Op-Ed: The Immigration Debate: Implications for the Caribbean Diaspora

Opinions on the U.S. immigration debate provided by Lear Matthews and Nadine Wedderburn

The recent media-saturated conversation about immigration in the U.S.A. has evoked widespread opinions and emotions, but the motivation and consequences that emerge from this discourse are not new.

Essentially, those who advocate a restrictionist view of immigration typify a throwback to a time when the nation was gripped by nativist and xenophobic practices.

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Response to anti-immigration attitudes

The Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act) was a response to pervasive anti-immigration attitudes in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian, “In all of its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” Later, the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the use of national-origin quotas and introduced preference categories for family ties and employability.

Simmering social issue

Today, what has long been a topic of national importance for some has become a simmering social issue churned by politics, economics and beliefs related to ethnocentric ideals. Added to this is the constancy of pernicious assumptions about the relationship of race, ethnicity and the granting of citizenship. Not to mention the fact that both Republican and Democratic politicians treat immigration like a political ‘football’ or ‘hot potato’.

The current rumblings over DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), chain migration (a slur in our view), the Diversity or Lottery Visa program, insistence on entry based on ‘merit’, and the symbolism of border security, are at the epicenter of the debate. However, these issues have become an albatross for those who genuinely seek to bring about effective, comprehensive immigration reform that would benefit both immigrants and the American society.

The consequences of prolonged negotiations, characterized by mistrust and posturing, can be detrimental.

A few under-reported facts are essential in this inherently caustic debate.

Contributes to population growth

First, immigration contributes to population growth compared to natural increases. In the context of an aging U.S. population and shrinking working-age population, migration flows are not only needed, but are likely to continue at sustained levels.

No harm to America’s economy

Secondly, research has shown that immigrant flows do not harm employment prospects of Americans (Boubtane, et al 2017). Business leaders tend to view immigration favorably, as a source of low-wage workers that keeps overall product and operation costs low.  

Meanwhile, there is some confusion, albeit deliberate misinformation about what constitutes chain migration. It is suspected that the focus on ending chain migration is a guise to eliminate family reunification (established under the Immigration Reform Act of 1965), in favor of immigrants with “skills” and “merit” determined to be beneficial to the United States. To this end, the president of the United States created a firestorm by implying that “merit” should be measured by race and ethnicity/country of origin – with a preferential bias toward countries like Norway. In this regard, Krishnadev Calamur (2018) found very little evidence to suggest that because immigrants from Norway and other Scandinavian countries are white, they assimilate into the U.S. easier. He further notes, “Norwegian immigrants did so poorly in the United States that about 70 percent of them returned and stayed in Norway”.

It is important to note that the terms ‘merit’ and ‘skilled’ are not the exclusive domain of highly educated/trained professionals, but include non-professionals and menial immigrant employees, who have been admitted to the U.S. from countries throughout the world. They too are assets, not liabilities to their adopted home, contributing to the economic engine of America. Ignoring this is a repudiation of the nation’s principles grounded in hard work, opportunity, and ambition.

The Caribbean Diaspora

It is a known fact that since the 1950s and throughout the end of the last century, the U.S. systematically destabilized Latin/Central American and Caribbean nations to favor large corporations and hurt poor people, many of whom belonged to indigenous groups.  Migration flows from this region must be understood with this reality in mind. The conditions created by waves of interventions (military, diplomatic, and economic) and ‘structural adjustment programs’ across the region became the impetus for many to seek better life opportunities in countries like the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain.

More specifically, English-speaking Caribbean immigrants are among the burgeoning numbers of people comprising the most recent wave of new global citizens to settle in North America.  They have become a part of an expanding “Caribbean Diaspora.” Information about their transnational experience, like other new comers, is subject to the perceptions, perspectives, as well as the biases, stereotypes and misconceptions portrayed by the media, politicians and civil society. One such impression that is framed by these forces is the assumption that political decisions regarding DACA and other immigration policies only apply to Mexicans and Central Americans. Contrary to this view, immigrants from other countries, including those from the English-speaking Caribbean are also affected. Moreover, thousands of Nigerians faced deportation following the repeal of DACA (Meyerson, 2017).

Devastating social and emotional costs

If, indeed, there is an increase in deportation and suppression of family reunification because of changed policy, not only would it be traumatizing for immigrant families, but also the social and emotional costs could be devastating and unprecedented.

The increase in deportations to the Caribbean has continued under the present administration. When immigrants are uprooted and sent back to their country of origin, not only is family life disrupted, but, children in particular, whose parents are deported face mental health and social dislocation consequences. As observed by Caldwell (2017), this is true for those who remain in the U.S. separated from deported relatives, as well as those who leave the country in order to preserve the family’s unity.

Notably, the following deportation numbers for the Caribbean region in 2017 are quite revealing. Jamaicans 782; Trinidad and Tobagonians 128; Guyanese 137; Haitians 5, 578 (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations Report, 2017). Comparatively, in the first three months of 2017, ICE ordered the deportation of more than 1,200 Africans (Solomon, 2017).

Challenging reintegration of deportees

The reintegration of deportees into the home society is challenging. For many deportees, there is the need to re-socialize to the Caribbean (home country) culture or be introduced to a social environment they hardly know. Diaspora Hometown Associations in collaboration with government and non-governmental agencies could be instrumental to the reintegration process. The response of Caribbean governments to this potential crisis will determine their legacy in the realm of humanitarianism for birthright citizenship.


Lear Matthews, DSW, is a native of Guyana in South America and Professor of Community and Human Services in Manhattan, New York.  Nadine Wedderburn, Ph.D. is a native of Jamaica in the Caribbean and Professor of Public Policy in Schenectady, New York.  Both are faculty members of the State University of New York.


Boubtane, P. (2017) Immigration, Unemployment and Growth in the Host Country. Institute for the Study of Labor.

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