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Liberal Americans like to think of Donald Trump as an aberration and believe that his idea of building a great wall along the US-Mexico border to prevent immigrants from entering the country goes against American values. (After all, as Hillary Clinton says, “We are a nation of immigrants.”) In certain ways, in terms of the grim history of this country, they couldn’t be more wrong.
Donald Trump may differ from other contemporary politicians in so openly stating his antipathy to immigrants of a certain sort. (He’s actually urged the opening of the country to more European immigrants.) Democrats like Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton sound so much less hateful and so much more tolerant. But the policies Trump is advocating, including that well-publicized wall and mass deportations, are really nothing new. They are the very policies initiated by Bill Clinton in the 1990s and—from border militarization to mass deportations—enthusiastically promoted by Barack Obama. The president is, in fact, responsible for raising such deportations to levels previously unknown in American history.
And were you to take a long look back into that very history, you would find that Trump’s open appeal to white fears of a future nonwhite majority and his support of immigration policies aimed at racial whitening are really nothing new either. The policies he’s promoting are, in an eerie way, a logical continuation of centuries of policymaking that sought to create a country of white people.
The first step in that process was to deport the indigenous population starting in the 1600s. Later, deportation policies started to focus on Mexicans—seen by many whites as practically indistinguishable from Indians. Except, white settlers found, Mexicans were more willing to work as wage laborers. Since the middle of the 19th century, Mexicans have been treated as disposable workers. Europeans were invited to immigrate here permanently and become citizens. Mexicans were invited in to work—but not to become citizens.
The legal rationales have changed over time, but the system has been surprisingly durable. Prior to the 1960s, deportation was based openly on discrimination against Mexicans on the basis of their supposed race or nationality. It was only with the civil rights advances of the 1960s that such discrimination became untenable, and new immigration restrictions created a fresh legal rationale for treating Mexican workers as deportable. Having redefined them as “illegal” or “undocumented,” nativists could now clamor for deportation without seeming openly racist.
A closer look at American history makes the notion that “we are a nation of immigrants” instantly darker than its proponents imagine. As a start, what could the very idea of a “nation of immigrants” mean in a land that was already home to a large native population when European immigrants started to colonize it? From its first moments, American history has been a history of deportation. The initial deportees from the British colonies and the American nation were, of course, Native Americans, removed from their villages, farms, and hunting grounds through legalized and extralegal force everywhere that white immigrants wanted to settle.
The deportations that began in the 1600s continued at least until the end of the nineteenth century. In other words, to celebrate the country’s “immigrant” origins also means celebrating the settler colonialism and native displacement that made the United States that nation of immigrants—and this has important implications for immigrants today, many of whom are indigenous people from Mexico and Central America.
Conflicts between immigrants and natives were central to the colonial histories of North and South America, and to the American Revolution. In the Proclamation of 1763, the British attempted to mitigate such conflicts by banning colonist (that is, immigrant) encroachment on native lands west of the Appalachian Divide. The British Crown even restricted immigration itself in another fruitless attempt to balance native and settler interests. These prohibitions were among the major grievances that led to the American Revolution.
Among the list of “injuries and usurpations” carried out by the king that were denounced in the Declaration of Independence, there was the fact that he had “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.” In addition, the declaration claimed, the king had “excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Along with its commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” that document couldn’t have been clearer that the new country would also be committed to a settler colonial project of populating the land with white immigrants and getting rid of the natives. Put another way, deportation was written into the American DNA from the get-go and, put in Election 2016 terms, the new country was, from the beginning, designed as an explicitly racist project to populate the land with white people. Perhaps this is what Donald Trump means by “Make America Great Again!”
Nor did this commitment to white supremacy through immigration change during the initial century of US history. The first Naturalization Act of 1790 encouraged white immigration by basing citizenship on race and offering it liberally to immigrants—defined as white Europeans—who were in this way made the privileged constituency of a new nation that had a slave system at its heart. (Although southern and eastern Europeans would face social prejudice in the United States, immigration and citizenship law always placed them in the “white” category.)
It was not until 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution created the right to citizenship by birth, making it possible for the first time for nonwhites to become citizens. But when Congress passed that amendment, it had in mind only some nonwhites: previously enslaved Africans and their descendants. Here’s the crucial line in which Congress made sure of that: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” Since Native Americans were not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States, they were excluded.
The new racial boundaries were further clarified in 1870 when Congress amended the Naturalization Act by officially allowing, for the first time, some noncitizens of color to obtain citizenship: It extended naturalization rights to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” On paper, this looked like a move away from white supremacy. In the context of the United States at that moment, however, it was something else. It ensured that Native Americans, already excluded from citizenship by birth, would also be barred from obtaining citizenship through naturalization. As for those theoretical “aliens of African nativity” who might be entering the country and seeking citizenship through naturalization, there were virtually none. In the aftermath of hundreds of years of enslavement and forced transport, it would be many decades before any African could imagine the United States as a land of opportunity or a place to make a better life.
And the new Naturalization Act just as explicitly excluded lots of people who were migrating to the United States in significant numbers in the 1870s. If you were European, you were still quite welcome to become a citizen. However, if you were, for example, Mexican or Chinese, you were still welcome to come and work but you weren’t an “immigrant,” since you couldn’t become a citizen. The United States continued to be a “nation of immigrants”—if only of a specific sort.
Citizenship by birth, however, opened a Pandora’s box. Anybody physically present in the country (except Native Americans) could obtain citizenship for his or her children by virtue of birth. Chinese adults might be prohibited from naturalizing, but their children would be both “racially ineligible to citizenship” and citizens by birth—a logical impossibility.
Once citizenship by birth was established, Congress moved to preserve the white racial character of the country by restricting the entry of nonwhites—first with the Page Act of 1875, prohibiting Chinese women from entering the country, and then with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That ban was gradually expanded until, in 1917, the “Asiatic Barred Zone” was put in place. It would span significant parts of the globe, from Afghanistan to the islands of the Pacific and encompass about half of the world’s population. Its purpose was to ensure that, all “Asians” being “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” none of them would enter the United States, and so their racially ineligible children would never be born here and obtain citizenship by birth.
Students of immigration history generally learn about the 1921 and 1924 quotas that, for the first time, placed restrictions on European immigration. Indeed, for about four decades in the mid-20th century, the United States ranked Europeans by their “racial” desirability and offered differential quotas to reduce the numbers of those less desired (southern and eastern Europeans in particular) entering the country.
But while all these restrictions were being implemented, Congress did absolutely nothing to try to stop Mexican migration. Mexican labor was desperately needed for the railroads, mines, construction, and farming that followed in the wake of white settler colonialism and the displacement of Native Americans in the West. In fact, after Chinese immigration was banned, Mexican workers became even more necessary. And Mexicans had an advantage over the Chinese: They were easier to deport. Many, in fact, preferred to maintain their homes in Mexico and engage in short-term migration to seasonal, temporary jobs. So Mexicans were welcomed—as eminently deportable temporary workers.
In this way, a revolving door of recruitment and deportation came to define Mexican migration to the United States. At some points this system was formalized into bracero or “guest-worker” programs, as happened from 1917 to 1922, and again from 1942 to 1964. Nativists could sometimes mobilize anti-Mexican sentiment of a Trumpian sort to justify mass deportations—such as those in the 1930s and again in 1954—that would only reinforce the inherent and public tenuousness of the Mexican presence in the United States.
The formal bracero program was phased out after 1964, but the pattern of recruitment and deportation of Mexican workers has continued to this day. President Obama actually implemented quotas that have pushed the Department of Homeland Security to oversee hundreds of thousands of deportations yearly. Most of those deported are Mexican—not exactly surprisingly, since the legal apparatus was designed for just that purpose. The only thing that’s new is the stated rationale: Now they have been assigned a status—”undocumented”—that justifies their deportation.
Events in the 1960s, including the ending of the bracero program and the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965, made changes that began to treat all countries, including Mexico, the same way. Instead of large numbers of guest-worker visas, Mexico would receive a small number of immigrant visas. But Mexico’s migrant history and its reality were completely different from those of other countries. Given how dependent both countries had become on Mexicans migrating north to work, the stream of workers heading north continued despite changes in the law. The only difference: Now the crossings were illegal.
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act legalized millions of unauthorized Mexicans already in the country and also began the trend toward the militarization and border control. Paradoxically, this only increased the undocumented population because those who made it across were increasingly afraid to leave for fear they wouldn’t make it back the next year.
Meanwhile, civil wars in Central America in the 1980s and 1990s, and subsequent neoliberal reforms and violence, as well as the impact of similar neoliberal reforms and the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexico’s economy in those decades led to significant increases in immigration, authorized and unauthorized. The result was a significant increase in the US Latino population—as citizens, legal permanent residents, temporary legal residents, and unauthorized residents. But the longstanding national sentiment that Donald Trump is now mobilizing—the belief that somehow Mexicans are alien to the nature of the United States—continues, as does a sub rosa desire for a whiter America.
Something else of interest happened to Mexican and Central American migration during these years. As in the United States, indigenous people in these countries have tended to be the poorest, most marginalized, most exploited sectors of the population. As a result, the violence and the socio-economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s disproportionately afflicted them, which meant ever more indigenous people from those countries entering the migrant stream.
By 2010, 174,494 people chose “Mexican American Indian” as their tribal affiliation on the US census, making them the fourth largest group of Native Americans after the Navajo, the Cherokee, and the Choctaw. It’s not clear from the data how many of these were recent immigrants rather than long-term residents, and how many were undocumented. But as the website ThinkMexican commented, “It directly challenges Manifest Destiny, the white supremacist narrative used to justify Western expansion, and the genocide of Native Peoples. The message is clear: This land is still Native.” Another message is clear too: The United States is still deporting its native people.
Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal.