Along with its commitment to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," that document couldn't have been clearer that the new country would also be committed to a settler colonial project of populating the land with white immigrants and getting rid of the natives. Put another way, deportation was written into the American DNA from the get-go and, put in election 2016 terms, the new country was, from the beginning, designed as an explicitly racist project to populate the land with white people. Perhaps this is what Donald Trump means with his now iconic slogan "Make America Great Again!"
Nor did this commitment to white supremacy through immigration change during the initial century of U.S. history. The first Naturalization Act of 1790 encouraged white immigration by basing citizenship on race and offering it liberally to immigrants -- defined as white Europeans -- who were in this way made the privileged constituency of a new nation that had a slave system at its heart. (Although southern and eastern Europeans would face social prejudice in the United States, immigration and citizenship law always placed them in the "white" category.)
It was not until 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution created the right to citizenship by birth, making it possible for the first time for non-whites to become citizens. But when Congress passed that amendment, it had in mind only some non-whites: previously enslaved Africans and their descendants. Here's the crucial line in which Congress made sure of that: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside." Since Native Americans were not "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States, they were excluded from citizenship by birth.
The new racial boundaries of citizenship were further clarified in 1870 when Congress amended the Naturalization Act by officially allowing, for the first time, some non-citizens of color to obtain citizenship: it extended naturalization rights to "aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent." On paper, this looked like a move away from white supremacy. In the context of the United States at that moment, however, it was something else. It ensured that Native Americans, already excluded from citizenship by birth, would also be barred from obtaining citizenship through naturalization. As for those theoretical "aliens of African nativity" who might be entering the country and seeking citizenship through naturalization, there were virtually none. In the aftermath of hundreds of years of enslavement and forced transport, it would be many decades before any Africans could imagine the United States as a land of opportunity or a place to make a better life.
And the new Naturalization Act just as explicitly excluded lots of people who were in fact migrating to the United States in significant numbers in the 1870s. If you were European, you were, of course, still quite welcome to become a citizen. However, if you were, for example, Mexican or Chinese, while you were still welcome to come and work, you weren't an "immigrant," since you couldn't become a citizen. Hence, the United States continued to be a "nation of immigrants" -- but only of a specific sort.
Citizenship by birth, however, opened a Pandora's box. Anybody physically present in the country (except Native Americans) could obtain citizenship for his or her children by virtue of birth. Chinese adults might be prohibited from naturalizing, but their children would be both "racially ineligible to citizenship" and citizens by birth -- a logical impossibility.
Once citizenship by birth had been established, Congress moved to preserve the white racial character of the country by restricting the entry of non-whites -- first with the Page Act of 1875, prohibiting Chinese women from entering the country, then with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That ban was, in turn, gradually expanded until, in 1917, the "Asiatic Barred Zone" was put in place. It would span significant parts of the globe, from Afghanistan to the islands of the Pacific, and encompass about half of the world's population. Its purpose was to ensure that, all "Asians" being "aliens ineligible to citizenship," none of them would enter the U.S., and so their racially ineligible children would never be born here and obtain citizenship by birth.
Students of immigration history generally learn about the 1921 and 1924 quotas that, for the first time, placed restrictions on European immigration. Indeed, for about four decades in the mid-twentieth century, the United States ranked Europeans by their "racial" desirability and offered differential quotas to reduce the numbers of those less desired (southern and eastern Europeans in particular) entering the country.
But while all these restrictions were being implemented, Congress did absolutely nothing to try to stop Mexican migration. Mexican labor was desperately needed for the railroads, mines, construction, and farming that followed in the wake of white settler colonialism and the displacement of Native Americans in the West. In fact, after Chinese immigration was banned, Mexican workers became even more necessary. And Mexicans had an advantage over the Chinese: they were easier to deport across the long southern border. Many, in fact, preferred to maintain their homes in Mexico and engage in short-term migration to seasonal, temporary jobs. So Mexicans were welcomed -- just not as immigrants or potential citizens. Rather, they were seen as eminently deportable, temporary workers.
In this way, a revolving door of recruitment and deportation came to define Mexican migration to the United States. At some points this system was formalized into bracero or "guest-worker" programs, as happened between 1917 and 1922, and again from 1942 to 1964. And nativists could sometimes mobilize anti-Mexican sentiment of a Trumpian sort to justify mass deportations -- like those in the 1930s and again in 1954 -- that would only reinforce the inherent and public tenuousness of the Mexican presence in the United States.
The "Nation of Immigrants" Today
The formal bracero program was phased out after 1964, but the pattern of recruitment and deportation of Mexican workers has continued to this day. The supposedly liberal, immigrant-friendly President Obama actually implemented quotas that have pushed the Department of Homeland Security to oversee hundreds of thousands of deportations yearly. Most of those deported are Mexican -- not exactly surprisingly, since the legal apparatus was designed for just that purpose. The only thing that's new is the stated rationale: now they have been assigned a status -- "undocumented" -- that justifies their deportation.
Events in the 1960s, including the ending of the bracero program and the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965, made changes that began to treat all countries, including Mexico, the same way. Instead of large numbers of guest-worker visas, Mexico would receive a small number of immigrant visas. But Mexico's migrant history and its reality were completely different from those of other countries. Given how dependent both countries had become on Mexicans migrating north to work, the stream of workers heading north continued despite changes in the law. The only difference: now this was "illegal."
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act legalized millions of Mexicans already in the country without legal status and also began the trend towards the militarization and control of the border. Paradoxically enough, this only increased the undocumented population, because those who made it across that border were increasingly afraid to leave for fear they wouldn't make it back the next year.
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