Using Immigration to Define Americans as White and White as American

US immigration laws have essentially always protected, benefitted, and helped define Americans as closely tied to Whiteness but after September 11, 2001, things became even more intentional, explicit and harsh (García Hernández, 2020). While the government shifted their reactions to legal and illegal immigration, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) (2018), anti-immigrant groups like Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) have also changed the boundaries of what is considered acceptable within political action and public discourse. This research paper explores how average White citizens, not law enforcement or legislators, have used immigration law and language in order to promote and protect Whiteness. It focuses on how they have organized socially and politically, particularly since 9/11/01 to define immigration as non-White and America as White. In recent decades, as outright racism has become less accepted in mainstream discourse, Whiteness has required anti-immigration as a cover to gain and maintain buy-in from average White citizens and to uphold its ideals. Whiteness has always conformed and adapted to contemporary standards in order to appeal to the average citizen and maintain its hold over politics, economic and social systems. As racial slurs fall out of favor, Whiteness has been able to shift to anti-immigrant rhetoric in order to continue to define Americans as White and White as Americans.

The following two paragraphs provide a very brief overview of immigration history in America, focusing particularly on post-Civil Rights Movement, in terms of the ways that attitudes and laws have changed in order to uphold Whiteness depending on who is actually immigrating. Particularly after 9/11/01, the government and self-deputized White vigilantes have used immigration as a way to mainstream far-right ideology. Racism has always existed in America from the genocide of indigenous populations to the enslavement of Africans to the exclusion of particular races from immigration to more recent pathologizing and surveillance of particular communities. This cannot be separated from the country’s history and recent attempts are closer to adaptation than they are brand new creations. This paper will then include a brief literature review for additional context before arguing that Whiteness has required the immigration discourse to make sure the average White citizens can uphold and perpetuate racist ideas that moved from fringe to popular in the last 20 years.

The United States has used naturalization and immigration law to establish its citizens as White since the 1790 Naturalization Act established that free White persons may be granted citizenship after two years of residency as long as they demonstrate good moral character and swear allegiance to the Constitution (Migration Policy Institute, 2013). The government continued to oversee immigration but was less concerned with preventing or limiting the number of people that became American until the demographics began to shift away from Western European towards Eastern and Southern Europeans and people from East Asia in the late 19th and early 20th Century (Migration Policy Institute, 2013). However, the most repressive and exclusionist immigration policy and attitudes in American history developed as people of color fought for and began to receive more equal legal status; this ranges from Lyndon Johnson’s curtailing of opportunities for legal entry from Mexico, to Nixon then Reagan’s Wars on Crime and Drugs, followed by Ronald Reagan’s Cold War interventions in Central America that displaced thousands, George Bush’s War on Terror and finally, President Trump transformation of the humanitarian problems affecting Central American families into a manufactured immigration crisis (Massey, 2020). With these shifting attitudes, and a growing prison industrial complex, came a sophisticated system to incarcerate people for migrating to the United States, a stark shift from the majority of the country’s history, emerging around the mid-1980s and growing to over 200 modern day facilities operated both by the state and private companies (García Hernández, 2020; Anti-Defamation League, 2018).

The post 9/11/01 period elevated discourse and imagery of immigrants as a threat to new heights in many ways including culture, laws, and the discussion around safety and security (Ismaili, 2010). The Homeland Security Act of 2002 shaped government immigration agencies by moving nearly all of the functions of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and three new agencies underneath: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement — ICE, US Customs and Border Protection — CBP, and US Citizenship and Immigration Services — USCIS; furthermore, immigration control continued to expand as these agencies now do things that INS did not have the capacity or the legal ground to conduct prior to 9/11/01 (Migration Policy Institute, 2013). Both documented and undocumented immigrants faced new immigration orders, attempts to register their communities and surveillance from law enforcement among other forms (Ismaili, 2010). This also includes greater cooperation between federal, local and state authorities; more lawfully admitted immigrants with no link to terrorism getting detained and deported; more aggressive vigilante groups operating at the USA-Mexico border; restricted immigrant access to meaningful judicial review of administrative processes; and law enforcement agencies enacting more raids and crackdowns based on racial and ethnic profiling (Ismaili, 2010). The United States has historically defined citizens as White both culturally and legally despite the presence of other races from the country’s birth. However, laws are just words on a page until they are enforced. Whiteness in America has relied on a mix of government and law enforcement agencies, organized vigilantes and average White citizens to help establish White as the norm. As powerful as the police or ICE or even the KKK have been, they can all be identified and potentially avoided. To this end, immigration laws have been used to enable and embolden the average US Citizen to act on Whiteness’ behalf in order to extend the government’s reach.

Contextual Literature Review
The use of military language to describe immigration raids conducted by homeland security, naming immigration as an invasion, and the accompanying policies have helped grow the number of nativist extremist groups and anti-immigrant groups (Romero, 2011). Romero (2011) examines the spectacles and symbolic politics that normalize human and civil rights violations and legitimize racism toward immigrants. This includes substantive changes to Homeland Security legislation that provides a foundation for state and local anti-immigrant ordinances, increased surveillance and racial profiling, and violations of the Fourth Amendment (Romero, 2011). Brown, Keefer, Sacco, & Bermond (2019) analyzed specific rhetorical devices and noted that the idea of immigration as a disease compared to other conceptualizations elicited greater anti-immigration positions, especially amongst pathogen-avoidant and germ-averse individuals. Policy makers have exploited these feelings in order to promote xenophobia, shape attitudes and frame non- White immigrants as a disease (Brown, Keefer, Sacco, & Bermond, 2019). This in turn heightens interpersonal restrictions toward outgroups beyond politics and into the general public.

The language that government officials and, in turn, the media use such as framing migration as a crisis or terms like anchor baby dehumanizes immigrants and reinforces the synonymy of the immigrant, terrorist and criminal (Romero, 2011). This in turn helps normalize hate speech as patriotic. The long history of responding to immigration with the ideology of White injury and stoking fear by scapegoating migrants for social problems or claiming that Spanish is becoming the dominant language allows for racial profiling and violence to be condoned as unavoidable collateral damage that stems from the need to maintain a secure nation (Romero, 2011).

As the state shifted immigration policy towards terrorism after 9/11/01, Romero (2011) argues that the primary strategy for anti-immigration groups to avoid being identified as vigilantes by the media, and to conceal their nativist and racist attacks against, is to incorporate patriotism into their protests. The ADL (2018) points out that these groups further attempt to conflate their anti-immigrant ideology with popular issues, such as the environment, education, jobs and the economy, by claiming that immigrants use up the country’s resources in these areas in order to help shield them from public scrutiny for their extremist views, and also to gain support by linking xenophobic philosophies to causes mainstream audiences care about.

Santamaría Graff, (2017) connects the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican proposals to historical legislation that nominally protected national security or a return to American values but actually aimed to maintain Whiteness. Khouri (2018) explains how Trump’s railing against immigration and promotion of people like Stephen Miller are the latest installment of anti-immigrant rhetoric that empower employers to weaponize ICE against their undocumented workers. Anti-immigrant narratives criminalize particular behaviors in order to justify imperialistic, unjust policies and further serve dominant-White political elites and their constituents (Santamaría Graff, 2017). This can be seen as far back as the 1820s and 1830s when US colonizers fought Mexican troops over the Texas territory or through the invocation of Manifest Destiny and traced to the harsher immigration policies in the interior and along the borders post 9/11/01 (Santamaría Graff, 2017). The assumptions underlying Trump’s “Build That Wall!’ is that the country is under siege by criminals intent on dismantling the core fabric of what makes America great, including radical Islamic terrorists, Mexican rapists, and bad hombres (Santamaría Graff, 2017). The slogan stoked nativism and manufactured narratives that government agencies, vigilante groups and individuals could grab onto (Santamaría Graff, 2017).

As the demographics of immigrants changed over the last 10–20 years, anti-immigration rhetoric and sympathies have become a much more mainstream argument (Anti-Defamation League, 2018). This prevalence of anti-immigration views is both the product of and supported by traditional media, social media and a wave of elected officials that have been pushing these types of policies (Anti-Defamation League, 2018). As Khouri (2018) explained, Donald Trump’s ascendancy and Fox News’ complicity both resulted from nativist, racist and patriotic opinions in the voter base and also pushed those beliefs to new extremes. Having a presidential candidate in a major party who is willing to be openly anti-immigrant gave permissions to his followers as well; it is a cycle where both sides allow the other to increase their views while also crediting the other as the driving force and removing their own personal blame (Anti-Defamation League, 2018).

Individual Deputization
As attitudes towards immigrants developed into fear of sharing resources and of the immigrants themselves, as stoked by government policing, messaging and the media, White people have reacted accordingly. Post-9/11/01 apprehensions of Latinx increased sharply, as did mass workplace-raids, and individual targeting by White Americans under the name of national security (Santamaría Graff, 2017). Unlawful physical presence of certain groups on US soil was framed as a threat. By promoting conspiracies that immigrants are outsiders who are planning to invade the country; immigrants and refugees are terrorists or sympathetic to terrorism; that undocumented immigrants hurt the U.S. financially by taking jobs and social services without paying taxes; that undocumented immigrants lead to increased crime and violence; and that undocumented immigrants are bringing diseases into the U.S, racist groups of White people are able to spread their message wider, increase membership to once fringe groups and encourage individuals to protect America from these problems (ADL, 2018). FAIR is the largest anti-immigrant group in the United States; it was founded in 1979 and has since developed many anti-immigration front groups, including CIS, in order to widen the demographics of its movement and shield itself from accusations of racism (ADL, 2018). NumbersUSA was founded in 1996 with the tagline of “for lower immigration levels” and 2009’s The Remembrance Project’s goal is to educate and raise awareness about the epidemic of killings of Americans by illegal aliens (ADL, 2018). In 2012, San Diegans for Secure Borders (SDSB)’s establishment can be seen as the foreground for someone like Donald Trump to ascend to presidency and a group that would be further legitimized by his spreading of their message on national television just four years later through calls to build a wall on the border (ADL, 2018).

In 2019, two Latinx women were selling tacos out of a taco truck in Dallas when a White woman became upset with them, started arguing and eventually threatened to call ICE because of their racial identity (Simón, 2019). This is a really important individual example because the women were permitted to sell tacos and weren’t doing anything illegal and they are not undocumented immigrants either (Simón, 2019). Even if they had been doing anything illegal or been undocumented, it would not have necessarily justified a White person to deputize themselves and call ICE in this way but in this example even the most surface level arguments from the right do not apply. This act is even more indefensible. This is anecdotal, but it shows that White people calling ICE is not necessarily about public safety or following the law but more so about race and racism.

One year earlier, A White woman in Los Angeles became upset with a Latinx woman panhandling and asking for money on the street, eventually threatening to call ICE on her and arguing with another pedestrian that approached to support the panhandling woman (CBSLA, 2018). The White woman complained that the panhandler is not from the White woman’s country but rather from Brazil, and defends that it is in fact her business when questioned by a passerby. The White woman’s implication that it is her business as a White person brings forth the question of whether she would have started an argument with a White panhandler. Based on the given reasons in the video, it seems unlikely. This incident provides some insight into an individual’s thought process about who deserves to be in America and what lengths they are willing to go to maintain their idea of Whiteness and White Americans.

On the extreme end, there are instances like 2019’s El Paso, Texas shooting. A man killed 22 people in a deadly mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart then confessed to law enforcement afterwards that he was targeting Mexicans in the attack (Falconer, 2019). Before the attack, he made a racist online post both praising President Trump’s border wall plan and denying that his actions were because of the President but it is hard to deny the connection (Falconer, 2019). In 2018, the final post by the suspect in the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, made just a short time before the attack, claimed that “HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” echoing alarmist language used by anti-immigrant groups and politicians (ADL, 2018). These events represent the most extreme logical extension of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has gained prominence in the last few decades. Believing the rhetoric is the first step, smaller actions like verbally confronting people of color would be next, followed by weaponizing the US government or law enforcement agencies and ultimately taking the law into their own hands and enforcing what they believe is right, be it kidnapping, murder, exploitation or some other illegal act, for their cause.

The development of anti-immigrant rhetoric, policy and discrimination is not a new invention in America. It is merely an adaptation of the values that this country was founded on. When mainly White people from Western Europe came to the US, immigration was relatively open with an effectively easy way to gain citizenship. Even when other races and Eastern Europeans began immigrating, in the 19th and early 20th century, racism was more explicit and accepted so there wasn’t a need for coded language or secrecy (Migration Policy Institute, 2013). In 1882, the government could simply pass and enact a law to exclude Chinese people from immigrating to the United States. In 1924, the government could explicitly limit the quotas by country of origin (Migration Policy Institute, 2013). In more recent times, upholding White identity as a core principle of being American has required a shift in tactics and anti-immigrant action in the name of patriotism has become a much more important tool. The government, vigilante and individual White actors have all played on the sentiment that immigrants are ruining the country in order to pass laws, target non- White communities, and wield law enforcement agents against people of color.

Some experts believe enacting pro-immigrant legislation, improving response to hate crimes, building trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities and expanding dialogue between major actors can help combat these sentiments (Anti-Defamation League, 2018). Dr. Kendi (2017) argues that changing the laws and policy will in turn impact the everyday culture of a community and not the other way around. There are no concrete examples to model these changes after but the origins of anti-immigrant sentiment is baked deep into the country’s imagination. Some think an agency like ICE or CBP cannot be reformed or changed when it was literally created to enforce these racist ideals and therefore, individuals that call ICE to report others will never really do so in good faith (García Hernández, 2020). It seems far more likely that American institutions will have to be disbanded and rebuilt in a new image before it can be expected that White Americans will accept a multicultural country that doesn’t merely uphold Whiteness.

Anti-Defamation League. (2018, November). Mainstreaming Hate: The Anti-Immigrant Movement in the U.S.

Brown, M., Keefer, L., Sacco, D., & Bermond, A. (2019). Is the Cure a Wall? Behavioral Immune System Responses to a Disease Metaphor for Immigration. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 5(3)

CBSLA (2018, August). “She’s Not From My Country’: Woman Allegedly Threatened To Call ICE On Panhandling Mother.”

Falconer, R. (2019, August) El Paso suspect confessed to targeting Mexicans in mass shooting. Axios.

García Hernández, C.C.. (2020) Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants. New York: The New Press.

Ismaili, K. (2010). Surveying the many fronts of the war on immigrants in post-9/11 US society. Contemporary Justice Review, 13(1),

Kendi, I. X. (2017). Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York: Bold Type Books

Khouri, A. (2018, January). More workers say their bosses are threatening to have them deported. Los Angeles Times

Massey, D. (2020). Creating the exclusionist society: from the War on Poverty to the war on immigrants. Ethnic and Racial Studies 43(1)

Migration Policy Institute (MPI). (2013). Major U.S. Immigration Laws, 1790 to Present.

Romero, M. (2011). Are Your Papers In Order? Racial Profiling, Vigilantes, And America’s Toughest Sheriff. Harvard Latino Law Review, 14,3.

Santamaría Graff, C. (2017). “Build That Wall!”: manufacturing the enemy, yet again. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education: 30(10)

Simón, Y. (2019, April). A White Woman Threatened to Call ICE on 2 Women Operating Taco Truck in Dallas. Remezcla.

Justice, Law and Criminology Graduate Student. Sharing some thoughts and some of my academic assignments as well.

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