The most recent immigration controversy comes in the form of U.S. border patrol on horseback, whipping Haitian migrants as they crossed the Rio Grande in search of asylum. These graphic images evoke eerie similarities to the worst moments of our history. As we continue to progress, we often recognize the inhumanity of our predecessors’ behaviors, yet we continue to perpetuate these same injustices without thinking twice. Human beings should never be subjected to this type of treatment and no human being can be illegal. Using the term “illegal” in reference to migrant populations allows us to dehumanize immigrants and affords us the privilege of being unsympathetic to the immense trauma undocumented immigrants face.
The U.S. offers asylum to migrant individuals who can demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution or harm” in their home country based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This year alone, Haiti has suffered a deadly earthquake, the assassination of the country’s president, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The people of Haiti are suffering and need the U.S.’s help – not its persecution. There were 15,000 human beings, most of them of Haitian descent, camped along the Texas border town of Del Rio, desperate for their chance for asylum in the U.S. Instead, the Biden administration is deporting thousands of asylum-seekers under Title 42, a controversial Trump-era public health policy used to deport migrants and deny them the ability to apply for asylum. The Biden administration has defended the use of Title 42 as a measure to slow the spread of COVID; however, physicians and immigrant advocates say this justification is merely a pretext to remove migrants from the country quickly. When President Biden took office, he promised a more humane immigration system than the heinous policies of his predecessor. Unfortunately, the graphic images from the border show there is still major work to be done, and this administration is not willing to undertake it.
While the current border crisis in itself is incredibly disturbing, it merely continues the U.S.’s long history of problematic immigration policies. When looking at immigration policy through a systemic racism lens, it is wholly unsurprising that today’s undocumented immigrants, largely from BIPOC communites, are subjected to far harsher consequences than the white Europeans of the past for the exact same offense of unauthorized entry. The U.S. has always been considered a nation of immigrants, but the US has always treated immigrants differently based on their race. These racial classifications evidence a consistent preference for whites from northwestern Europe. The following overview is meant to illuminate some of the racially biased immigration policies but does not fully encompass the entirety of the U.S.’s history of immigration.
Soon after the U.S. established independence, the first Naturalization Act was passed in 1790. This Act allowed free white persons of good character to gain citizenship after having lived in the U.S. for only two years. In practice, only white, male property owners could naturalize, thus excluding women, nonwhite persons, indentured servants, and enslaved persons from naturalizing. As the U.S. continued to grow by stealing Indigenous territories and expanding westward, immigration policies were modified to promote white settlement of the new territories. From 1800-1850, the majority of immigrants coming to the U.S. were of Irish, German, and British origin. By 1860, Chinese immigrants had begun to migrate to the West Coast and made up a significant portion of California’s population. In response, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, suspending all immigration from China. Concurrent with this Chinese exclusion, the U.S. actively solicited European immigrants through the Homestead Act of 1862.
The Industrial Evolution of the late 1800s through the early 1900s brought enormous growth in immigration. The majority of these immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe, but large numbers were non-European immigrants, leading to an increase in anti-immigration reactions and xenophobia. Congress began proposing immigration controls, and a lengthy study of the “immigrant question” was done in 1911. This study differentiated between “desirable” and “undesirable” immigrants, based entirely upon ethnicity, race, and religion. Drawing on eugenics’ beliefs in racial hierarchies, the study recommended literacy tests as a means to reduce immigrant numbers by turning away “low quality” persons. A federal quota system was implemented in 1921 that severely restricted the number of people from outside Western Europe eligible to settle in the U.S. The following decades through the mid 1940’s brought an increase in immigration restrictions and ended the era of mass immigration in the U.S. However, the end of World War II brought complications to the restrictive U.S. immigration policies due to the unprecedented refugee and displaced persons crisis. In response, the U.S. created the nation’s first formal refugee and asylum policies under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. This Act was met with immediate controversy. Upon signing the bill into law, President Truman stated that it formed “a pattern of discrimination and intolerance wholly inconsistent with the American sense of justice. The bill discriminates in callous fashion against displaced persons of the Jewish faith.” After over 40 years, the discriminatory quota system implemented in 1921 came to an end in 1965 with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This Act created a preference system which was not defined by race, sex, gender, ancestry, or national origin and centered on family reunification, asylum, and safe harbor of refugees. The preference system has been criticized as implementing unfair immigration quotas but is still present in today’s immigration policies.
As people fled their unstable and war-torn countries, seeking entry into the U.S. between the 1960s and 1990s, refugees remained at the forefront of immigration debate. A variety of Acts were instituted across this time period to address “illegal” immigration, each furthering the ongoing theme of increased funding for border control and denial of state and federal services for undocumented immigrants. Following the terror attacks of 9/11, the total number of immigrants dropped – a direct result of percieved vulnerabilities in the US and the passage of the Patriot Act. This Act unfairly targeted minority and immigrant communites with its surveillance and enforcement efforts in the war on terrorism. Specifically, the creation of a “special registration” program required tens of thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants to submit to a call-in interview from which other immigrants were exempted.
Most recently, under the Trump administration, the racist and xenophobic “America First” program was created. The program’s implementation led to stricter standards for legal immigration applicants under the guise of protecting American workers and industries. The immigration policies under Trump centered around eight areas: restricting legal immigration; completing the border wall with Mexico; reducing the number of asylum seekers; stopping immigrants from receiving benefits; ending the DACA program and deporting its recipients; restricting travel and visas from certain countries; reducing the number of refugees; and modifying the H-1B visa program. These immigration policies and orders exacerbated an already dysfunctional immigration system, tantamount with the most oppressive periods of US history. Although the Trump administration did not invent racist and xenophobic policies and practices, it did actively work to bring these policies back to the forefront of U.S. immigration.