Demonizing Human Movement: Criminalizing Immigrants in the United States

By Kayla Alexandria Dorancy • 


Immigration is a universal practice by people that’s survived countless generations. The United States is known universally as a “melting pot” of culture and nationality. The inclusion and diversity of America is often embraced and is her most remarkable feature yet, internationally. Racial and ethnic variety is claimed to be the foundation of the United States’ greatness. Yet, the history of the United States pertaining to immigrants/immigration tells a different story, revealing a scarier reality. The so-called “melting pot” is a sham. Throughout history, we understand our diversity to be born of the perseverance of immigrants in search of ensuring life and liberty — not of American acceptance.

For decades (and still today), the United States has created and reinforced stereotypes of immigrants that cultivate American hatred to incoming migrants – especially towards those of color. The historic criminalization of Immigrants of color coming to America is a tactic used to preserve white supremacy and incite fear for the public’s disapproval of certain immigrant groups.

The United States adopted race as a form of legal category to grant citizenship. This practice preceded the establishment of the United States as an independent nation; as race and social darwinism was used as a justification for slavery — the concept of race legalized behaviors and statuses on the basis of skin color. Decades from its first application, race — specifically whiteness, would play a huge role in granting citizenship and systemic rights and privileges to incoming groups. Initially, white people were only granted citizenship. White, being anybody who was not transported against their will from colonized states or their descendants, extended other privileges on the basis of sex and wealth. However, foundationally, all White people — even indentured servants after they worked off their debt, would receive access to citizenship. After the 14th Amendment, this extended citizenship to only males of African descent that currently lived in the United States. This would not be shared by incoming groups, or other existent groups in the United States like Indigenous populations. 

After the influx of immigrants in the 1890s, the determination of citizenship would be left to be determined by Supreme Courts as to what groups were considered white. Whiteness was an important identification for many as the racial class came with recognizable privileges. The Supreme Court determined whiteness through legal precedent, acclaimed scientific evidence, and common knowledge. Some groups went as far as claiming white status through social hierarchy in their countries, to ensure their whiteness in America. In United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, a Hindu Indian, tried to claim the status of whiteness by claiming his status in India as a full-blooded Indian Hindu to be the equivalent of white in America. This was shot down by the court, as he was told: “It may be true that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu may have the same ancestor…but the average man knows perfectly well that there are undeniable and profound differences between them to-day.” In other words, he was denied as per common knowledge.

Ultimately, the Courts would strategically determine whiteness through Christian religious practices. Immigrants from Armenia and Syria were legally white, while Asian Indians, Punjabis, Japanese and Koreans were denied due to precedent and common knowledge that masked the rejection of court on the basis of religious practices and racialized appearance.

The United States did not only deny citizenship to members of these communities, they worked to criminalize them to prevent support from the American people and deter immigration entirely from selective countries. Criminalization is the process of transforming people or behaviors into deviants by changing legislation or judicial interpretation. Criminalization essentially aids those in power to reform criminal policy, and in the case of immigration, can prevent residency in the United States or defame the image of certain immigrants entering the country. Throughout history, it is clear that the United States uses criminalization tactics to target immigrants of color. Through the Page Act of 1875 and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the creation of Border Patrol and Mexican Removal Act, the increase of deportable crimes with the implementation of Broken Windows and 1996 Immigration Reform, and the creation of Homeland Security, Guantanamo Bay, and the Persecution of Muslims all look to target those of color. Black, Asian, Non-White Hispanic/Latinx, and Middle Eastern immigrants all face immigration discrimination today because of the United States’ attack on immigrants for over a century.

The first explicit criminalization [of] and racism towards voluntary immigrants can be dated to the Page Act of 1875 and Chinese Exclusion of 1882. Asian immigration to the United States begins in the 1800s in extremely small numbers. Making up less than .1 of the United States population, Asian immigrants began to receive discriminatory backlash for their entry through the California borders. In 1875, California passed a law: [the] Act to Prevent the kidnapping and Importation of Mongalian, Chinese, and Japanese Females for Criminal or Demoralizing Purposes or later on named the Page Act of 1882. This legislation was meant to prevent Asian female immigration to the United States by stigmatizing all of them as prostitutes. By misusing the 13th Amendment and capitalizing on the recent emancipation of African Americans, California representatives claimed the legislation was meant to protect Asian women and American values. However, the legislation enforcement methods of invasive searches, assumptions, and interrogations sparked fear in the Asian community and reduced the immigration of Asian women to almost none by the 1890s. This encouraged the idea that because they are not trying to immigrate anymore — that they are immoral, valueless women. This would act as a form of ethnic cleansing as Asian women were not present to bear children. Less than a decade later, Chinese men would be targeted as well. Middle class Americans, after recently adjusting to the liberation of African-Americans no less than 10 years prior in 1865, blame Chinese immigrant laborers for “taking their jobs”. The extreme poverty of Chinese men created a capitalist favor for cheap labor promoted by the men searching for work. Rather than tunnel their economic frustrations towards bourgeoise, middle class workers aimed their anger through racialized violence. The Chinese Exclusion Act denied citizenship to any Chinese men residing in the United States, and denied further entry of Chinese men. The law claimed to be an attempt at protecting American middle class workers, therefore it focused on the exclusion of Chinese laborers. However, the law was not about protecting American economic mobility. As it did with the Page Act, this Chinese immigration policy preserved and protected white purity because it was focused on the race of the laborer, rather than the laborer itself. The law did not seek out laborers from those immigrating into the United States from Eastern and Southern Europe in the 1890s, as it did for the Chinese. As a result, Chinese people were excluded from immigration for 60 years and those who resided in the United States became the target of working class America – facing discriminatory attacks and unequal employment opportunities. Criminalizing Asians as promiscuous women and beggar-men is a narrative seen today.

Mexicans have always resided in the United States – specifically as historians study the Southwestern border of the United States. After the US-Mexico War, the 1848 Treaty of Gudalupe-Hidalgo annexed Mexican territory, which is present day: California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado to the United States. The Mexicans who resided in those territories were admitted to the [then] Union and granted all-inclusive citizenship. After the 1897 ruling in In re Rodriguez, a Texas federal court case, it set a precedent of full-blooded Mexicans receiving the rights of free white men, but not the status. Decades later in 1924, after the creation of the National Origins Act—  which implemented a quota system according to the 1890 census figures, was the creation of the United States Border Patrol. The National Origins Act xenophobically enforced ethnic selection of immigration – however could not control the influence of low-wage workers from Mexico (and the Caribbean) receiving opportunities from American businesses. At the time, the Border Patrol departmentalized under the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Department of Labor and militarized troops to patrol the United States-Mexico border for those illegally crossing the border of all backgrounds. Soon, the efforts focused on Mexican migrants and inhumanely arrested and deported them. This was a method of increased social status for white men and a response through racialized revenge. Though this was not the first example of white immigration enforcement at the border, which began in 1904 to enforce Chinese Exclusion Acts, but it was the first opportunity opened to Americans in a large, deputized manner.

In 1929 began Mexican Removal Programs. Collaborative efforts between local and federal governments resulted in the deportation of over a million Mexican and Mexican-American citizens after being blamed for taking American jobs. The Department of Labor justified these deportations by claiming the immigrants and citizens illegally entered the United States, however this was a weak attempt to cover their racism. Mexicans, for years, were stereotyped as inadequate workers that steal jobs from Americans. The truth was that Americans’ anger was misdirected. The anger towards Mexicans willing to work for less, which granted them more work opportunities, is not on the blame of the person. It is the full discretion of the employer to hire someone, and if the American is not willing to lower their wage desire – then there is no one else to blame. The creation of Border Patrol and Mexican Removal Programs further another reason to fuel hatred towards Mexicans by claiming they illegally enter the United States. This criminalization of Mexicans opened the door for decades of discrimination.

Years of hatred and criminalization would be (and still be) experienced by immigrant groups through Japanese internment, determent of Haitian immigration in the 1980s, and more – however notably in the 1990s immigrants would be criminalized and stereotyped in ways visible today. During the Clinton administration, “getting tough on crime” was a critical agenda and platform in United States politics. Not only did this include cracking down on drugs as Reagan did two administrations previously, but added immigration to the list. Clinton’s 1996 immigration reform laws shifted immigration and national security to an extreme; this limited the court’s role in deportation cases and expanded the list of criminal offenses that ultimately became deportable charges. This became strongly enforced through Broken Windows policing. Broken Windows policing, which encouraged increased police activity in black and brown communities under the notion of improving the quality of life in low-income, inner city areas, only enforced stricter law interpretations, looser reign on officers, and misused application of the law. Quality of life crimes expanded the list of arrestable offenses to include public intoxication, public urination, spitting on the street, and other “lewd” acts. Nonviolent offenses like driving without a license, trespassing, and speeding would become offenses that criminalize immigrants and deport them. Not only did Broken Windows inspire criminalizing nonviolent offenses, it indirectly inspired interagency and intergovernmental law enforcement because it requires the coordinated efforts between local law enforcement and immigration. This form of policing became the method of enforcing tougher immigration policy in black and brown communities. Thus, the expansion of criminalizing nonviolent offenses were added to deportable crimes that directly criminalized immigrants and created a narrative that inspired discussions of national security.

The conversations of immigration and national security skyrocketed after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. After the September 11th terrorist attack in 2001, the Bush Administration expanded its resources in interagency law enforcement. Under the motivation of ensuring national security, the creation of DHS reinforced the narrative that immigration is synonymous to threats of national security. Under the Obama Administration, by imposing policies that required coordination between immigration and domestic law enforcement, over 1 million undocumented immigrants were criminalized and deported for nonviolent offenses. This gave leeway to local law enforcement to arrest undocumented immigrants for minor crimes and turn them over to DHS as immigration enforcement. As a result, today ICE and CBP aggressively enforce immigration law and encourage the narrative that immigrants are a threat to American national security. This narrative would prove to be especially true to Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants.

The September 11th attacks was not only detrimental to the Americans, but to Muslim-Americans and immigrants faced with the backlash. The infamous term of “radical Islamic terrorism” became America’s biggest fear since the Cold War. As products of the US education system, Americans tie terrorism to the religion itself, rather than the radical terrorism it is. This account would motivate the multide of anti-Muslim policies such as the frozen Travel Ban, No-Fly List, refocus of the Countering Violent Extremism program to target only Muslim countries, and disproportional spying on Muslims in the United States. The United States has bombed and has an active part in the destruction of Muslim countries such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and more – however sought to exclude asylum seekers’ immigration to the United States. As a result, the criminalizing and inducing the fear of Muslim countries by bombing them and attempting to ban their citizens continues the narrative of Muslims being terrorist and a threat to national security.

There are no attacks on what is considered “white” immigrant groups and their immigration to America. In fact, federal immigration reform in 1965 removed the quota system and implemented a new system of immigration. The new system, which is still used today, determined residency and citizenship through need for refuge, useful skill sets, and relative sponsorship. This catered to northern and western European immigrants because it chose who they wanted to allow into the United States. As seen above, Immigrants of color are portrayed in a criminal manner while white immigrants are not subjected to xenophobia.

Conversions today concerning immigrants do not refer back to the history the United States has with immigration. America has a clear history in immigrants that targets people of color, with its first performance explicitly targeting Chinese people through stereotyped policy. Immigrants of color are often seen as people who enter to devalue American morals, similarly to the perception that California lawmakers created upon claiming Asian women are prostitutes. Yet, this was a tactic used to discourage Americans from accepting Chinese immigration Another misinformed perception of immigrants of color their attempt to interfere with American work – however the history of Chinese Men and Mexicans show that they were willing to work for less which employers desired, and is not the responsibility of the immigrant that the job was given to them. Finally, Immigrants of color are subjected to being referred to as “criminals” and accused of increasing the criminality of immigration – however it is the fault of domestic policy that has increased the criminalization of immigrants. As time progressed, the government has done an effective job at masking it’s xenophobia, racism, and ethnic cleansing through manipulating terrorism and expanded crime policies to capitalize on American fear.

Thus, if the United States cared about immigration equality and protecting life and liberty universally, then they would acknowledge the consistent discrimination against immigrants of color and take responsibility for their attempt to maintain whiteness. The United States has shifted from its uncensored racism to implicit and suggestive bias in policies that are selectively enforced on immigrants of color. It is critical to hold the government accountable to have real and effective conversations about immigration safety and national security. America is only hindering itself from practical solutions to solving issues affecting our safety and so-called American values.

Sources:

1. Kaplan, Amy. “Where is Guantanamo?” Course pack for Pols 3191W: Critical Writing on the Politics of Race and Nation, complied by Jeanne Theoharis, Fall 2019, Brooklyn College. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40068318

2. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40068318

3. Akbar, Amina, Theoharis, Jeanne. “Islam on Trial” Course pack for Pols 3191W: Critical Writing on the Politics of Race and Nation, complied by Jeanne Theoharis, Fall 2019, Brooklyn College. http://bostonreview.net/forum/amna-akbar-jeanne-theoharis-islam-trial

4. Aja, Alan, Marchevsky, Alejandra. “How Immigrants Became Criminals.” Course pack for Pols 3191W: Critical Writing on the Politics of Race and Nation, complied by Jeanne Theoharis, Fall 2019, Brooklyn College. http://bostonreview.net/politics/alan-j-aja-alejandra-marchevsky-how-immigrants-became-criminals

5. http://bostonreview.net/politics/alan-j-aja-alejandra-marchevsky-how-immigrants-became-criminals

6. Friedman, Andrea. “Reconstructing California, Reconstructiing the Nation.” Course pack for Pols 3191W: Critical Writing on the Politics of Race and Nation, complied by Jeanne Theoharis, Fall 2019, Brooklyn College.

7. “Formation: The Early Years” Course pack for Pols 3191W: Critical Writing on the Politics of Race and Nation, complied by Jeanne Theoharis, Fall 2019, Brooklyn College.

8. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/pqitw


Kayla Alexandria Dorancy is a recent graduate from Brooklyn College with a dual major BA in Philosophy and Political Science. Her focus study and researching consists of Black feminist theory, Black queer theory, Power Movements of the late 20th century, and more. As she anticipates beginning her PhD and JD in 2022, she hopes to utilized her education and experience to dismantle systems of inequity in education, civil rights, and human rights.

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Black Feminist Collective is an intergenerational community that stands for Black liberation in its entirety, centering the voices of Black feminists and womanists.

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