And until we grasp how fear of the Other has been used to stroke fear and resentment, it’s a tragedy we’re liable to reenact again and again.
Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Associate Professor of History and African-American Studies at the University of California–Los Angeles, gives us a look at this less-than-grand-old propensity in this essay for The Conversation, an academic journal written for the rest of us:
A rowdy segment of the American electorate is hell-bent on banning a specific group of immigrants from entering the United States. Thousands upon thousands of other people – citizens and immigrants, alike – oppose them, choosing to go to court rather than fulfill the electorate’s narrow vision of what America should look like: white, middle-class and Christian.
Soon a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings could grant unrestrained power to Congress and the president over immigration control. More than 50 million people could be deported. Countless others might be barred from entering. Most of them would be poor, nonwhite and non-Christian.
This may sound like wild speculation about what is to come in President Donald Trump’s America. It is not. It is the history of U.S. immigration control, which is the focus of my work in the books “Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol” and “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles.”
Historically speaking, immigration control is one of the least constitutional and most racist realms of governance in U.S. law and life.
Made in the American West
The modern system of U.S. immigration control began in the 19th-century American West. Between the 1840s and 1880s, the United States government warred with indigenous peoples and Mexico to lay claim to the region. Droves of Anglo-American families soon followed, believing it was their Manifest Destiny to dominate land, law and life in the region.
But indigenous peoples never disappeared (see Standing Rock) and nonwhite migrants arrived (see the state of California). Chinese immigrants, in particular, arrived in large numbers during the 19th century. A travel writer who was popular at the time, Bayard Taylor, expressed the sentiment settlers felt toward Chinese immigrants in one of his books:
“The Chinese are, morally, the most debased people on the face of the earth… their touch is pollution… They should not be allowed to settle on our soil.”
In response to their demands, Congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country for 10 years. The law focused on Chinese laborers, the single largest sector of the Chinese immigrant community. In 1884, Congress required all Chinese laborers admitted before the Exclusion Act was passed to secure a certificate of reentry if they wanted to leave and return. But, in 1888, Congress banned even those with certificates from reentering.
Then, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was set to expire in 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act, which again banned all Chinese laborers and required all Chinese immigrants to verify their lawful presence by registering with the federal government. The federal authorities were empowered by the law to find, imprison and deport all Chinese immigrants who failed to register by May 1893.
Together, these laws banned a nationally targeted population from entering the United States and invented the first system of mass deportation. Nothing quite like this had ever before been tried in the United States.
Chinese immigrants rebelled against the new laws. In 1888, a laborer named Chae Chan Ping was denied the right of return despite having a reentry certificate and was subsequently confined on a steamship. The Chinese immigrant community hired lawyers to fight his case. The lawyers argued the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court but lost when the court ruled that “the power of exclusion of foreigners [is an] incident of sovereignty belonging to the government of the United States” and “cannot be granted away or restrained on behalf of anyone.”
Simply put, Chae Chan Ping v. U.S. established that Congress and the president hold “absolute” and “unqualified” authority over immigrant entry and exclusion at U.S. borders.