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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
They were in ICE detention for over a year. Then COVID-19 spread (The Fuller Project)
DACA is back. Now what? (Bloomberg CityLab)
Portrait of an artist in ICE detention (Roll Call special podcast report)
Stuff I’m reading:
That’s it for now. Stay safe out there!
Over and out,