Originally published by The New York Times
President Trump has inspired widespread outrage and disgust with his crude, racist disparagement of Haiti, El Salvador and African nations and the predominantly black and brown immigrants from these places.
As horrifying as this remark was, his groundbreaking transparency provides an opportunity. Racism has long fueled United States immigration exclusions and restrictions, but these days it’s rare to hear rhetoric that openly reflects this reality, providing us a chance to delve into its roots and implications.
We’ve grown accustomed to the dog-whistling of anti-immigrant racism. Where blood, purity and civilization were once its everyday vocabulary, anti-racist and immigrant rights activism have, at least until recently, succeeded in forcing such talk underground. Our era’s seemingly race-neutral languages of security, legality, culture, productivity and assimilation are often strongly inflected with racial meanings, but they’re subtler and deniable, attracting far less opposition than, say, likening countries to outhouses.
Public utterances like Mr. Trump’s have and should inspire outrage, but we need to go deeper, challenging the racist views — both flagrant and soft-pedaled — that have long shaped America’s immigration policy. And we need to ask hard questions about the ways racism has decisively, durably shaped the immigration debate in ways that usually go unnoticed.
The truth is, many of the United States’ early policies toward immigrants were conceived in recognizably Trumpian terms, in substance if not in tenor. The president’s headline-making sentiment that people from countries like Norway (read: white people) were preferable would have been recognizable to the founders.
The nation’s first naturalization law, from 1790, closed off United States citizenship to all but “free white persons of good character.” People of African descent were among the first migrants singled out for surveillance and exclusion, as they sought entry to the country or moved between states. State repression of black migrants transformed them into America’s first “illegal immigrants,” laying the groundwork for durable associations between law, morality and the need to keep people of color, quite literally, in their “place.”
The racialization of United States immigration law took off in the decades following the Civil War. Beginning with the Chinese, migrants from Asia were the early targets; beginning in 1917, an “Asiatic Barred Zone” (with latitude and longitude markers laid out clearly in the legislative code) kept out migrants from an imaginary mega-region that stretched from contemporary Turkey to Papua New Guinea.
In the aftermath of World War I, a new “national origins” quota system sought to turn back the American demographic clock, with European immigrants admitted in proportion to the presence of their “nationality” in the American population based on earlier censuses. It was “Make America Great Again” for a eugenic age. Hitler was a fan. America appeared to be “a young, racially select people,” he wrote admiringly in 1928, by “making an immigrant’s ability to set foot on American soil dependent on specific racial requirements,” among other factors.
The United States’ unapologetically racist immigration codes — with Asian exclusion and “national origins” at their core — survived the Great Depression, World War II, and the beginnings of the Cold War and decolonization; the presumption that the United States was or should be a white fortress in a mostly colored world was backstopped by science, religion, scholarship and popular culture. American law did not allow Asians to obtain citizenship until 1952.
Under the pressure of anti-racist and immigrant rights pressure, the system fell in 1965 with the passage of the Hart-Celler Act, which foregrounded family reunification, refugee admissions and the entry of the highly skilled and educated. But racism persisted in both policy enforcement and popular attitudes.
New caps on Western Hemisphere migration — flying in the face of United States demand for workers, an entrenched labor migration industry and poverty and repression in Latin America that forced thousands into exile — outlawed decades-old migration flows. In the 1990s new nativist movements directed against Latin Americans arose, as well as efforts to eliminate migrants’ rights to basic services and the expansion of immigrant incarceration and mass deportation. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the principle that immigrants from Muslim-majority countries required special scrutiny and restriction was central to the remaking of immigration policy in the name of national security.
The prevailing questions we’re conditioned to ask about immigrants have all been deeply shaped by histories of racial restriction. Can “we” assimilate and civilize “them”? Will “they” — despite their negative features and the risks they pose — make “us” wealthier and more powerful? Will “they” sap “our” resources?
This past week, liberals, progressives and others protesting Mr. Trump’s comments about Haiti, El Salvador, and the countries of Africa understandably rushed to defend them as beautiful, dignified places unworthy of his vulgar derision. But in this defensive posture of response, which inadvertently legitimates the questions it answers, one can also feel the overwhelming presence of racist suspicion and hostility roaring out of the past into our time.
We will not, ultimately, succeed in deposing Mr. Trump’s hateful, racist approach toward immigrants unless we refuse not only his nastiest word choices, but also the underlying questions he and others insist we ask.
We can choose to ask different questions: To what extent are the countries of the global north implicated in forces that prevent people in the global south from surviving and thriving where they are? In what ways do restrictive immigration policies heighten the exploitation of workers? How does the fear of deportation make migrant workers easier to discipline, hurt and rob? In what ways does mass migration from the poorer parts of the earth to centers of wealth and power reflect the larger problem of global inequality?
Elites in the United States and elsewhere — long before Donald Trump’s presidency — have long known they could sustain their power by capitalizing on, deepening and, where necessary, inventing divisions between self and other, friend and enemy. This political strategy, with troubling successes to its name, has been updated and rescaled for our globalized age, in which the fault lines are those of bordered nationality: There will be no protection offered from polluters or health insurance companies, but the threat of Muslims and Mexicans will be met.
To the white nationalists’ war cry against migrants, “You will not replace us,” we can and should reply, as have many before, “You will not divide us.”