Over the past 30 years, the U.S. Southern border has become an increasingly volatile political force. Trump built his political identity on demonizing immigrants and promoting spectacles of border fortification: the promise of a wall, expansive deportation systems, and policies of family separation, expulsion, and indefinite detainment. Many would be surprised how much remains unchanged under the Biden administration. But, as historian Reece Jones discusses in his new book White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall, this hyper-exclusive immigration model is both relatively new and foundationally built on nativism and White supremacy. Jones is one of the most engaged scholars on the history of border politics and immigration, tracking our country’s complicated history of deportations, border expansion, and exclusionary systems of citizenship.
Shane Burley spoke with Jones recently about how anti-Asian bigotry was foundational to the creation of American immigration policy, how White nationalist John Tanton helped to build our contemporary border situation, how progressive and environmental arguments have been manipulated by the Far Right in an effort to halt immigration, and what the future looks like as climate change sparks one of the greatest migrations in human history.
PRA: Why did the U.S. begin to define exclusionary immigration statutes around Asian immigration?
Jones: A lot of people don’t realize that the earliest immigration laws in the U.S. were, first off, in the 1870s at the national level. Most people assume that the U.S. has always had some sort of immigration laws. Second, the very first immigration laws were about Chinese immigration, such as the Page Act in 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
Why Chinese specifically? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they’re the first large group of non-White immigrants to show up at the borders of the U.S. and try to become members of the society. The U.S. had no immigration rules at the national level, but there were rules about citizenship. The 1790 Naturalization Act said you had to be a “free white person” to become a citizen of the United States.
So when these non-White populations start to arrive, there’s a lot of hand wringing about those arrivals. And if you look at the debates at the time, there’s this feeling that the U.S. was, in their minds, founded as a White country, and that allowing a large number of non-White people to enter the country threatened that status. So as new groups arrived, new laws were put in place to limit them.
What legacy does that history hold now, particularly for the prevalence of anti-Asian violence in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’re starting to reconnect those things. There was a tendency to see race relations in the U.S. in Black and White terms, and I think that there’s a realization with the violence that’s been targeting Asians after the pandemic—this dramatic increase in hate crimes—that it’s wider than that characterization of American race relations.
People always perceive the KKK, for example, as an anti-Black organization. They certainly are and were, but since their iteration in the 1920s, they are very much an anti-immigrant group as well. [Anti-immigrant sentiment] was at the forefront of what characterized the things that they were against. They were in favor of “100% Americanism,” and any groups that were a threat to that, they opposed. So that meant that they were certainly against Asian immigration, but also Southern European immigration, because the majority of people were Catholic and non-Protestant during that period. Jews coming from Eastern Europe and Russia during that period of time were also seen as a threat to this idea of 100% Americanism.
What role do moral panics play in these nativist movements? You chronicle how framing Chinese immigrant women as sex workers acted as a catalyst to push anti-immigrant legislation.
That was something that really struck me when I was working on White Borders. There are these parallels in the language between different eras. If you look at the 1870s and 1880s, when the first Chinese exclusion laws were debated in Congress, it was a lot of the same moral panic language we hear today. There was concern that the Chinese were bringing drugs—opium at the time—to the United States. There was concern that the Chinese were an invading force that were secretly going to take over the western United States. There was talk of the Chinese taking American jobs and out-competing Americans in the marketplace by working for less and harder. And there was also the perception that they brought diseases and that the diseases were coming with them across the border—which we, of course, see parallels with in Title 42 right now: which continues to refuse to hear the asylum claims of a number of people based on a really outdated notion of how the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading. So I think there are a lot of parallels between those different periods.
With women specifically, the first U.S. immigration law is the Page Act in 1875, and it’s meant to stop not only Chinese laborers, but also women coming from China, and it was very much framed in a sexualized way. It suggested that the women coming were predominantly prostitutes, and that prostitutes were preying on White men and producing mixed race children, God forbid. The most significant impact of that law was to stop Chinese women from coming to the U.S.. It wasn’t until 1882 that Chinese men were blocked. So there’s very much a gender dimension to these immigration laws from the start.
White Borders talks about the ways that alleged progressive arguments are used to provide justification for nativist policies and movement. The American Federation of Labor, and their president Samuel Gompers, was on the vanguard of Chinese exclusion on the idea that immigration suppressed wages. And the example that may be most striking in your book comes later with the White nationalist John Tanton, who uses environmental arguments around population concerns to present a “progressive” case for immigration restriction.
I think particularly in the last 50 years we have seen that a lot more often. You mentioned John Tanton, and he’s a figure that is prominent in the book and is a key person in bringing anti-immigrant perspectives back into American politics over the last 50 years. One of his strategies was in the post-Civil Rights era, where it was no longer politically okay to speak in the kind of extremely racialized ways that politicians had in the previous eras. He set out on a strategy to use essentially liberal positions to argue immigration was bad for the poorest workers in the U.S. —that immigration was bad for the Black community in the U.S. because they competed for the same sorts of jobs. And that immigrants brought in beliefs that were anathema to progressive American values.
So although behind the scenes Tanton had close relationships with White supremacists and wrote in eugenics and racial terms about immigration, his public face was presented as a non-partisan, or even a liberal, sort of view. And this continues to be the public face of many of the organizations that he founded, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Numbers USA, and the Center for Immigration Studies. One of the groups is even called Progressives for Immigration Reform. So they emphasize the idea that these immigration restriction positions are not racist, even though if you really drill down, it is, right? Any of the other arguments about opposing immigration—for example, looking at the economic arguments around it—there’s no basis to them. Any economist will tell you that every study of immigration shows it’s a benefit to the society that receives the immigrants.
So Tanton’s strategy was to emphasize the idea that it is not a racist position, but if you really drill it down, it is. And so, despite the trappings of Tanton’s liberal argument for immigration restriction, at heart he is taking a nativist and racist position.
Nativism is a political ideology that seeks to prefer native born members of a society over immigrants, whom nativists often demonized as outsiders. This nativism is at the heart of the ideology of figures like John Tanton, who really cut his teeth trying to inject these nativist ideas into environmentalist organizations like the Sierra Club by using population panic rhetoric. Where do you see the legacy of Tanton’s influence and the influence of White supremacist ideas in the environmental movement today?
In the nativist movement in the 1910s and 1920s, the key figures are in the environmental movement as well. We see this again in the 1970s through the present, where the original thinkers of this anti-immigrant movement are environmentalists, and there’s a blending of the idea that population growth is a threat to the environment. Tanton was a high ranking figure in the Sierra Club in the 1970s and he tried to take these ideas into it, but he found that he couldn’t quite convince the mainstream of the environmental movement to support his positions. He ended up founding a series of other groups to argue for strict anti-immigrant positions (such as FAIR and Numbers USA).
There continues to be that connection with the environmental movement, and it seems to be a fertile ground for arguing for these positions. For example, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood (which has started to distance itself from Sanger as an organization) had very strong eugenics views about population growth. And we see that same sort of language in the first Earth Day. We tend to memorialize the first Earth Day in very positive terms today, but if you look at the language at the time, it is population growth language that drove the first Earth Day in 1970. People like Paul Ehrlich and his book The Population Bomb were founding figures of that idea. So there’s an ongoing, uncomfortable relationship between the environmental movement and anti-immigrant, White supremacist movements as well.
You talk in the book about how our immigration laws are, in some ways, relatively recent, and that the concept of borders themselves are not as perennial as people often assume. Where does this concept of national borders emerge from?
That’s a big question. I think the thing to remember is that it is very new. The U.S. didn’t have any federal border guards until the Border Patrol was established in 1924. It was created two days after the National Origins quotas passed, so their role was to enforce these racial rules about who could enter the United States. So for the first almost 150 years the U.S. didn’t have a border patrol—it is less than 100 years old—and for most of that time, the patrol was actually quite small. In the early 1990s the U.S. had fewer than [5,000] Border Patrol agents. It’s really the last 30 years that we’ve seen this kind of dramatic increase in the numbers of agents at the border.
This gets back to some of my earlier research. I have a book called Border Walls and another called Violent Borders, and these are themes that are key. The way to visualize it at a global scale is just to look at the data about border wall construction. I’ve put this together with one of my colleagues, Elisabeth Vallet, and she’s found that after World War II there were about five border walls anywhere in the world. If you fast forward to the year , there are maybe 15 border walls. Whereas today, there’s over 70 of them. So three quarters of the border walls that exist in the world have been built in the last 20 years. We have seen this really dramatic turn towards the idea that we can, and we should, limit the movement at the edges of countries. It’s not something that was attempted previously, it was not something that was seen as necessary.
With the rapidly accelerating climate crisis, we are going to see mass, unprecedented migration of climate refugees fleeing areas devastated by the effects of environmental destruction. How is the political Right going to respond to this mass migration, and what alternatives can people who want to see a more equitable and just society push for?
What we’re seeing is a turn on the Right away from denial of climate change, and toward an ecofascist position, recreating that coalition I was talking about before: the notion that we have to protect our borders in order to protect our environment. That if the U.S. lets in millions of more immigrants, that it will have this negative impact on the environment of the country. So they will argue that the way to protect the U.S. from these threats of climate change is through border security, not just to prevent immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, but to prevent immigrants from even starting to leave. It’s what scholars call “border externalization.”
For example, paying Mexico to stop immigrants, and paying Guatemala and El Salvador, and countries through that chain. Europe is doing the same thing, pushing their borders out, funding border guards in Libya, Turkey, Morocco, Mali, in order to have the work of enforcing the border happen well away from where the border actually is.
I expect that we’re going to see millions of people displaced by climate change, and that the movements we see today (although they’re among the largest that we have on record), if we look 20 to 30 years in the future, the number of people immigrating today is going to appear incredibly small.
So there are two options. One option is what most countries seem to be doing today, which is building walls, hiring more border agents, and creating these fortresses where there’s violence directed toward people on the move. And we’re going to see thousands and thousands of more deaths at borders as that violence is enforced.
The other option is to get ahead of it now, and instead of spending billions of dollars on border security, have that money ready to bring people in: to create the mechanisms, the housing that they need, the training that they need to work in the jobs that are here. Because there’s already clear evidence that more immigrants are a benefit to society, and these immigrants are going to come. So the question is, what do we want to spend our money on? Do we want to spend the money on violence and killing them? Or do we want to spend money on welcoming them and creating a better society for all of us?