The Racist History of Border and Immigration Enforcement

An interview with geographer Reece Jones about his new book, White Borders.

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After two weeks of writing about “border theater” in Del Rio, Texas, we were hoping to get a more historical understanding of how white nationalism is connected to it. Luckily, the esteemed author Reece Jones has a great new book out this week discussing this sweeping history, and we were able to chat with him about the book, its insights, and how those insights inform our understanding of the border. See below where Jones talks about Chinese exclusion, eugenics-based national origin immigration quotas, and the bizarre story of the Tanton Network of anti-immigrant organizations, among other things.

Also, we’d like to thank our subscribers again. We truly appreciate your support. Founding members should expect a personal email from us soon, probably within the next week. And, just so you know, we have some stories in the works: uh ... is the border wall still under construction?; climate change, climate profiteering, and the border; the case for open borders (which will include a discussion about that with subscribers); and an audio interview with Oswaldo Zavala on his book Drug Cartels Do Not Exist. Please stay tuned and spread the word!

The Racist History of Border and Immigration Enforcement

An interview with geographer Reece Jones about his new book, White Borders.

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In geographer Reece Jones’s new book, White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall, he tells the sweeping history of racism in immigration law and border policing. This is the University of Hawai‘i professor’s seventh book (either as an author or an editor) examining border and immigration issues. White Borders begins at the infamous Charlottesville white nationalist march in 2017 (“You! Will not! Replace us!”) and ends with a meditation on the Statue of Liberty via a press conference run by Donald Trump’s senior immigration adviser, Stephen Miller. With vivid storytelling and incisive analysis, Jones unpacks the U.S. history that brought Trump to power and exposes the white nationalism that is inherent to border enforcement no matter who sits in the Oval Office. I asked him several questions about the book on its publication day, October 12. I was particularly interested in how the history he uncovers in White Borders connects with what we see on the border today.

The figure of Donald Trump is often presented as if he appeared out of thin air, creating the impression that everything was fine before him. How can we put Trump and his border policies in historical context?

It is convenient for Americans to rationalize Trump policies like the Muslim ban or child separations as aberrations, but they are not. What I found while researching White Borders is that Trump is best understood as a reversion to the historical norms of the past. The unusual period was the post–civil rights movement consensus, according to which blatantly racist language and policies were no longer acceptable in public discourse. In the book, I quote dozens of examples of senators saying outrageously racist things openly on the Senate floor. These views were the norm for white Americans from the country’s founding through the 1960s. Trump made it the norm again for the Republican Party.

Can you explain how racial exclusion, including the use of the long-debunked pseudoscience eugenics, has been a cornerstone of U.S. border and immigration strategies, policies, and institutions—like the Border Patrol—over its history?

Most people assume that the United States has always had immigration restrictions and are surprised to learn that there were not any federal immigration laws until 1875. There were some state-level restrictions, but those were ruled unconstitutional in 1849 and again in 1875. So why did Congress pass its first immigration restriction in 1875? To prevent the arrival of the Chinese. As other new nonwhite immigrant groups began to arrive, Congress continued to pass new restrictions, including the Asiatic Barred Zone in 1917 and the eugenics-based National Origins Quotas in 1924. So it is not just that some immigration restrictions were based on racism. The entire reason the country has them at all is racism.

Similarly, most people assume the U.S. has always had border guards patrolling the boundaries of the United States. This is also not true. For many decades, the U.S. was focused on expanding its borders, not protecting them. While there were customs agents at ports, the very first federal police force that patrolled border lines was the Mounted Chinese Inspectors in 1904. It is obvious from the name, but their job was to enforce Chinese exclusion laws through racial profiling. They rode through border towns and asked people of Chinese appearance to show their documents that allowed them to be in the United States. The Border Patrol was established in 1924, two days after the eugenics-derived National Origins Quotas went into effect. Just like the Chinese Inspectors, the Border Patrol was created to use racial profiling to enforce racial entry rules to the U.S. I have another book, Nobody Is Protected: How the Border Patrol Became the Most Dangerous Police Force in the United States, that comes out with Counterpoint Press next July. That book tells the story of the Border Patrol from the Wild West antics of the early agents through the expansion of the Border Patrol into the interior of the country today.

Even though Joe Biden’s administration has made a big deal about reversing Trump’s policies, and Democrats in general have rhetorically pivoted to an anti-wall, anti-racist, anti-Trump position, it seems that his administration is keeping in line with the broader history of the border and immigration enforcement system, which you describe in White Borders. Could you speak about the Democrats? Have they helped build up this system of exclusion?

The last major change to U.S. immigration law was in 1965, when the National Origins Quotas were replaced by hemispheric limits on immigration, including limits on Mexican immigration for the first time. That law is still in place, but in the decades since, a bipartisan consensus in Congress has expanded security at the border through deploying thousands of additional agents, investing in high-tech surveillance equipment, and building hundreds of miles of border wall. Congress has also expanded interior enforcement by creating Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and enforcing new rules on employers who hire undocumented people. These laws seem to pass almost every decade with IRCA [Immigration Reform and Control Act] in 1986, IIRIRA [Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act] in 1996, and the Secure Fence Act in 2006. Of course, Trump won the 2016 election on a platform of racist, anti-immigrant language. I guess we should expect the next round of restrictions in 2026.

The innocuous-sounding organizations FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies—both designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center—often find their way into mainstream U.S. discourse, both in the media and in politicians’ mouths and policies. Could you explain the origin of these organizations, where they come from, and why it’s important to know about them?

I think this story is the most fascinating and bizarre that I came across for the book. In the 1970s, an ophthalmologist in upstate Michigan named John Tanton decided that immigration was a grave threat to the United States. Finding no one else making these arguments, he decided to set up a network of anti-immigrant groups himself. Over the ensuing decades, he succeeded in securing major funding from some of the richest people in the world for his nativist movement, including Warren Buffett and the Mellon heiress Cordelia Scaife May. In 2005, Scaife May left over $400 million to her Colcom Foundation, which has a mission statement to fund organizations that reduce immigration. In the final part of White Borders, I detail the rise of the Tanton network of anti-immigrant groups, including FAIR, CIS, and Numbers United States, among a dozen others.

Tanton is a confounding figure. On the one hand, he is just an awful human being. His papers, which are archived at the University of Michigan, include dozens of letters with prominent white supremacists, making clear his extremist views. On the other hand, he was a tireless worker, and you cannot help but be impressed (and appalled) by the scale of what he achieved. In addition to the fundraising, Tanton’s insight was to give his groups plain names and to create many of them, so it seems like a widespread grassroots movement. In reality they can all be traced to Tanton’s work and Scaife May’s money. The SPLC designates many of the Tanton network organizations as hate groups, but the money has allowed them to influence American public opinion around immigration. As I detail in the book, this leads directly to the Trump administration. Dozens of Trump-related figures, including Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, Kris Kobach, and Kellyanne Conway, have close relationships with the Tanton network hate groups.

For The Border Chronicle in recent weeks we have written about “border theater,” especially in the context of last month’s situation in Del Rio, Texas. From the conservative side, “border theater” normally follows a pattern that Trump mastered: First, create a perception of chaos at the border. This spawns a crisis narrative that is repeated endlessly by the news media, especially Fox News. Politicians then use this narrative to justify their policies of building up the border. Is there a history to this that you could talk about?

The Tanton network has specialized in producing border theater for decades. It started taking politicians and media figures on border tours in the 1980s, akin to the pilgrimages that dozens (hundreds?) of Republican politicians made to the border this year. The Tanton network also spent much of its time cultivating sympathetic voices in the media. FAIR has run an event since 2005 that it calls “Hold Their Feet to the Fire,” in which right-wing radio hosts come to Washington, DC, to broadcast together with Tanton organizations about immigration. A key contact for the Tanton network was Lou Dobbs at CNN and later Fox Business. Dobbs regularly reported on FAIR events on CNN, and he broadcast his own radio show from there.

In writing this book, what did you learn that was unexpected or surprising?

I was surprised how closely the language of Trump and the Republican Party matched the rhetoric of white supremacists in the past. In the book, I tell the story of Denis Kearney, who was anti-Chinese activist in California in the lead-up to the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1878 he went on a tour of the eastern U.S. holding rallies that were a lot like Trump’s. The audience was boisterous and hate-filled, and Kearney riled them up by starting each speech by criticizing the press. They would boo and hiss at the reporters, and at one event a reporter was even beat up. Kearney’s message was like Trump’s: nonwhite immigrants are a threat to the white population of the United States. For Kearney the Chinese were an invasion force that took American jobs while bringing drugs and diseases. Sound familiar? Kearney ended every speech with his own catchphrase, “And whatever happens, the Chinese must go.” His rallies were a sensation and were covered breathlessly by the press, ensuring that thousands of people turned out to hear him at every stop.

Given everything you’ve unearthed in this sweeping history of border and immigration enforcement, what do you think is the way forward?

There is a consensus in the U.S. that policing should be understood through a racial lens, but for many people immigration laws are still understood in a more neutral way, as something routine that every country does. I show in White Borders that immigration laws and border enforcement are rooted in white supremacy. Immigration laws were established for the purpose of racial exclusion, they are enforced through racial profiling, and they have racially discriminatory results. Consequently, the implication is that if we recognize that immigration restrictions are a tool of white supremacy, then free movement must be the position of anyone opposed to it.

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