. There, they imprisoned the largely stigmatized, working-poor Cubans and Afro-Cubans in makeshift jails — and used an Atlanta Correctional Facility when they ran out of room.
Possibly fearful of making any further appointment blunders with Hispanics, Reagan allowed Congress to tackle immigration reform without his interference. In 1986, Reagan signed the landmark passage of Immigration Reform and Control Act, the largest amnesty program in modern American history, granting legal status to about three million undocumented people. In its aftermath, Latino political organizations came to view legislative and executive action on immigration as requiring well-organized political advocacy rather than a single appointee with a Spanish surname. “We’re not looking for trophies,” said the National Council of La Raza in 1993, signaling that they wanted more substantive input instead of the mere optics of representation.
Much to their consternation, in Bill Clinton’s White House, they received neither. Clinton directed his administration free of Latino appointments in meaningful positions, steering his Democratic Party more to the center with a series of bills like welfare reform and the crime bill. Viewing immigration policy from apprehension to deterrence, Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 which helped lay the groundwork for much of the punitive deportation measures taken during Obama and Trump administrations, such as the streamlining of deportations without due process and the militarization of the US-Mexico border through measures like Operation Gatekeeper and Operation Hold the Line. Under Clinton, the INS increased its deportation capacity from 69,040 in 1996 to 111,000 people in 1997 (76% of the deportees in 1997 were Mexican nationals).
Biden has presumably learned more about Latino voters since 1987 when he brushed aside LULAC’s concerns about the INS Director. He hasn’t learnt enough, however, to realize that picking a DHS official from the Obama era — with its unprecedented escalation of deportations of 3 million people — is a mistake. A large segment of Latino voters who turned out for Biden, the candidate who promised to reverse Trump’s anti-immigration assault, will feel let down by such an appointment. How Mayorkas operates his DHS will have the potential to define what Bidenism means for millions of Latinos in the US, many immigrants themselves.
The stakes could not be higher for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the US during a pandemic that has only exacerbated the risk for exploitation and vulnerability in every facet of their lives, and who have endured a more punitive government with every passing administration. This requires leadership on immigration beyond facile identity politics, and with an actual commitment to what it means to approach our immigration crisis with justice in mind.
Presidential administrations will continue to champion diversity and inclusion through the cabinet appointments they make — but overhauling immigration will require more than optics.
Mike Amezcua is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, where he specializes in 20th-century US history; Latinx history; race, politics and immigration. He is the author of a forthcoming book on the making of Mexican Chicago (available in 2021 from the University of Chicago Press).