According to Brian Gratton, a professor at Arizona State University and an expert on the history of immigration, America is in its third wave of strong anti-immigration feelings. In the 1850s, many Americans hated the Irish and Catholics.
"They were abjectly poor. They were the most important single group in prisons and in crime," Gratton says. "They were a very boisterous and contentious group and there were a lot of riots between natives and the Irish in the streets."
Gratton says the United States has never been a country to welcome mass migration. Those feelings were stunted by the larger crisis of the Civil War, but in the 1920s, an influx of Eastern European immigrants once again sparked anti-immigrant fever, leading to the National Origins Act of 1924, which created immigrant limits for each nation and effectively ended massive immigration to the United States.
There was no limit established for Mexico, and many Mexicans found work in the United States through the Bracero program until it ended in 1965. Gratton says today's influx of immigrants from Mexico, and the reaction against them, is in line with history, with one major exception: the question of legal status. He says the problem of citizenship — who deserves it and who doesn't — is what has caused the vitriolic reaction to this current wave of immigrants. He says the heated debates at the state level are a direct result of inaction from the federal government.
"The way I measure popular opinion in Arizona and how the parties have failed to respond are in the 2006 Arizona propositions," he says. "There were four propositions that were decidedly anti-immigrant, and those things passed by 75 percent."
Gratton is referring to ballot measures passed by Arizona voters in November 2006 that: 1) denied bail to immigrants who commit serious felonies; 2) declared English the state's official language; 3) banned undocumented immigrants from using state funds for adult education (including English classes) and child care; 4) banned undocumented immigrants from suing for punitive damages in civil cases.
Though these measures are sweeping, the 2004 state elections only set the stage for those opposed to immigration. Activists and lawmakers on both sides of the debate over Proposition 200, which requires proof of citizenship to vote and register for social services, say it was the turning point that paved the way for the more dramatic 2006 resolutions to pass.
In 2004, the year Andrew Thomas ran for office, a local poll showed 54 percent of voters in favor of anti-immigrant Proposition 200. Two years later, the same poll showed 64 percent of Maricopa County voters were in favor of anti-immigration ballot measures.
"It's a dramatic illustration on how parties have failed to respond," says Gratton. "When they don't respond, the people will. And you get, in my opinion, more extreme legislation and more extreme positions."