So, about that insurrection

Edition #7


When I first sat down to write this newsletter, it had just turned 2021 — a “new” year, I was told. And some things did, for a hot second, seem different. Then, The Insurrection™ happened.

I had planned to write this newsletter edition on Adam Goodman’s The Deportation Machine: America's Long History of Expelling Immigrants, but I’ve pushed that back. Instead, I’m sharing a handful of shorter readings, old and new, that may help explain what happened on January 6 in Washington, D.C. — and why.

On what happened:

What Parler Saw During the Attack on the Capitol (ProPublica)

In which 31 journalists at the investigative outlet ProPublica stitch together a visual timeline of the storming at the Capitol using videos uploaded on Parler, a messaging platform favored by the far right.

Among the Insurrectionists at the Capitol (The New Yorker)

A skinny man in dark clothes told the officer, “This is so weird—like, you should be stopping us.”

The officer pointed at each person in the chamber: “One, two, three, four, five.” Then he pointed at himself: “One.” After Chansley had his photographs, the officer said, “Now that you’ve done that, can I get you guys to walk out of this room, please?”

“Yes, sir,” Chansley said. He stood up and took a step, but then stopped. Leaning his spear against the Vice-President’s desk, he found a pen and wrote something on a sheet of paper.

“I feel like you’re pushing the line,” the officer said.

Chansley ignored him. After he had set down the pen, I went behind the desk. Over a roll-call list of senators’ names, the Q Shaman had scrawled, “its only a matter of time / justice is coming!”

Is This Really Happening?’: The Siege of Congress, Seen From the Inside (Politico)

A hundred feet in front of us, a half-dozen police officers armed only with handguns stood in front of what looked like a large piece of furniture that had been pushed in front of the main chamber door. I cannot overstate how terrified we all were, not knowing what was coming next.

How the rioters who stormed the Capitol came dangerously close to Pence (The Washington Post)

About one minute after Pence was hustled out of the chamber, a group charged up the stairs to a second-floor landing, chasing a Capitol Police officer who drew them away from the Senate.

Why the Capitol was so easy to breach (Curbed)

(This one is by me — full disclosure!)

Countless protests have been staged in and around the building in recent years, most of them peaceful. However, activists have been swiftly escorted out of these demonstrations — sometimes, they have argued, too swiftly and with too much force.

The response to Wednesday’s chaos stood in sharp contrast. For one, Capitol Police were not armed in riot gear to begin with, as law enforcement on crowd control duty have been at almost every large protest against police brutality in D.C. in recent months. When the mob breached the guardrails, the building was locked down, yes. Tear-gas canisters were shot, and yes, some police inside the chambers drew their guns. But others tried to “let them do their thing,” according to the New York TimesVideos also emerged of some police personnel opening up the barricades and taking selfies with the intruders once they were inside the building.

But it was not about a lack of barricades or of boots on the ground. None of this will go away if more public spaces are further fenced off and boarded up. As long as disproportionate force is used against the people who want to declare their humanity, and those who want to deny that humanity are escorted gently out the doors they have just destroyed, the fundamental institutions of American society will continue to replicate the violent myth that only certain lives matter.

On the context:

The Capitol Riot was an Attack on Multiracial Democracy (The Atlantic)

The chaotic scene in Washington was familiar to American history but foreign to many living Americans—an armed mob seeking to nullify an election in the name of freedom and democracy. The violence was a predictable consequence of the president’s talent for manipulating dark currents of American politics he does not fully comprehend. What transpired yesterday was not simply an assault on democracy. It was an attack on multiracial democracy, which is younger than most members of the Senate.

The Washington Post described the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol as “would-be saboteurs of a 244-year-old democracy.” But true democracy in America is only 55 years old, dating to 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act guaranteed suffrage—at least on paper—to all American citizens, regardless of race. Four decades later, a multiracial coalition elected a Black president. As in the past, the rise of Black men to political power made some white Americans question the wisdom of democracy.

Citizenship once meant whiteness. Here’s how that changed. (The Washington Post)

By the early 19th century, communities of free people of color were large enough to challenge many white people’s conceptions of black people’s “proper place.” Born in America, their “proper place” was in America, as citizens.

White politicians clung to the idea of a “white men’s democracy,” tying political rights to white male identity rather than property holding or free status. In 1790, Congress had limited naturalization to “free white” persons, leaving out enslaved people, indentured servants and most women. In the 1830s, as Southern state legislatures expanded voting rights to all white men, they also discussed the need to “remove” freed slaves from their states. To them, free people of color challenged the neat equation of full citizenship for white men, degraded status for others.

The struggles of free people of color prefigured the fights for civil rights that have occupied us ever since. Not only Southern but Northern states limited their rights to travel, join professions and receive the same education as white people. After the Civil War, the same limits were imposed even more widely and given the name Jim Crow.

This white rationale for citizenship was then applied to immigrants who came from China to mine for gold and build railroads. When they sought to bring wives and start families, they, too, were excluded from citizenship. Other immigrants — from Syria, Japan and India — had to pass the legislative test of proving they were “free white persons” to naturalize to citizenship. But those who couldn’t meet those whiteness standards, such as immigrants from India, lost their land and were deported.

Riots, White Supremacy and Accelerationism (Lawfare)

Accelerationism is the idea that white supremacists should try to increase civil disorder—accelerate it—in order to foster polarization that will tear apart the current political order. The System (usually capitalized), they believe, has only a finite number of collaborators and lackeys to prop it up. Accelerationists hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle more and more people join the fray. When confronted with extremes, so the theory goes, those in the middle will be forced off the fence and go to the side of the white supremacists. If violence can be increased sufficiently, the System will run out of lackeys and collapse, and the race war will commence.

Toward a Global History of White Supremacy (Boston Review)

Because white nationalists are primarily concerned with the racial integrity of states, they have wrongly been assumed to be parochial in their politics, focused solely on domestic issues. In fact, transnational ties and transnational flows of culture and capital have long undergirded the pursuit of white racial nationalism. The success of Brexit, for example, emboldened Trump’s nativist supporters to see themselves as part of a global movement that could achieve power in the United States. Trump’s victory in turn inspired the Christchurch killer, who praised the U.S. president as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” We need to understand the history of these connections if we are to grasp what has sustained white nationalism despite global trends toward liberation and equality.

White nationalism is an ideology that asserts national identity and belonging in terms of European descent. Accordingly, white nationalists see their countries as threatened by immigration and social advancement by non-whites. They contend that national identity and belonging must be built around racial whiteness—rather than culture, language, or place—and that it is the whiteness of the nation’s past, present, and future that ensures its continued historical development and survival. The fundamental ideas of white nationalists are hardly new, yet they have taken on new formulations since the mid-twentieth century as a politics of reaction to the promise of racial equality and decolonization. Though the numbers of self-identified white nationalists remain small, their ideas resonate broadly, impacting contemporary debates about global demographic change, national identity, and mass migration.

White Terrorism Often Leads to Harsher Punishment for People of Color (The Marshall Project)

Even hate crime legislation, specifically intended to help prosecute crimes motivated by white supremacy and other forms of bigotry, can have a disparate negative impact on minority groups. In 2019, for example, Black people made up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population yet were accused by law enforcement of nearly 24 percent of hate crimes, according to Justice Department statistics. White people, conversely, were 60 percent of the population yet faced fewer than 53 percent of hate crime accusations.

Finally, some Twitter threads by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and lawyers:

Not sure what happens this week here in D.C. and in state capitals around the country, but my hope is that everyone stays safe.

Before I go: On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it’s worth revisiting this special edition of The Atlantic from 2018. It features Dr. King’s words with necessary context provided by some of the best contemporary writers on race and inequality in the United States.

Back soon with more.

Over and out,


New luk/admin/job—who dis?

Edition #6

Hi friends and frenemies,

It’s been a while since my last post and so much has happened since then.

1) We have a president-elect here in America, which, wow! Let’s see if we, as a society, can make it through the 109109109191 days left before the new administration takes office.

2) I have moved on from my position at CQ Roll Call. ICMY: Check out this thread on what I’m doing next!

3) Did you notice how colorful the newsletter is? The makeover is courtesy of my very talented and gracious friend Ariel Aberg-Riger. Please follow her work if you don’t already.

HOKAY. Let’s get to it.

One of the frustrating aspects of covering immigration policy in the last four years has been encountering the belief that xenophobia started when Donald Trump floated down that escalator in 2015.

For many people, the 2016 election results represented an aberration — a departure from America’s longstanding traditions and values. Perhaps some Americans now think that because a new president is in office, things “will go back to normal,” not realizing that “normal” was built on assumptions that are harmful to immigrants.

Now, it is true that America is still the land of immigrants. But, the thing is, that’s not its default.


America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States by Erika Lee.


At a November panel hosted by the Center for Migration Studies, Lee, who is a preeminent immigration historian, said that Trump-era immigration restrictions were the most “sweeping” in history. Well, this book is about that history.

In it, Lee goes over all the country’s many nativist chapters. She starts with the anti-Irish Catholic movement and systemic Chinese exclusion in the 1800s; in the early to mid-1900s, the implementation of national origin quotas, the mass deportations of Mexicans, and the internment of Japanese Americans; then, onwards to the 1980s-1990s — the “crimmigration” era; and finally, to the post 9-11 surveillance of Muslim Americans.

She argues that xenophobia is, in fact, at the core of the American idea — at least as important to the nation’s identity, if not more, than the idea that it is a country of immigrants.

Lee writes in the introduction:

History shows that xenophobia has been a constant and defining feature of American life. It is deeply embedded in our society, economy, and politics. It thrives best in certain contexts, such as periods of rapid economic and demographic change. But it has also been actively promoted by special interests, in the pursuit of political power. It has influenced elections and dictated policies. It has shaped American foreign relations and justified American imperialism. It has played a central role in America’s changing definitions of race, citizenship, and what it means to be American.

It has endured because it has been an indelible part of American racism, white supremacy, and nationalism — and because it has been supported by American capitalism and democracy.

Xenophobia has been neither an aberration nor a contradiction to the United States’ history of immigration. Rather, it has existed alongside and constrained America’s immigration tradition, determining just who can enter our so-called nation of immigrants, and who cannot.

Even as Americans have realized that the threats allegedly posed by immigrants were, in hindsight, unjustified; they have allowed xenophobia to become an American tradition.

Highlighted Highlights:

The idea that ties it all together — from early anti-immigrant movements in the 19th century, to the present Trump-brand nativism — is this: American xenophobia is built on native dispossession and slavery.

Lee writes:

When white Americans claimed native status, they were not claiming indigenous roots. What they were asserting was a native claim to the land, in order to legitimize their territorial gains and the continuing campaigns against Native Americans. It was used to justify both past and ongoing white settlement (and the attendant broken treaties and racial terror that made this possible).

These were simultaneously acts of physical, legal, political and rhetorical dispossession that worked hand in hand with xenophobia, slavery, and white supremacy to create a distinct and a racist American national identity. Through the 20th and 21st centuries, nativism continued to drive ongoing inequality and discrimination against Native Americans and others, while advocating for “America first” policies that opposed US involvement in both world wars, supported immigration restriction, and fueled the white nationalism that helped elect Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.

Lee also argues that exclusionary U.S. immigration laws — especially those that tag applicants as burdens on the state or morally deficient to deny them entry — disproportionately end up hurting women.

… immigration laws that allow for the exclusion of immigrants likely to become a public charge have overwhelmingly been applied to women and children.

Women who were charged with immoral behavior, such as premarital sex, were almost always excluded, while men were never even questioned about or judged by their sexual histories before, during or outside of marriage.

The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 was widely hailed as legislation that overrode the exclusionary laws of the late 19th and early 20th century and diversified the nation. But its legacy is actually quite mixed, Lee argues.

The 1965 Immigration Act was an indelible part of the broader civil rights movement that sought to ensure equality and to eliminate race as a factor in public policy. However, it wasn't perfect in its design and in its execution. The Immigration Act, and the new system of preference categories and ceilings, was simultaneously less restrictive and more restrictive than the system it abolished.

It ended formal racial discrimination and abolished the national origins quota system, but it allowed other forms of discrimination to persist, both overtly and covertly. Most noticeably, it prohibited people from receiving visas and gaining admission to the United States on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Immigration Act also maintained restrictions based on nationality in its provisions pertaining to refugees.

Some academics have argued that the law also led to the acceleration of unauthorized migration from Mexico in the next few decades. And another long-term result of the country limits imposed through this legislation is the massive backlog in family-based migration from Mexico and employment-based immigration from India and China.

The same law also had an effect on morphing the cultural identity of white immigrants, absorbing them into the white America and ascribing to them qualities like hard work and scrappiness that would not be awarded to, for instance, the Latinx immigrants or Black immigrants who came in the decades after.

Here’s Lee:

This act of inclusion mirrored, and helped energize, European Americans’ growing efforts to preserve and celebrate their ethnic heritage, while also emphasizing their assimilation into American life and their bootstrap upward mobility. This white ethnic revival of the 1970s and 1980s rhetorically moved the site of the nation's roots away from Plymouth Rock and toward Ellis Island.

In a dramatic turnaround in American thought and popular culture, the once inferior races of Europe had been rehabilitated as archetypal Americans by the 1980s. What one historian has called “Ellis Island whiteness,” which emphasized overcoming hardship through struggle and hard work, and the denial of white privilege, became a dominant form of white identity in the United States, and was celebrated and spread through films such as Fiddler on the Roof 1971 and the Rocky movies, as well as the 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial, and the Ellis Island restoration project.

The United States as a nation of European immigrants became entrenched as one of America's cherished myths and effectively obscured America's history of xenophobia.

Stuff I wrote:

Stuff I’m reading:

That’s it for now. Stay safe out there!

Over and out,


Entry fiction

Hello hello,

Hope you’re all hanging in there.

In this edition, I’m going to tackle the origins of immigrant detention in the United States.

Lawyers and academics I have spoken to in the course of my reporting often describe the bewildering and opaque process through which jails, prisons, and federal detention centers fill up with immigrants as “kafkaesque.” 

But immigrants often have simpler, sharper descriptors. One Indian man I spoke to last year compared his yearlong experience at a facility in New Mexico as, simply, “hell.”

The immigrant detention system in the United States is a vast and sprawling machinery that involves multiple federal agencies, local and state governments, and private prison companies. (See: this Twitter thread explaining the role different agencies play if you’re not already familiar.)

When immigrant enforcement agencies take people into custody, it is civil detention, meaning the detainees aren’t being locked up because a court decided they committed a crime or because they are a threat to public safety. Immigrant detention is not supposed to be punitive, but it’s detention, so it inherently is. (I’ll save for another day the broader discussion about the ethics of locking up people convicted of crimes.) 

Last year, around 55,000 immigrants were held in detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the agency that detains and deports immigrants from the interior United States. Before the pandemic (and after a slew of policies restricting the entry of migrants seeking asylum), that total came down to 35,000. Today, 22,000 people still remain in the agency’s custody, without much control over their own health and safety during a pandemic. 

So how did this unwieldy system come to be? 

The reading:

Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants by César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández

The gist: 

In 2016, I interviewed García Hernández, a professor of law at the University of Denver, shortly after meeting him at a reporting conference. The resulting Q&A is a good primer on the concept of “crimmigration” — the conflation of the U.S. immigration enforcement and criminal justice systems over the last few decades. It gives a sense of how the current system that incentivizes the detention of immigrants was built up under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

But García Hernández’s book, Migrating to Prisons, pulls the curtain further back and explains how detention is based on a flawed idea about “good” versus the “bad” immigrants. It also delves into details about how profit for some drives a system that causes such pain to so many others. 

García Hernández writes in the introduction: 

Despite the common refrain that immigration law is “broken,” immigration imprisonment is a sign that the United States immigration policy is working exactly as designed. The system hasn’t malfunctioned. It was intended to punish, stigmatize, and marginalize — all for political and financial gain. 

Highlighted highlights: 

One of the most fascinating chapters for me was the first one, which goes into history that I do not often have to engage with in my day-to-day reporting.

So, let’s start at the turn of the 20th Century: Congress has just passed legislation restricting immigration. The most well-known is perhaps the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but other adjustments to law at the time also create nebulous grounds for exclusion of poor and non-white immigrants. 

After Congress passes these laws disqualifying immigrants, the officials implementing them realize they have a problem: Once migrants step onto U.S. soil, they have already physically entered the country, so at what point — and where — do U.S. authorities decide who gets to come into the United States and who doesn’t?

García Hernández explains their preliminary solution to this conundrum: 

Intent on vetting people arriving on steamships, government officials forced transoceanic companies to keep passengers on board until they’d decided whether a person was fit to enter the country. Anything else would allow migrants to enter before government officials had decided if they should be kept out … 

With the federal government’s demand that ships keep passengers on board, immigration imprisonment had begun, and it started in the hands of private corporations. 

At first, these ship companies are not thrilled about this. Keeping migrants housed comes with costs, naturally, including the opportunity cost of keeping the vessel grounded. But then: 

Soon the companies and the government agreed on an alternative: the companies could provide on-shore housing nearby. Steamship companies were obviously happy. They could now quickly offload passengers and cargo and send the ship back to sea.

But wait, doesn’t this just take them back to square one? The migrants step onto U.S. soil before officials have made a decision about whether they can or cannot enter the United States. 

Enter: Entry fiction. 

Here’s García Hernández (with emphasis added by me):

In 1891, Congress adopted a legal concept that people could enter the country physically without entering the country legally. This twist of logic, known as the “entry fiction,” meant that the steamship passengers could be allowed off the boat without benefiting from the higher hurdle that government officials have to climb to deport someone rather than exclude them. 

By creating this concept, the United States is able to draw arbitrary lines in the sand that produce different sets of rights and circumstances: it allows for the creation of one of the first (of arguably many) legal no-man’s lands.

Today, the border is wherever officials say it is — just beyond the shipping dock, in the middle of a river, at the edge of the Great Lakes, or in the Dominican Republic

In other words: 

Anyway, here’s how García Hernández describes the impact of this doctrine with respect to immigrant detention: 

Thanks to the entry fiction, the immigration detention center became an in-between space in law. It was neither outside nor inside the United States. Whether in California or New York, there was never doubt that on-shore detention sites were physically within the territorial boundaries of the United States.

The entry fiction is no doubt a quirky legal doctrine: a person can be inside the United States as a matter of geography and outside it as a matter of law. But it also served to wedge open a broader space within the law that allowed early immigration detention centers to operate with minimal oversight and to blur traditional legal boundaries. 

In the following years, immigrants confined at Angel Island in San Francisco or Ellis Island in New York would complain of vermin, sewage, odors, and bad food. These complaints are all quite similar to the complaints coming out of detention facilities at the border and inside the United States today. Today’s detained immigrants also face egregious medical neglect, abuse, and other kinds of mistreatment. Government detention centers are opaque and lack sufficient oversight as is, but the large private facilities, which together contain over 70 percent of the entire detainee population, are even less transparent. 

García Hernández comments on the early echoes of the current system: 

While on a minuscule scale compared to today’s immigration prison practices, there are uncanny parallels. The migrants locked in these unsanitary, haphazard sheds technically had not been charged with a crime. They were just waiting to find out whether they could enter the United States legally as well as physically. But it sure looked and felt like prison.

Other readings: 

  • My friend Tina Vasquez did a Q&A with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, the author of The Undocumented Americans, which is very worth checking out (along with all her other work). (Our Prisms)

  • The authors Viet Thanh Nguyen and Phuc Tran had a fascinating conversation about their Vietnamese background, recent work, and … tattoos. (Electric Literature

Oh, before I go, here’s a photo of my dog being coy; you’re welcome.

Stay safe out there!

Over and out.


The (still) unbearable foreignness of germs

(Part 2)

Hi all, 

Hope you continue to be well during These Trying Times. 

In my last edition, I explored the association between immigrants and disease, and why we, as a society, have historically blamed the spread of illness on communities that may themselves be its most affected victims. In this one, I am focusing on how that trope played out at the southern border of the United States. 

The U.S.-Mexico border is, of course, a real place with real people — as rich, complex, and flawed as any other real place with real people. But in the American imagination, it’s also a construct steeped in myths from the country’s past, as historian Greg Grandin writes in his book The End of the Myth.

Specifically, the border represents an edge of the American global empire — a frontier beyond which lies an imagined world that is yet to be civilized. That seductive idea has allowed “the United States to avoid a true reckoning with its social problems, such as economic inequality, racism, crime and punishment, and violence,” Grandin writes.


Molina’s paper focuses on Mexicans migrants who traversed the southern border to work in the United States in the early 21st century. Upon entering the United States, they were made to undergo painful baths and humiliating inspections based on the assumption that they imported disease. 

She writes in the abstract:

Disease, or just the threat of it, marked Mexicans as foreign, just as much as phenotype, native language, accent, or clothing. A focus on race rendered other factors and structures, such as poor working conditions or structural inequalities in health care, invisible. This attitude had long-term effects on immigration policy, as well as on how Mexicans were received in the United States.

Highlighted highlights: 

Molina, in her paper, traces what she calls the “medicalized representation of Mexicans” back to when the U.S. Southwest was still a part of Mexico and the idea of Manifest Destiny informed U.S. expansionism toward the south. 

A “medicalized representation,” she explains, meant portraying Native Americans and Mexicans, who were prospective American conquests, as biologically inferior — races more likely to die out over time rather than become Americans. 

“The border,” as in the actual physical demarcation, was created after the Mexican-American War. The first checkpoint came in 1896. 

In the early 20th century, agricultural expansion in the United States created a demand for labor, drawing young, adult men from Mexico — some fleeing the Mexican Revolution. This laid the foundation of what would become a seasonal cycle of migration, to and from Mexico, corresponding with the agricultural cycle in the United States. 

But the entry of these workers wasn’t without event: 

Mexicans underwent intrusive, humiliating, and harmful baths and physical examinations at the hands of the US Public Health Service (USPHS) at the US-Mexico border beginning in 1916. The rationale was the belief that Mexicans were bringing disease into the United States.5Thus, public health policies helped to secure the US-Mexico border and to mark Mexicans as outsiders even before the advent of more focused gatekeeping institutions, such as the border patrol, created in 1924.

That same year saw a typhus outbreak in Los Angeles County. To contain the outbreak, government officials exclusively targeted Mexican laborers, whom they saw as “potentially pathogenic.” 

The laborers resisted. They sent letters to government officials highlighting the structural deficits at their camps, such as the lack of toilets and bathing facilities. 

Molina writes:

By failing to treat typhus as a threat to the public at large, officials constructed the disease as uniquely Mexican. This preference for making race the organizing principle for understanding typhus also transformed Mexicans from unfortunate victims of a serious disease into active transmitters of deadly germs, thus adding a medicalized dimension to existing nativism. 

Armored by their presumed scientific objectivity, health officials gave wide circulation to constructed categories of Mexicans as unclean, ignorant of basic hygiene practices, and unwitting hosts for communicable diseases. These images were embedded in medical and media narratives and in public policy.

Indeed, publications from the time showed photos of poor Mexicans in their camps with captions associating them with disease. 

Today, we have government officials sending similar visual messages: 

In 1942, the United States and Mexico created the Bracero Program, which brought around four million Mexican men to work in agriculture and other industries, such as railroads. The idea was to plug World War II labor shortages, but these workers, too, while “essential” to the U.S. economic health at the time, were hardly welcome. 

They were first made to go through screenings on the Mexican side of the border, and then again on the American side. Molina cites research showing they had to wait 6-8 hours to be examined, were shuffled into large inspection chambers like cattle, and then stripped and subjected to intrusive examinations. Then, a rinse and repeat on the American side of the border. 

Some details of workers’ reactions, per Molina: 

Carlos Cordella, a processing employee, described how braceros were asked to strip and then were sprayed with a white powder on their hair, face, and “lower area,” a procedure that embarrassed them. 

Some tolerated the situation with humor, declaring, “I guess we're gringos now.”28

Recently, in what appears to be a stark case of déjà vu, the Mexican government set up dubious “disinfection tunnels” — this time, for deportees from the United States. 

For the braceros of the 1940s who got through and were hired, the U.S. government did not help foster living conditions conducive to good health or preventing accidents. Molina concludes:

Race served as an interpretive framework for explaining the typhus outbreaks and for developing a double-screening policy for braceros entering the United States and thus precluded any need to ameliorate the living conditions of workers once they had settled in the United States. Such reasoning, firmly established, obviated the need for a deeper investigation into the systemic inequality that fostered the inferior health and living conditions of Mexican laborers. Because medical discourse has the power to naturalize racial categories, it has also in some cases naturalized societal inequalities.

Today, coronavirus hotspots have developed in food processing plants around the country, where the workforce largely comprises immigrant workers. Most do not have health benefits, protective equipment, paid sick leave, or other safeguards that could protect them from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Yet American employers once again place blame on “living circumstances in certain cultures” rather than remedying these structural inequalities. 


A couple of things stuck out to me as I was doing this research. 

One, according to the historian Alexandra Minna Stern, who co-authored the paper I explored in my last newsletter, medical screenings at the southern border often exempted those Mexicans who were well-dressed or who rode first class on the train. So a class element was embedded within these policies. 

Second, as with the effect of punitive border crossing laws and and amped up border security, medical screening stations in Texas and California had the effect of pushing Chinese, Syrian, Mexican and other working class immigrants to cross into the United States through more remote and dangerous parts of the desert.

Other related readings: 

  • My former colleague Brentin Mock did a fascinating Q&A with Connecticut College gender and women’s studies professor, Mab Segrest, who is out with a new book: Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum. Segrest traces how black Americans were associated with disease through the history of a Georgia mental health institution, known to be the largest in the world at one time. There, doctors in the late 1800s theorized that emancipation was driving black Americans insane because they no longer had access to “the hygienic effects of slavery.” (CityLab)

  • Two essays citing Greg Grandin’s book, The End of the Myth, that are worth checking out: (1) When the frontier becomes a wall (The New Yorker); (2) Back to the wall (The Baffler)

  • Every possible thing you want to know about the border wall. (e-flux journal

  • For more studies: Buildings, boundaries, and blood: medicalization and nation-building on the U.S.-Mexico border, 1910-1930. (The Hispanic American Historical Review, Alexandra Minna Stern) 

That’s it for now. 

Stay safe out there! 


The unbearable foreignness of germs

(Part 1)

Hi everyone,

Had to take a hiatus because of some personal stuff and — *gestures wildly* — all of this. But now that I’m not going anywhere due to the pandemic, I have plenty of time! Ish.

Anyway, I hope everyone is safe and healthy and at least six feet away from everyone else. <3

Given the circumstances, I thought it’d be a good time to discuss an age-old trope that has taken on new vigor in these times: the association of immigrants with disease.

Many have taken to using terms like “Wuhan virus” or “China virus” to refer to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Like, remember that time when the U.S. president crossed out the word “Coronavirus” in his briefing notes and wrote “China virus” over it?

Some pundits have defended this usage on Twitter, dismissing concerns over this characterization as just another manifestation of “PC culture” or an impractical distraction from the real issues, or some combination of the two. One senator (hailing from a state where people sometimes eat rattlesnakes) blamed the pandemic on “some of the cultural practices” in China, arguing that people there “eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” He blamed China not only for COVID-19, but for other diseases, including Swine Flu (which originated in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Even right-wing Indian trolls have taken this up, arguing that if “Spanish Flu” (also first reported in the U.S. and not Spain! ), “Ebola,” and “MERS” are O.K. — (they wouldn’t be if they were named today, per the World Health Organization’s naming guidelines) — then why not “China/Chinese virus”?

I’m not under the illusion that I will convince any trolls or pundits otherwise, nor is this newsletter about that. It is, however, exploring age-old tropes, and how they inform policies and actions. So here goes:

1) Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum! It has real, concrete consequences. Associating diseases with certain communities enables violence against those communities. In the U.S., Asian Americans are already experiencing hate crimes and violent attacks, according to the New York Times. In India, people from states in the Northeast — the ones that border China — are also experiencing such venom.

2) That terminology helps politicians “other” the disease — and therefore, externalize responsibility for its spread. That can cost lives.

3) Finally, language that associates immigrants and foreigners with disease is then used to justify exclusionary policies. Governments take steps to turn away people who do not pose a real threat in terms of transmission, and who may be in need of protection themselves from the disease in question and from other threats back home. That also costs lives.

Unfortunately, this is one of the oldest tricks in the playbook, as we will see below.

The reading:

I found two articles in reputable medical journals that explore this connection. Today, I’m going to go through the first one:

The gist:

The authors examine three phases in U.S. immigration history: From 1882, when the United States first banned Chinese laborers from immigrating, to 1924, when the National Origins Act, which favored Western European immigration and excluded all Asians, was passed; the period from 1924 to 1965, when exclusionary quotas enacted by that law were in place; and finally, 1965 to the date of the article’s publication in 2002, when America opened its doors to immigrants from India, China, Latin America, and beyond.

They conclude:

In each of these phases, even as the political and social currents shifted, a series of interrelated factors shaped immigrant health and health care in American society.

First, the social perception of the threat of the infected immigrant was typically far greater than the actual danger. Indeed, the number of “diseased” immigrants has always been infinitesimal when compared with the number of newcomers admitted to this country.

Second, Americans have tended to view illness among immigrants already settled in the United States as an imported phenomenon.

Third, policymakers have employed strikingly protean medical labels of exclusion.

If authorities and anti-immigration advocates found that one classification failed to reject the “most objectionable,” they soon created a new one that emphasized contagion, mental disorder, chronic disability, or even a questionable physique. Although such labels never became the primary reason for debarring specific immigrant groups, their widespread use contributed to durable biological metaphors that explained, usually in catastrophic terms, the potential risks of unrestricted immigration to the nation's social health.

Highlighted highlights:

While we romanticize the Ellis Island days (insofar as they present a period of greater hospitality to immigration), Markel and Stern write that this was when discriminatory medical screenings of immigrants, and the targeting of certain races and classes, started:

For example, Mexican and Chinese laborers, who donned work clothes and did not display the fashionable dress of more affluent immigrants, were subjected to harsher medical scrutiny, more frequently poked for blood and urine samples, and disinfected with chemical agents (Markel and Stern 1999; Shah 2001).

Indeed, it was nearly always the case that travelers in first-, and most in second-, class on ships and trains entering the country underwent a much more  limited appraisal than did those in steerage. In order to avoid more invasive and traumatic medical examinations, the wealthier immigrants, especially before 1907, were encouraged by European and Asian shipping agents to purchase a first- or second-class ticket in order to keep clear of the intrusive eyes of the American doctors.

So maybe all of this made sense, because it was a different time and people brought scary diseases? Nah, write Markel and Stern:

“In any year between 1891 and 1924, less than 3 percent of the total number of immigrants seeking entry to the United States were rejected for reasons of a contagious, infectious, or loathsome disease; mental disorder; or physical disability.

What did change during this period was the percentage of those immigrants debarred for medical reasons out of the total number debarred for any reason (e.g., being a contract laborer, criminal, or prostitute; showing evidence of an untoward political belief system; or being deemed “likely to become a public charge”). For example, in 1898, of the total number of immigrants excluded, only 2 percent were shut out based on medical criteria. In 1913, this percentage rose to 57 percent, and by 1915, it was 69 percent.

More significantly, this proportional increase was not the result of a higher incidence of contagious or infectious disease; rather, it was due to a growing list of ailments, physical disabilities, and, over time, determinations of moral status (Kraut 1994; U.S. Department of the Treasury 1891–1901,1902–1911; USPHS 1912–1930; Yew 1980).”

Nativist labor unions and politicians framed Chinese laborers in the United States as as threatening on many fronts at this time. This “yellow peril” narrative included painting Chinese immigrants as the carriers of disease. How did that reflect in the time’s deportation policies? Well, between 1890 and 1924, while the Chinese made up only 1 percent of the immigrants coming to the United States, they made up 4 percent of yearly deportations, Markel and Stern write.

And then, of course, as we all know, what started as nativist backlash progressed to an all-out ban, enshrined in law, that extended to many other categories of foreigners:

Following on the heels of a series of progressively detailed laws dictating the entry of the foreign born—such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1891 Immigration Act, and the 1893 Quarantine Act—the 1924 act represented both a crescendo of nativism and the start of a new era of immigration and racial exclusion in American society.

As several scholars have argued, while still stigmatizing and severely limiting “new” immigrants, the National Origins Act nonetheless symbolically permitted them to enter the realm of white America by classifying them as Caucasian while categorically defining Mexicans and Asians as outsiders (Jacobson 1998; Ngai 1999). Whichever the group in question, however, categories of medical exclusion had become closely entwined with racial labels and perceptions of foreigners as inassimilable and diseased.

After 1965, America became more diverse, but this association between certain groups of foreigners and disease remained solid, and even strengthened during times of medical crisis. In 1993, during the AIDS epidemic, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law immigration laws that have given us many of the most criticized parts of the U.S. immigration system. He also added HIV as a criterion to keep out immigrants. Markel and Stern explain:

One thing had not changed, however: the assumption that many infectious diseases originated beyond American borders and were trafficked in by foreigners. This perception was supported by immigration health policy, which required only potential immigrants and visa solicitors, not visiting travelers or American citizens returning from abroad, to undergo medical examinations before leaving their countries of origin.

Thus, the realistic menace of imported germs—which scorn all boundaries and can incubate just as elusively and easily in an American tourist heading back from a vacation in the Bahamas as in a Russian visa applicant seeking to join her relatives in Chicago—was eclipsed by the recalcitrant connection between foreigners and disease.

Shorter things I’m reading: 

Twitter pals and colleagues Felipe De La Hoz and Gaby Del Valle have a great newsletter: Border / Lines, where they break down the big immigration news items of the week. In a recent edition, they broke some news about how ICE was bringing back stranded Americans on the same flights it was using to deport immigrants to Honduras.

Turns out, these deportation flights also have an interesting history. Check out this Twitter thread by Adam Goodman, a historian at University of Chicago Illinois, that goes over some highlights:

Coming up next:

I know I’m supposed to tackle the rest of the Fischer book, Migration History, but I pushed it back because it is evergreen. And because I have ADD.

In the next edition, coming soon, I’m going to tackle a paper exploring how the threat of contagion has historically informed policies at the Southern border of the United States.


If you have suggestions for books/papers I should read, digest, and annotate here — including any that you might have written — add it in here! I may tackle it going forward. Once I have accumulated a critical mass of suggestions, I can also make the list public for easy reference. 

Over and out.


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