The article is part of our series on migration.

In 2016, Donald Trump famously won the American Presidential election on a campaign where he promised to crack down on illegal immigration. The issue of immigration control has become an issue in many national elections over the past few years with claims that immigrants have been affecting everything from crime rates, the effectiveness of welfare programs, terrorism, employment rates, and overall societal morality.

American policies on immigration and criminal justice have been an influential model across the world. To understand America’s policy on immigration and detention, we should see it in the context of white supremacy and mass incarceration.

Origins of Immigration Policy:

America was one of the first major modern democracies. American citizenship laws, at the founding of the nation, were not an entitlement to enter the country. They determined the right to take part in the political life of the country. Citizenship was initially exclusively for white, property-owning men, and gradually expanded to include people of colour and women during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

After the abolition of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a growing movement to grant the now free African Americans the right to vote. This expanding of rights to non-White people was seen as a threat to the domination of white people over black. Segregation laws, race riots, and lynching began to assert racial dominance for those in the country, and immigration laws began to assert control over those from other countries.

Early chinese immigrants In 1875, the Page Act was passed, where migration from China, which supplied mostly coolie work, was restricted. Chinese migration to the United States started as a response to a growing labour demand in America in the construction of the railroads, coupled with social unrest in China at the time. People from China were treated like a scourge, whose families supposedly had many wives, were lazy, and did sex work. Many migrated to the west coast of America and were very poor.

The Page Act prevented people of Chinese descent from becoming citizens. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, where the race was a basis to restrict immigration. A combination of vigilante violence and formal deportation followed. This set the standard for the rights of foreign nationals in America. In the following two decades, the state evolved a policy to screen immigrants, and deport non-citizens on grounds of race, country of origin, political ideology and other supposed markers of moral character.

Making of the American Melting Pot- 

The policy continued to evolve until the 1950s, when America, in the head of the Cold War, tried to change its image to be a country that welcomed immigrants. During the Second World War, American Propaganda countered Nazi Propaganda by turning it around. Nazis claimed that America lost its racial purity and became a country of mutts (dogs who have not kept their breeds pure). In response, American propaganda portrayed ethnic and racial diversity as America’s strength. The propaganda was done for many reasons. It helped America maintain racially diverse allies. It helped maintain morale in an ethnically diverse military. It also used this language of cross-racial solidarity to garner support for racial targeting of people from enemy countries, like Japan, claiming that these people would be a threat to the racial harmony of the country.

In the 1950s and 60s, a growing black civil rights movement was seen as a threat to the establishment. In response, immigration policies began to change. Deportation cases dropped. John F. Kennedy became the first President of immigrant parents. Immigration policies were redesigned so that race was not explicitly a criterion for a visa. Country-wide quotas were introduced. Screening of immigration continued to selectively choose potential success stories to showcase.

Neo-liberal style of racism

In the late years of the Cold War, going into the Neo-liberal era of America, White supremacy reformed itself. Before the American civil rights movement, it was open and direct. After the passing of the Civil Rights Act, explicit discrimination was banned. In this era, White supremacy worked by implicitly hitting the community as a whole in coded ways, which were harder to challenge.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the signs preventing African Americans from entering certain rooms were taken down, but the roads leading them to those rooms were still rocky. Policies that systematically hit non-White communities, making those roads rockier, became more common. The American mass incarceration system allowed the government to prosecute black people. The immigration policy helped deal with the other growing minority, people from South and Central America.

The investment in anti-immigration policies and infrastructure often carries with it an economy on its own. Investment in the initial capital often requires the use of that capital. Ties with private capital, which accelerated through the 1990s, led to the creation of lobby groups that affect politicians in a cyclical way. Extra-institutional requirements, like food contracts, reinforced the lobby group. Often these groups lobby politicians for their services as well as expansion. Detention facilities are seen as “jobs,” and link concerns for unemployment with the detention of immigrants in a complicated way. Institutions that specifically demonize and isolate people from the broader society are especially prone to this.

Criminalizing Mexican Immigrants:

These policies also coincided with the development of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), where America opened trade relations with Mexico and Canada, and developed a narrative of Mexicans stealing American jobs in the 1990s. Many companies and rich people took advantage of the system to strengthen these laws, which broke a population’s ability to negotiate in a system sometimes called Crimmigration, most notable in hospitality and food services, agriculture, domestic work and home care, and logistics.
Neo-liberal economic policies also resulted in waxing and waning American economy. Unemployment rates began to fluctuate in the 1980s like never before. Politicians of all stripes would make scapegoats out of recipients of welfare schemes, outsiders, racial minorities, and the poor. They were denounced in the media as drug users, criminals, people of loose morals, and terrorists.

This association coupled with a history of obscuring immigration policies from judicial review made immigrants an ideal scapegoat.

It should be remembered always that Mexican is a racial code. Mexico is a country, not a race, and has people of different races in it. Some Mexicans are white and do not face as much discrimination in the US. Mexicans who have only part White ancestry or none at all tend to be the stereotype of the so-called illegal immigrant.

Rise of Deportations:

The 1980s marked a huge rise in deportations. In the first century, following the Page Act, nearly 20 lakh people had been deported. During the Presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990s, little over 10 lakh people were deported. The next President, George Bush Jr., deported 20 lakh people. The President after that, Barack Obama, deported 30 lakh people.

Immigrants detained at ICE Immigrant children detained at ICE

Trump’s rise to the American Presidency began with a promise to become even less lenient on illegal immigration. One of his most controversial acts has been the changes to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE was founded in 2003 as part of the War on Terror policies to control foreign citizens suspected of terrorism. American public opinion supported the violation of due process and human rights to fight terrorism.

Immigration was also space where human rights could be suspended, so ICE was formed to have impunity in its war on immigrants. The number of deportations has risen under the Trump administration, but they have not departed from the trend seen since the 1990s. What has changed is the virulence of it. More investigations, rabble-rousing, threats of mass raids, and reinforcements have occurred under Trump than under previous American presidents.

This is dangerous for the country as a whole, as reliance on extra-judicial processes, and screening of people without respect for their rights. Many of these institutions were set in place during previous administrations and shows that policies based on hate and exclusion carry from one generation to the next, and give the next generation even more injustice to fight.

Also Read: “All-India NRC Makes Absolutely No Sense”, Says IIM Professor



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October 2023



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