Frank Bean, chancellor’s professor of sociology and economics at UC Irvine, presented a lecture entitled, “Immigration: Its Past and Future Significance for the United States,” an analysis of the history of immigration in terms of present and future trends, to a full audience at Langson Library on Wednesday, Nov. 18.
Bean gave the talk in conjunction with the opening of an exhibit at Langson Library featuring the lives and histories of immigrants in Orange County.
Discussing the history of immigration in the United States, Bean explained the changes in nationality, motivation and popular reception of immigrant groups from different eras.
“Throughout most of our history, immigrants have served a useful purpose in American society and contributed to nation building. It was not without stress and strain, but for the most part, they were well received,” Bean said.
The National Origins Act, passed in 1924, which established quotas limiting immigration, contributed to the most recent change in American immigration.
“After the war, the quota remained, but was an albatross to the geopolitical situation of the United States in those days,” Bean said.
The act, which also entirely excluded Asian immigration, was overturned in 1965. Nonetheless, the flow of eastern and southern Europeans, the primary immigrants of the last era, dwindled dramatically due to extensive economic programs that made jobs readily available in their home countries.
What remained was immigration from Latin American countries and Mexico, which Bean described as “spill-over” from the Bracero Program. This contract labor program began in 1942 and brought Mexican labor into the United States to fulfill the great need for manual labor during World War II.
Although Latin American immigration has been prominent in the United States for over 40 years, Bean described a recent shift in popular sentiment regarding these immigrants.
“Twenty-five years ago, people went back and forth [on the border] without issue. Now an atmosphere of enforcement has taken hold,” Bean said, emphasizing the increasingly common practice of putting the burden of proof on immigrants themselves.
“You have to prove yourself,” Bean said. “That, I think, is a different sentiment than one that has existed through our history.”
Bean further suggested that it is more difficult for citizens to be sympathetic toward immigrants when they are contending with their own economic hardships. However, Bean stated that the United States must reach out to these immigrants.
“We can’t just pull up our drawbridge,” Bean said, “We are an aging nation and we need workers. We need immigration as much now, or more than any time in our history.”
University librarian Gerry Mitchell explained that the topic was originally intended to mark the tail end of a heated debate produced during the presidential campaign. Instead, economic issues dominated discussion during the election, but Mitchell maintained the current importance of immigration issues.
“[The topic is] still going to be of relevance to the country and California in particular,” Mitchell said. Though immigration reform is no less an important concept, public opinion has recently focused on a new crisis.
“Six months ago this would have been a great topic, how the new administration should develop immigration policy. Now it’s the economy,” Bean said.
Mitchell explained that the goal of the library lecture series is to highlight faculty and expertise. “We ask them to speak to an educated, well-informed, but still, lay audience,” Mitchell said.
The exhibit, Immigrant Lives in “The OC” and Beyond, features items related to the history of immigration in Orange County and California, including excerpts from anti-Japanese literature, other anti-immigrant propaganda, photography of immigrants working in fields and picketing signs and materials from recent immigration rallies.
Daniel Tsang, a social sciences data librarian, was the curator of the exhibit. Tsang, a former immigrant from Hong Kong, stated that he feels close to the issue, since he collected several of the items on exhibit himself from rallies he attended.
“I hope that [the exhibit] will be enlightening. Most people see immigration from their own perspective,” said Tsang. “I wanted to pay tribute to those who came before us and the sweat and tears of those who made Orange County what it is today.”
The exhibit, housed in the Muriel Ansley Reynolds Exhibit Gallery, will be on display in the main lobby of Langson Library until May 2009.