The Strange Convergence of Affirmative
Action and Immigration Policy
I n the early 1990s, when a sharp recession increased unemployment and threatened job security throughout the United States, newspapers began publishing stories about immigrants participating in affirmative action programs. 1 The issue was especially controversial in cities with large immigrant populations, such as Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Washington, D.C. Civil rights leaders, anxious to protect affirmative action programs from criticism, avoided discussing the issue, as did immigrant rights leaders. Government officials responsible for affirmative action programs, unable to avoid comment, generally reiterated agency guidelines on eligibility, a response which affirmed, often in obfuscating bureaucratese, that immigration status was generally not relevant to affirmative action eligibility.
These stonewalling strategies by beneficiary groups and agency officials were often successful in deflecting criticism and sidetracking the issue. Affirmative action programs were a confusing mix of federal and local, public and private, court-ordered and agency-mandated. Journalists were rarely able to ferret out specific information about how many immigrants were benefiting from which programs. Larger issues, moreover, dominated the news in the early 1990s: the end of the cold war, the winning of the Persian Gulf hot war, the Bush-Clinton-Perot presidential contest, the controversies over national health care insurance and gays in the military, the Republican sweep of Congress in 1994. Affirmative action for immigrants was an emotion-laden issue, especially during recession, but it was not generally a page-one news item. Resentment of immigrants, though strong in the heavy immigration states of Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas, was not a powerful grassroots force in most other states. 2