The Deep Roots of Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Policies

Donald Trump’s recent expansion of the Muslim ban and bid to exclude poor immigrants is further proof that his administration is one of the most anti-immigrant in US history. But it was Trump’s predecessors, Democrats and Republicans, who made his assault on immigrants possible.

Donald Trump speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 10, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The last week of January began with the Supreme Court’s conservative majority allowing the Trump administration’s bid to exclude poor immigrants from entering the United States, denying green cards to anyone deemed “likely” to use a wide array of public benefits, to go into effect. It ended with Trump extending his travel restrictions, which began as a Muslim ban in 2017, to six more countries: Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Tanzania, and, most consequentially, Nigeria, whose people Trump once worried would never “go back to their huts” if they came to the United States. Nearly a quarter of Africa’s population is now estimated to face restrictions on US immigration visas.

You perhaps missed all of that thanks to the lead-up to the Iowa caucus, impeachment, and the coronavirus outbreak. But after years of attacks on asylum seekers and undocumented people, and political fights to “build the wall,” this represents among Trump’s most consequential and brutal attacks on legal immigration.

As with the entirety of Trump’s war on immigrants, this expansive interpretation of the “public charge” rule is both a cruel innovation and also very old, rooted in a long history of racist anti-immigrant policies that, in this particular case, dates to 1882. The travel ban, by contrast, is new in its method but, like the public charge rule, old in its intention: using immigration law to shape racial demographics, attempting to preserve, as modern nativist movement godfather John Tanton once put it, “a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”

Immigration politics and policy is where domestic class conflict and racism intersect with a highly unequal world order riven by permanent war and climate crisis. Trump has made it clear that he wants fewer immigrants from what he once referred to as “shithole” countries in the Global South and more from European countries like Norway. The new public charge rule is a tool to do just that, brazenly targeting poor immigrants as a means to exclude nonwhite ones.

Trump called for the Muslim ban on the campaign trail on the basis of the Islamophobic argument that Muslims are terrorists, justified its implementation before the Supreme Court by referencing supposedly color-blind national security concerns, and has now expanded it for purposes that are simultaneously anti-Muslim and racist, particularly against black people.

Racism is a constant in American history. But the political work that racism does changes over time: it is “a composite formation, bearing vestiges of bygone dynamics as well as traces of emerging developments,” as Daniel Martinez HoSang and Joseph E. Lowndes write in their new book, Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity. Trump’s policies are clearly motivated by racism. But invoking racism alone isn’t enough to explain how racism operates and what political work it accomplishes over time. To defeat Trump’s racist policies, we must also understand and attack the broader economic and political system they serve.

Liberals have rightly denounced Trump and his policies for their racism and inhumanity. But liberals often fail to effectively fight racism and xenophobia because they have too often failed to recognize their connection to neoliberal economics and imperial violence that too many liberal politicians in fact support. Defeating Trump’s racism requires an attack on the entire system that made it possible, and Donald Trump did not invent that system.

Deep Roots

In the late nineteenth century, “the alleged racial inferiority of immigrants became the explanation for depressed wages, labor strife, and the emerging ‘sweatshop system,’” just as their un-Americanness explained left-wing radicalism, writes sociologist Kitty Calavita. Amid 1990s balanced-budget conservativism and the rise of Democratic neoliberalism, nativism was often articulated in the language of anti-welfare fiscal conservatism. “[T]his scapegoating of immigrants as the cause of the crisis found a ready audience among the white middle class who disproportionately make up the electorate,” she argues.

More recently, a resurgent nativism has targeted immigrants as a threat to national security, as a way for the Right to make sense of the war on terror’s failure. And as nativist politics has reached a fever pitch, decades of demonizing immigrants as a criminal threat have morphed into the notion that they pose a racially existential threat — the white supremacist conspiracy theory  that Mexicans are engaged in a “Reconquista” and that immigrants are demographically supplanting whites through a “Great Replacement” or “white genocide.”

Assessing the history of anti-immigrant politics requires not only accounting for why nativism waxes and wanes in intensity at particular moments — the quantity of nativism — but also its quality. As Calavita writes: “If immigrants serve as scapegoats for social crises, it stands to reason that the specific content of anti-immigrant nativism will shift to encompass the prevailing malaise.”

And so it has. Trump’s public charge rule combines the balanced-budget, anti-welfare nativism that first broke out in the 1990s with a legal tool developed a century earlier. The Immigration Act of 1882, the first comprehensive federal immigration law, barred entry to “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” That rule, in turn, was modeled on New York and Massachusetts state immigration laws that, as historian Hidetaka Hirota details, targeted Irish paupers treated as a threat to the self-sufficient white settler ideal.

Also passed in 1882 was the Chinese Exclusion Act which, as its title suggests, barred entry to Chinese workers. The Immigration Act of 1891 subsequently provided the federal government with its first general deportation powers and gave immigration inspectors the unchallengeable power to exclude those they deemed “likely to become a public charge.”

The reason many white Americans wanted Chinese and other poor immigrants excluded was the same reason that the so-called colonization of black people to other countries was the only way that many whites in antebellum America could imagine enslaved people becoming free. The country’s economic system required people to do grueling forms of labor; it then used racism to degrade those laborers and portray them as incapable of free citizenship because of their perceived dependence.

As Hirota writes: “Deportation was . . . a policy intended to ensure that the United States was a nation of self-sufficient workers by eliminating foreigners who deviated from this vision.” At the core of this ideology was a deepening contradiction: Citizens were supposed to be politically and thus economically independent, but the rise of industrial capitalism, pushing the masses into wage labor, was quickly revealing this to be a fiction.

The same logic has held firm in contemporary anti-immigrant politics, which exploded onto the national scene in 1994 with California’s Proposition 187. The end of the Cold War meant big cuts to defense industry jobs, and the state’s economy slipped into recession. NAFTA had created widespread anxiety about jobs heading south across the border, and the Clinton administration benefited from redirecting public fears toward the people and drugs coming north.

At the same time, California had become home to the nation’s largest population of undocumented immigrants. Large-scale Mexican labor migration was institutionalized by the Bracero guest worker program, which issued an estimated 4.6 million temporary visas between 1942 and 1964. Yet in the 1960s and ’70s, opportunities for legal Mexican migration were radically restricted, resulting in the criminalization of ongoing Mexican migration and the rise of the specter of the Mexican “illegal immigrant.”

By the 1990s, Mexicans were portrayed as such hard workers that they would undercut native-born wages — but also, contradictorily, as lazy layabouts designing to live off hardworking taxpayers. In both cases, however, they were cast as dependents and thus easy to blame for economic insecurity.

In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, which denied social services, including public education, to suspected undocumented immigrants (though much was quickly blocked in court). Anti-welfare politics took aim not only at pathologized black mothers but Mexican mothers as well, a ready scapegoat at a time of economic insecurity. This was tied to the era’s anti-crime politics, which demonized poor black and Mexican men as the dangerous product of the welfare state’s broken families.

Proposition 187 asserted that the people of California “are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal aliens in this state” and from “personal injury and damage caused by [their] criminal conduct.” The measure simultaneously conjured up a law-abiding and taxpaying victimized citizenry, the suffering people, and those who were to blame, criminal and moocher aliens.

It was halfway through the New Deal order’s half-century-long meltdown. Violent crime rose alongside income inequality. Poor and working-class immigrants, particularly Mexicans, were fashioned into scapegoats. They, along with Central Americans, remain so today.

A Useful Enemy

Just as Mexican labor migration became criminalized in the 1970s, business launched a successful assault on the New Deal order, creating a new economy that was increasingly unequal. The response from both neoliberal Democrats like Bill Clinton (who opposed Prop 187 but in 1996 signed a “welfare reform” law attacking poor people in general and immigrants in particular) and Republicans like California governor Pete Wilson (who hitched his successful reelection campaign to the measure) was to blame poor others for the problems of supposed hardworking Americans who played by the rules.

“Illegal immigrants” were portrayed as violating that rule multiple times over: by crossing the border without authorization, by giving birth to children with citizenship rights, and by claiming jobs and services to which they had no right. “We can’t afford to lose control of our own borders at a time when we are not adequately providing for the jobs, health care, and the education of our own people,” said Clinton, who dramatically enlarged the deportation machine and launched a process of border militarization that would over the next two decades nearly quintuple the size of the Border Patrol and build hundreds of miles of fencing.

The system had created a sense of scarcity. Nativist politics right and center found immigrants and the “insecure” border that they crossed to be a useful enemy.

The permanent war that followed September 11, 2001 conjured new enemies at home and abroad. Trump’s Fortress America emerged from George W. Bush’s war-on-terror declaration that this country was a “homeland”: the politics of the war on terror fell back to the border after people grew disillusioned with the overseas conflict on the front lines. Bush declared: “We’re taking the fight to the terrorists abroad, so we don’t have to face them here at home.”

The loss of the war abroad intensified the war at the border. Immigrants were painted as posing a terrorism threat after years of being framed as posing an economic, criminal, and racial one.

The demonization of immigrants worsened and became more explicitly Islamophobic as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lost public support. The war on terror had been waged on the neoconservative promise to liberate Arab and Muslim people. Remarkably, Republican favorability toward Muslims rose dramatically after the September 11 attacks. As the public turned against the wars, however, many turned against Muslims, too, and anti-immigrant politics was increasingly articulated in anti-Muslim terms. The historical record clearly shows that contemporary Islamophobia is not a result of September 11, but of the failure of the war on terror that was launched in response.

Military action’s failure to order the world abroad only heightened demands on the Right to secure Fortress America at home. The border was the last line of defense. Bush’s wars became interminable conflicts framed in civilizational terms, using religious difference to racialize Muslims.

Today, the Trumpist right fights for the American people against an expansive and expanding civilizational other that encompasses Mexicans, Chinese, Muslims, Nigerians, and more. His immigration policies join that narrowly circumscribed vision of the American people to a global European-descendent people: “The fundamental question of our time,” Trump said in his 2017 speech in Warsaw, “is whether the West has the will to survive.”

American citizenship has long been premised on the notion that free Americans can accomplish anything here and abroad. But economic precarity and geopolitical decline make that promise feel empty, and scapegoats are required if the established order is to carry on. Trump isn’t so much an anti-establishment politician as a product of that establishment’s morbid symptoms, a desperate bid to preserve a system whose legitimacy is in crisis.

Trump’s nativism thus represents continuity more than change: like politicians in both the late nineteenth century and the 1990s, he uses racism to protect an immiserating economic order; he attacks the poor to shore up a racial hierarchy threatened by demographic change and an American national identity buffeted by imperial crisis — whether the closing of the frontier, the transoceanic empire built by the Spanish-American War, the end of the Cold War, or the failure of the war on terror.

Attacking “Illegal Immigration”

Immigration has long been used as a tool for demographic engineering. The country was not conceived of as a nation of immigrants but a nation of settlers. Migration is not self-evidently a problem; for much of American history, European migration and the forced migration of enslaved Africans were in fact the solution.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 opened citizenship to most “any alien” who was a “free white person.” In a society that was murderously expanding westward, dispossessing indigenous people, and seeking to grow its base of productive settler citizens, European immigrants were often desirable. The exclusion that began with Chinese workers in 1882 and gradually shut off migration from nearly the entirety of Asia in the 1920s extended to the national origins quotas’ sharp restrictions on Southern and Eastern Europeans, whose poverty and cultural difference helped render them racial others.

For the duration of the quotas’ four-decade life span, the policies worked to consolidate white supremacy as it was then understood: immigrants from Great Britain, Germany, and Ireland made up nearly three-quarters of the total. Until the quotas were abolished in 1965, this country’s immigration policy was explicitly racist.

Stephen Miller, Trump’s zealous anti-immigration czar, has praised the quota system. But while Trump has embraced legislation to slash legal immigration, there is little possibility that such a bill could ever become law. Trump’s executive actions are harming countless immigrants, but they are actually a sign of the nativists’ weakness: the travel ban, cuts to refugee admissions, the public charge rule, and other acts stand no chance of fundamentally reengineering American demographics because they don’t legislatively restrict legal immigration, and they will be reversed the moment any Democratic president takes office. They fear a so-called majority-minority country, but they cannot stop it.

The problem is an ironic one. Since the 1990s, the war on immigrants has attacked “illegal immigrants,” often in the name of protecting legal immigration. “Our nation was built by immigrants,” said Clinton in 1995. “But we won’t tolerate immigration by people whose first act is to break the law as they enter our country.”

For nativists, attacking “illegal immigration” was supposed to be a means to build public and political support for attacking immigration of any kind. But the means have taken on a life of their own, because the demonization of undocumented immigrants has so focused the immigration debate on “illegal immigration” that it has all but taken the question of legal immigration off the table.

Anti-immigrant voters and politicians alike, Trump included, have insisted that they are in favor of immigrants as long as they “come the right way.” As much as hard-core nativists want to remake American demography, nativism is constantly called upon to do too much other political work: demonizing welfare recipients, legitimating NAFTA, explaining the war on terror, getting Trump elected, and much more.

Trump is running one of the most anti-immigrant administrations in American history. But it was Trump’s predecessors who made his assault on immigrants possible, both legally and politically.

Contemporary right-wing xenophobia traces its long, gnarled roots to settler-colonial dispossession, slavery, anti-Asian immigration laws, and myriad foreign wars. His rhetoric and its resonance owe to a bipartisan tradition of painting immigrants as an economic, fiscal, criminal, and security threat. The tools that he uses to persecute and deport exist thanks to laws passed and policies enacted as long ago as the nineteenth century and as recently as the Obama administration, which used the criminal justice system’s enormous power to identify, detain, prosecute, and deport enormous numbers of immigrants.

The public charge rule and travel bans are cases in point. Latin American immigrants have been portrayed as racial others precisely because of the arduous work they often do — an uncomfortable reminder that American prosperity has always depended upon the most wicked forms of exploitation, in turn justified by racist ideology. The travel ban is the war on terror coming home to roost, explaining the failure of American power by scapegoating Muslims and the Global South.

The interminable debate over whether economic anxiety or racism catapulted Trump into office was always posing the wrong question. In fact, racism and class domination are fundamentally intertwined — and they both, in turn, are deeply connected to America’s place in the world. Nativism is a way to make sense of an economic reality that rewards a few and punishes the many, and of a geopolitical order that promises American dominance but delivers only violence, insecurity, and uncertainty. We can’t end the war on immigrants without transforming the economic system and foreign policies for which it has long provided an alibi.