Chapter Thirteen: Racism, Nativism, and Immigration Policy considers the history of immigration policy in the United States and the extent to which racist and nativist sentiments have played a role in U.S. immigration legislation. Although the country’s immigration policy has shifted dramatically over the years, two trends have remained constant: (1) nativism has been an integral part of debates over immigration policy, and (2) the consequences of the policy have been more disadvantageous to people defined as non-white than to those considered to be white. What has changed over time is the removal of explicitly discriminatory language from U.S. immigration laws. This chapter explores how immigration laws can have racially disparate consequences, even when the laws do not mention race.

U.S. immigration policy can be draconian – even long-term legal residents can have their rights stripped away for minor transgressions of the law. In this chapter, we explore the history of U.S. immigration policy, as well as present-day laws and policies. This historical overview makes it clear that immigration policy is draconian because it is targeted specifically at people defined as outsiders to the nation. Lawmakers consistently have used immigration policy in attempts to influence the racial and ethnic make-up of the nation. In this process, racism and nativism often have become indistinguishable.

Immigration policy continues to be at the forefront of the political agenda in the United States today. It is hard to imagine a time when the country had no immigration policy, yet just one hundred years ago there was no Border Patrol, and passports and visas were not required to enter the United States. When the United States began to pass immigration laws at the end of the 19th century, governing the entry and residency conditions of the foreign-born, the laws were overtly racialized and expressed a clear preference for people from Northern and Western Europe.

The Racialized History of U.S. Immigration Policy

The history of U.S. immigration policy is a reflection of societal racism and nativism. Whereas racism presumes the superiority of a racial group, nativism presumes the superiority of native-born citizens, favoring the allocation of resources to them over immigrants and promoting a fear of foreign cultures. As various scholars have noted (e.g., Lippard 2011; Sanchez 1997; Johnson 1996), racist nativism is a prominent feature of contemporary American society: the fear of foreigners is clearly racialized, and nativist sentiments are directed at particular racial groups, such as Mexicans and people from the Middle East. Through an examination of the history of immigration policy and nativist responses to immigration, we will see how nativism and racism have been intertwined in U.S. history and how nativism today is distinct from that of the past.

The 1996 Laws and the Detention and Deportation of Black and Latino Immigrants

In 1996, Congress passed two laws that fundamentally changed the rights of all foreign-born people in the United States—the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA)—these laws were striking in that they eliminated judicial review of some deportation orders, required mandatory detention for many non-citizens, and introduced the potential for the use of secret evidence in certain cases. …

The 1996 laws are punitive and harsh. Moreover, they have disproportionately affected blacks and Latinos. Kevin Johnson (2004) argues that, since the vast majority of immigrants that come to the US each year are people of color, the differential treatment of non-citizens in US legal practices amounts to racial discrimination. Joe Feagin (2000: 31) defines systemic racism as “a diverse assortment of racist practices; the unjustly gained economic and political power of whites; the continuing resource inequalities; and the white-racist ideologies and attitudes created to preserve white advantage and power.” He further contends that “One can accurately describe the United States as a ‘total racist society’ in which every major aspect of life is shaped to some degree by the core racist realities.” The system of deportation and detention of immigrants is no exception: it is clearly shaped by the “core racist realities” of the United States.