Cruelty and the History of Immigration: Special Essay Series

We plan to release the following posts as part of a multi-part series. Check the dates and links below:

  • July 27: Lina-Maria Murillo, Series Introduction, “Teaching through a Pandemic and the Trump Presidency”
  • July 30 & 31: Jordan Geriane, “Herrenvolk Democracy and Manifest Destiny,” Parts 1 & 2
  • August 4: Quintin Porter, “What is a ‘Crisis’ at the Border Anyway?”
  • August 5: Alexia Potter, “Race, Pandemics, and Disease: Immigration and Repeating History”
  • August 11: Emily Miranda, “Programa Frontera Sur: Historical Violence Against Central America in a 21st Century Context”
  • August 12: Vane Pérez, “Family, History, and Storytelling Post-Bracero Program”

Categories: News and Announcements | Leave a comment

More than Brazos: Family, History, and Storytelling Post-Bracero Program

By Vane Pérez

The history of migrant labor in the United States is intrinsically linked to Mexico. An example of this relationship is the Bracero program which ran from 1942 to 1964. The program is crucial in understanding current immigration policies, new guestworker program proposals, and advocacy for immigrant laborers. Much of the Bracero generation is now gone. The youngest men who worked the program’s final years are now at least in their seventies; what is left of their stories is largely in the words of their families. The desire to preserve these personal histories has struck me. These men serve as a heartbreaking example of people defined by their hardest moments ― not as people who continued to grow, create, fight, and inspire for the rest of their lives. What does it mean for Mexican Americans to engage with the histories and dialogues of braceros only through the lens of suffering? Despite dehumanizing conditions and sociocultural barriers, braceros crafted their legacy in the fabric of both American and Mexican society. By looking beyond their status as laborers, it becomes clear that braceros were people who led multi-dimensional and vibrant lives. They passed down valuable oral histories documenting their respective lifeworlds. Analyzing these stories is a small step toward preserving the history of braceros and undoing the lasting trauma that the program caused.

The Bracero program was a joint effort program under the U.S. State Department, the Department of Labor, and Immigration and Naturalization Service between the U.S. and Mexico implemented to relieve agricultural and railroad industry labor shortages during World War II.[1] The Bracero program caused immeasurable damage to the physical and mental wellbeing of the roughly 4.6 million Mexican workers it brought to the U.S.[2] The program was a sought-after opportunity for the mainly indigenous, rural, and/or uneducated men the corrupt selection process targeted to send home major earnings for their families. If these men had the chance to be examined for the job, they were put through incredibly invasive physical examinations and even sprayed down with DDT (a pesticide that was already being studied at the time for its harmful effects).  Once on site, the men employed in the Bracero program faced squalid living conditions, dangerous work, unjust wages, wage garnishing, little to no healthcare, employer intimidation, and discrimination from neighboring white populations. Strikes organized to demand better wages, safety, or other measures were met with swift (occasionally violent) retribution from employers and officials.[3]

Yet another frustrating injustice of the Bracero program was uncovered as they returned home. From the inception of the program until the 1950’s, the U.S. and Mexican governments garnished ten percent of worker’s wages. These forced savings were to be held in Mexican banks, mainly Banco Rural de Credito Nacional (BanRural), to accrue interest and be given to the workers upon their return home as a nest egg and incentive to return to Mexico. This was not the case for many braceros. Though over $32 million was collected and deposited into American banks (primarily Wells Fargo) and later transferred to BanRural, there were many reasons why these men never received their rightful earnings.[4] Some never returned to Mexico to claim the funds; others were told by BanRural the whereabouts of the money were unknown. Some bracerosheard how difficult this money was to claim and never tried, while others still were never informed of the forced savings. Although audits by the Mexican and American governments provided extensive documentation of the amount of money each bracero was owed and complaints of missing money, the records eventually disappeared and were not recovered in the documents BanRural left behind when it closed.[5] These blatant abuses inspired powerful resistance from both braceros and their families during the program and in the ensuing decades.

Although the Bracero Program ended and all but erased its paper trails, it undeniably shaped the way we (U.S. citizens, Latinx people, Mexican Americans, etc.) talk about immigration and labor. Outside of legislative implications, the Bracero Program is something that fundamentally changed family structures and created generational trauma. Using my experiences as a framework for the sustained effects from generation to generation, it is clear just how deeply the consequences of the program have reverberated through my family and fundamentally shifted the way we communicate. Writing about the Bracero Program has given me the opportunity to dive into my family history and open a dialogue with the youngest generation of my family that I hope will allow us to move forward with a deeper understanding of what it means to heal and a clearer, multidimensional image of the migrants in our lives.   

I was inspired to dig into the story of braceros when I encountered two poems written in the 1940’s. The poems, Perdon by Luis Solorio and Oda A Cucamonga by Roberto García, rocked me to my very core with the realization that braceros are so much more than labor, so much more than brazos. The poems were resonant voices whispering to my heart from over seventy years ago and lasting proof of literary tradition crafted by braceros; something I had never expected to exist. In a truly serendipitous moment, I encountered the following lines of poetry in Oda A Cucamonga:  

siempre de ti me acordaré dichoso  

si el destino nos separa muy distantes.   

A ti, jardín, imperio de belleza   

con huertas de frondosos limonares  

te sublimo apesar de mi torpeza  

con mis versos, recuerdos, y cantares[6]

A rough translation being, ‘I will always remember you happily if fate separates us. You, garden, empire of beauty with orchards of lush lemon trees. I sublimate you, despite my clumsiness, with my verses, memories, and songs.’ This declaration that, despite imperfect words, the speaker will continue to remember and celebrate their past ignited me with passion.   

Allow me, for a moment, to paint a portrait of myself: a young, queer, second generation Mexican American artist raised in the Midwest. As a child growing up in a turbulent environment, creativity was my greatest boon. I wrote poems until my fingers had calluses; I drew, sang, read, and learned every craft I possibly could for the sake of distraction. Now, if I may, allow me to paint a portrait of my grandfather. Through the rosy tint of nostalgia, I would describe him as a mystery. In my fondest memory he was asleep on the sidewalk in front of his home, sombrero over his face, bible splayed open on his chest. In many ways, this is what the children, grandchildren, and even siblings and spouses have left of the braceros in their lives: tired, enigmatic men, sometimes quiet, sometimes not, but with entire swaths of their lives untold.   

What little information I have from my abuelo has been hard-won: pulled like teeth from my father in his few vulnerable moments just as I know he had done with his father in his youth. My father and his father were migratory workers. I only ever got to know them in the cherished moments that they were not working andhad the emotional energy to talk about themselves. Now, I know them both to a fuller extent. I know they are creative men. I know they love music; I know now that they are the source of my humor. Though my father was not a bracero, it is clear how deeply he and his eleven siblings were affected by being raised by parents who endured widespread, generational trauma. This is true of most, though not all, of the people I have had discussions with about stories of the braceros in their lives. 

 I do not wish to remember my grandfather as a man who suffered. I do not believe trauma is necessary to make one stronger. I do wish to remember him fully; to celebrate him as a man of many qualities. This is only possible by excavating his history and adjusting the way I frame his narrative. Throughout my research, I have had opportunities to speak with family about the history of Latinx people, but more specifically, Mexican people in the United States. The more we addressed painful facts, the more my uncles, cousins, siblings, friends, and I understood about ourselves. I have witnessed deep hunger in the hearts of these people― the hunger for truth, for change. With so many Latinx people living tasked with the incomprehensible weight of having a ‘better life’ than that of their forebearers, our past has become lost in the pursuit of the future.   

Seventy-nine years after its inception, the Bracero program continues to shape lives. Though one can choose to focus on the negative effects of the program, recognizing the people involved in their entirety is the beginning of moving on from these effects. Drawing inspiration from the resilience and creativity of braceros can fuel transformative justice and mitigate the harm created by the program. Though Latinx people may feel pressured to work toward a better future, recognizing the roots of intergenerational trauma is the missing link that is crucial in making these futures truly worth reaching.


Gamboa, Erasmo. 1987. “Braceros in the Pacific Northwest: Laborers on the Domestic Front, 1942-1947.” Pacific Historical Review 378-398.

García, Mario T. 1984. “BRACERO POETRY OF THE 1940S: TWO SAMPLES.” Bilingual Review / La Revista Bilingüe 11 (no. 3): 45-48.

Loza, Mireya. 2016. Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, and Political Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Osorio, Jennifer. 2005. “Proof of a Life Lived: The Plight of The Braceros and What It Says About How We Treat Records.” Archival Issues 95-100.

Thompson, Charles D. 2017. “Faces of Time: The Braceros of Ciudad Juárez.” Southern Cultures 23 (no. 2): 97-112.

[1] Erasmo Gamboa, Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 379.

[2] Jennifer Osorio, Proof of a Live Lived, 95.

[3] Erasmo Gamboa, Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 382.

[4] Jennifer Osorio, Proof of a Life Lived, 97.

[5] Jennifer Osorio, Proof of a Life Lived, 97.

[6] Mario Garcia, Bracero Poetry of the 1940s, 47-48.

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Programa Frontera Sur: Historical Violence Against Central America in a 21st Century Context

By Emily Miranda

When thinking about the concept of borderlands, it is natural to picture the region between the United States and Mexico, as well as the connotations of immigration associated with this area. The United States has spent decades militarizing and politicizing this region as it best fit the national agenda. In recent years, to further an anti-immigration and imperialist agenda, as well as distance itself from its responsibility for current immigration conditions, the U.S. has moved its focus from the U.S./Mexico border and taken an interest in the Southern Mexico border, offering the Mexican government support to bolster their border defenses. The United States has made Mexico a proxy in its war against immigration by funding the militarization of the Southern Mexico border against immigrants from Central America and by doing so, has secured its control in Latin America, while continuing to oppress Central Americans within U.S. borders and Central America itself.

In 2014, the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, launched Programa Frontera Sur (PFS) to strengthen border protections between Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico, as well as protect the migrants who enter Mexico. The program contains five components that were identified to meet these goals: 1) Regular and Ordered Migration, 2) Improvements in Infrastructure for border security and migration, 3) Protecting Migrants, 4) Regional Shared Responsibility, and 5) Interagency Coordination.[1] The Mexican government was very open about the assistance they received from the United States, and the Embassy of the United States in Mexico released a statement shortly after the announcement of PFS, saying: “We applaud yesterday’s announcement by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto regarding Mexico’s strategy for its southern border. The Mexican government has been working on this strategy for more than a year and has routinely briefed the U.S. government on Mexico’s objectives.”[2]  The two countries have a history of working together on border policy, an example being the Merida Initiative that was signed in 2008 and served as a steppingstone to PFS. Specifically, Pillar III of the Merida initiative focused on the creation of the 21st century U.S.-Mexican border, which included sending millions of dollars in equipment to strengthen the southern Mexican border, as well as training initiatives for Mexican border agents.[3]

 Criticisms came quickly following the announcement of PFS, specifically regarding the failure on Mexico’s behalf to consider the other Central American countries that should have been a part of this discussion, namely Honduras and El Salvador. These two countries represent the next largest immigrant pools that make their way through Mexico. One critic stated “[This program] makes things easier by giving Guatemalans and Belizeans permission to work and visit Mexico. This is certainly a very important part of the problem, however, is not the total solution, because there are also migrants coming from Honduras and El Salvador that right now are not included.”[4] Others also pointed out that Guatemala and Belize were not the populations that needed urgent intervention. Following the announcement, the Mexican government stated that they were in the process of working with other Central American countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, to assess migration from these regions and develop appropriate policy. However, what this meant was immigrants from these regions would not have the same protections as those from Guatemala and Belize and would still face a highly militarized border.

The U.S. involvement in this program is concerning for a multitude of reasons, many of which can be explained by the historical relationship of the U.S. and the countries of Central America. Over the last century, Central America has been subject to U.S. control through economic, political, and militaristic means, leading to the destabilization of the region and the development of the migrant situation we see today. Developing an understanding of this history will provide context to evaluate the consequences of PFS for Central American migrants.

Modern U.S. entanglement with Central America can be traced back to the development of so called “Banana Republics.” This derogatory term referred to the Central American countries that were under the control of the United Fruit Company in the early twentieth century.[5] The view of the company as it began its conquest of Central America was very much in line with the ideals of manifest destiny; Central America was there for the taking, to be controlled and bent to the will of Americans multinational corporations. This was compounded by the racial hierarchy ingrained in American society, meaning white managerial elites sent to “develop” these regions saw Central American citizens as theirs to control. It is no surprise that to continue foreign exploitation, U.S. military forces brutally curtailed insurrections to protect U.S. foreign investments. U.S.-trained military forces committed incalculable atrocities during this time—villages destroyed, citizens brutally tortured, disappeared, or killed, and generations of Central Americans traumatized under the guise of American democracy.[6] Currently, in its funding and training of agents for PFS, the U.S. supports oppressive regimes in Central America by supplying their military forces with aid, weaponry, and training. The reasoning given by the U.S. for earlier interventions was the fight against communism and the necessary role of the U.S. as “protector” of this region.[7] The truth, however, is that when Central Americans began to fight against oppressive governments, the U.S. feared they would lose their informal control, no longer able to exploit the region for economic gain.[8] More recently, the power the U.S. holds in Central America was exemplified by their involvement with the 2009 coup in Honduras. It is debated whether the U.S. had any direct hand in overthrowing the democratically elected leader Manuel Zelaya, but the reaction of U.S. officials in the aftermath of the coup leaves no doubts that this event worked in their favor.[9] By supporting the coup, the U.S. guaranteed that its interests would be protected; prior to the coup, the Zelaya government implemented policies that favored the Honduran people rather than transnational corporations.[10] This event, much like those in the 20th century, resulted in an uptick in migration as many citizens fled persecution by the coup regime.

I have chosen to discuss PFS, as well as these histories, because I feel these describe the exact reasons why America finds itself in this current immigration situation. On a more personal level, I feel compelled to share these histories as they are often hidden away, stripping any possibility of holding the United States accountable for its actions in this region. I fear that by not taking the time to evaluate our current system in the context of the past, we are subjecting more migrants to suffering at the hand of the United States. PFS is only one facet of the current immigration system; there is no doubt in my mind that this program, as well as other border security programs will only continue to grow in the coming years, and that we will see losses in these migrant communities that could have been prevented.  As Walter LaFeber describes in his work, Inevitable Revolutions, the United States does not want to control Central America on a day-to-day basis, rather, it wants to control the region just enough to serve its own interests, disregarding the people in the countries themselves.[11] This, in essence, describes the situation we see presented with Programa Frontera Sur. The United States is removing any responsibility from itself towards the Central American people and is instead using Mexico as a militarized buffer to do away with a mess of its own creation along the U.S./Mexico border. In this deal, the United States will keep its hands relatively clean. The lives affected because of this program can be attributed to the dangers associated with these countries, while the U.S. continues enjoying its position as oppressor from afar. What the United States has done is not “fix” the immigration problem, rather, these actions have pushed Central American immigrants further from the nations’ consciousness and exposed them to extreme violence (among other human rights atrocities), all while the United States exploits their countries for profit. By aiding in the development of programs such as Programa Frontera Sur, the United States forces Central Americans to pay the price of 21st century imperialism.

[1] Pedro Valenzuela and Christopher Wilson, “Mexico’s Southern Border Strategy: Programa Frontera Sur,” Border Issues (Wilson Center, 2014).

[2] Pedro Valenzuela and Christopher Wilson, “Mexico’s Southern Border Strategy”.

[3] Fernanda Martinez Flores, “The Effects of Enhanced Enforcement at Mexicos Southern Border: Evidence from Central American Deportees,” Demography 57 (2020), 5.

[4] Pedro Valenzuela and Christopher Wilson, “Mexico’s Southern Border Strategy”.

[5] Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993) 63; Dana Frank, The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018) 10.

[6] Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide, 9.

[7]  Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide, 117.

[8] Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide, 8.

[9] Dana Frank, The Long Honduran Night, 28.

[10] Dana Frank, The Long Honduran Night, 31.

[11] Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, 16.

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Race, Pandemics, and Disease: Immigration and Repeating History

By Alexia Potter

It’s crazy to think about how we have surpassed the one-year anniversary of start of the COVID-19 pandemic. So much has happened in this one year and so much has not happened. After realizing that we have officially reached the one-year mark, I reflected on what life was like before it all began. I remember reading about the virus a few weeks before it got out of control. I recall reading articles from the Daily Mail every single day (because it’s called the Daily Mail) about how there were growing concerns in China regarding this new virus and before we knew it, the virus had spread around the globe. After COVID started to make its way through Europe, and eventually the United States, I recalled reading headlines about how people had begun labeling the virus as the “Chinese disease” and people were blaming not just Chinese Americans for the spread of COVID to the U.S., but any Asian-American was suitable for blame and to be blatantly attacked for “being the reason” for the spread of COVID to the U.S. At first glance, this idea of Chinese people being blamed for the start of the pandemic may seem like a unique struggle that had to be endured by the Asian-American community but if we take a step back and look at the history of the United States, it becomes obvious that this is not the first time a racial minority has been unfairly and unrightfully blamed for spreading a disease.

In Natalia Molina’s How Race Is Made, she defines racial scripts as, “ways in which the lives of the racialized groups are linked across time and space and thereby affect one another, even when they do not directly cross paths.” What Molina is sayings is that the experiences that one minority groups endures is not unique to that minority group alone. This “script” is repeated throughout history and most likely can be applied to other racialized groups at some point in time. This connection can be seen between what the Asian-American community is experiencing now—as scapegoats accused of starting the pandemic—to what Mexicans experienced back in the early 1900’s when they were blamed for the spread of tuberculosis (TB).

During the 1880’s, cases of TB began popping up in the Eastern U.S. and at the time, the best cure was believed for people to go live in the south along the U.S. – Mexican border because the “region’s dry warm climate” would bring these people back to full health. The other reason that the Southwest was believed to help cure TB was because no cases of it had yet been found in any Mexicans and since they lived in that region and were healthy, the “logical conclusion” was that Mexicans were immune to TB and that the region’s climate protected their health. As mostly east coast white male health-seekers with TB settled in their new homes in the Southwest, they hired Mexican workers and servants to work in their homes. But as more people continued to migrate to the border with TB, eventually the Mexican workers, most often the domestic workers, began to contract the extremely contagious disease.
When doctors first began diagnosing cases of TB in Mexican workers, they blamed the spread of the disease on sexual promiscuity of the Mexican domestic workers. They believed that these women were meeting multiple people and often people of other races and conducting sexual activity with them that allowed for them to contract TB and spread it to other people. This highly offensive and racist theory allowed for the establishment of the stereotype that Mexicans were inherently “dirty and disease ridden” as well as the idea that Mexican women were sexually deviant. Rather than focusing on finding a cure or minimizing the spread, white tuberculars blamed Mexican workers that were in no way at fault for coming down with the sickness. In fact, they denied they were the original carriers of the disease.

This history has some parallels with what we saw at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic. People were angry with China when there was speculation that the COVID-19 virus stemmed from wet markets in Wuhan, China. In the U.S. media outlet and the public called Chinese people “reckless and dirty.” In the same way that the white health-seekers in El Paso blamed Mexicans for spreading TB, many people were unfairly Chinese people—and by extension most Asian people—for spreading Covid-19 despite tourism and a hesitance to quarantine (and later wearing masks) the major causes for spreading the disease. Rather than focus on what we as a nation needed to do to slow the spread of COVID, people spent precious energy posting hate online and committing acts of violence against the Asian-American community. Molina’s theory of racial scripts provides the historical understandings for this current moment’s violence and xenophobia.

By looking back at history, it is clear to see how different minority groups often get mistreated in similar ways at different periods of time. These racial scripts have existed in the past, exist now, and will continue to exist in the future. It is important to identify these different racial scripts as they pop-up because it shows us the long roots of this kind of violence that covered by public health and medicalization. Unfortunately, it does not appear that racial scripts will be coming to an end anytime soon but for now, we can try to learn from other groups’ experiences and try to develop better strategies for confronting these horrific cycles of racial violence and dehumanization.

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What is a “Crisis” at the Border Anyway?

By Quintin Porter

What do we mean when we say that there is a crisis at the border? For whom or to whom is this crisis occurring? The image of an immigration crisis, a public emergency of epic proportions, has been invoked in the United States many times throughout the nation’s history. However, not all crises are the same across time. This post will conduct a brief historical analysis of various immigration crises in the United States to challenge the contemporary usage of the phrase “crisis at the border.” Review of this rhetoric in history will highlight the subjective nature of the phrase and build a framework through which to criticize the weaponization of population movement in today’s politics. In other words, my post seeks to reframe U.S. immigration emergencies within a larger context to understand that the usage of “crisis at the border” is often more a reflection of the current state of American politics than any concern about the migrants involved.

To begin with, we must examine the most current “crisis” occurring at the border today. The situation is, indeed, quite serious. Not long after Democrat Joe Biden’s ascension to the American presidency in January 2021, conservatives began increasing discourse about a “crisis at the border” with Mexico. The main issue at play is that the Southern border is facing a huge influx of unaccompanied children and the Department of Homeland Security does not have the space and/or suitable facilities to humanely hold so many children. In March 2021, “Immigration authorities encountered nearly 18,900 unaccompanied minors at or near the U.S.-Mexico border,” an unprecedented record.[1] It is certainly a humanitarian crisis, however, that is not how it is being portrayed to the American public by conservatives. For example, Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina, introduced a piece of legislation titled the “Secure and Protect Act of 2021” in response to the current situation in which he argues that migrant minors are committing “asylum abuse” and that the U.S. government needs to “reclaim control” of the Southern border.[2] A Fox News program refers to the children as “illegals,” insinuates that these children will infect “towns and villages near you” with COVID-19, and frames the crisis as a “national security issue.”[3] Their focus is not on the children, rather it is posed as a threat to Americans, as if the country is being invaded. The conditions that migrant children are facing in the U.S. are deplorable, however that “crisis” is being largely overlooked to make a political statement against Biden’s presidency and immigration policies. This is a pattern that has been repeated many times throughout American history. An examination of these past events can help us to better frame our understanding of crises at the border and to challenge insidious political maneuvers at the border.

Racialized immigration policy is a long practice in America. While recent focus in the past few decades has emphasized Mexican and Central American migrants, that was not always the case. The practice of targeting specific racial groups dates to the 19th century with the introduction of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. During the Gold Rush in California, white resentment built against Chinese laborers whom they believed to be taking their jobs. So, Chinese immigrants became “the first to be blamed for taking American jobs” in response to economic strife.[4] This is one of the earliest examples of white American citizens’ anxiety over the “right” kind of immigrant. Non-white, and often specifically non-Western-European, immigrants were perceived as being fundamentally different from white American citizens. Thus, they were seen as perpetual foreigners, taking American jobs, and changing American culture. White Americans’ anxiety often followed a particular pattern. It is expressed by invoking a public emergency, one in which the immigrants pose a dire threat to American society. Those that were opposed to Chinese immigration and naturalization claimed that the Chinese were a highly sexualized, “aberrant population that needed to be controlled,” otherwise they would far outnumber white American citizens.[5] Therefore it became a moral issue. The painting of Chinese people as sexually deviant, no matter its falsehoods, allowed those in opposition to gloss over one of their main motivations: preventing an “electoral Asian sleeping giant” from exercising political power.[6] Once opponents grasped the potential gains naturalization could afford to Asian Americans, they moved to prevent that and cast Chinese immigration as a threat to American citizens and their morality. The portrayal of Chinese immigrants as a danger to American society was colored by political intrigue and xenophobia. This pattern continues to be repeated throughout U.S. history.

The U.S. war with Mexico and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo created an opportunity to cast immigrants as dangerous to the American people in order to suit political purposes. In the buildup to the war and as the U.S. became increasingly interested in Texas’ annexation, American politicians framed Mexicans as a danger to Texan settlers. They spoke of them as the “savage, degenerate, half-civilized, and barbarous Mexicans” who were “committing massacres and atrocities” against white Texas settlers.[7] This rhetoric, using imagery of crisis and violence, served to provoke white indignation to achieve the larger political goal of annexing Texas. Even once that was achieved, such rhetoric about the border and Mexicans did not cease. The treaty between the two nations stipulated that “U.S. citizenship was automatic for Mexicans” however, “they could not choose to retain any previous citizenship status” and were recognized as a “conquered people.”[8] Thus, Mexicans caught on the Northern side of the new border became immigrants without ever having moved. In response to the treaty, U.S. politicians engaged in a project of violent racialization that portrayed Mexicans as amoral and a danger to the American public. Hence, they were not worthy of citizenship. Mexicans were depicted as “enemy soldiers, bandits, or revolutionaries” by white Americans to justify their violence at the border.[9]

Again, migrants were painted as a crisis to U.S. society for ulterior means. Later in the 20th century, the perception of Mexicans as a menace to society would be utilized in a different, yet very similar fashion.Mexican repatriation and forced deportations during the Great Depression highlights how anti-immigrant rhetoric is often rooted in racist ideals more than anything else. In times of strife, Americans often look to the border as an explanation and solution to their economic woes. Such was the case when the Great Depression hit. As millions of Americans lost their jobs in the grip of the recession, Mexican immigrants who had migrated North to work during the Roaring 20s became a target. In response to the economic recession of the 1930s, politicians enacted a “deportation policy was applied to many places in the United States and to all foreign groups to reduce unemployment and prioritize U.S. citizens” in the labor market.[10] Local and federal officials engaged in an intense project of repatriation, depicting migrants as contributing to a national crisis. Using extralegal means, white Americans’ “threats of physical violence induced many Mexicans to abandon jobs and long-established” homes and communities.[11] The premise of protecting Americans from a crisis, this time economic, served to justify the use of violence against Mexicans. The combined pressure by governmental officials and violent actions by white Americans resulted in mass departures of not only Mexican migrants, but Mexican American citizens as well. So then, why were they forced to leave if the focus was to supposedly protect American citizens’ jobs? Targeting vulnerable groups such as Mexicans created a convenient scapegoat for the American public to exercise xenophobic violence against immigrants. While there certainly was a crisis this time around, its invocation at the border served to reinforce the pattern of targeting migrants for political gain.            

A claim that there is a “crisis” at the border or any emergency regarding immigration is often an attempt to disguise a larger desire for political influence as well as to exercise dreams of violent racism. A review of the history of immigration in the United States reveals a long history of anti-immigration sentiment wrapped up as pro-American populism. The Chinese Exclusion Act, tension during the U.S. war with Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century, and the period of Mexican Repatriation all highlight this premise. Due to this history, we should be critical when the media starts discussing a crisis at the border, as is occurring now. We must remember to consider the political context at play. Who is making that claim? What group is being targeted? Only with this critical analysis may we begin to challenge dominant narratives about migrants in America.

[1] Amelia Cheatham, “U.S. Detention of Child Migrants,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 4, 2021,

[2] Lindsey Graham, “Press Releases: Graham Introduces Legislation to Stop Asylum Abuse and Reclaim Control of our Southern Border,” U.S. Senator South Carolina Lindsey Graham, March 24, 2021,

[3] Jeanine Pirro, “Judge Jeanine: Biden’s Border Crisis,” Fox News, April 3, 2021,

[4] Sang Hea Kil, “Fearing Yellow, Imagining White: Media Analysis of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,” Social Identities 18, no. 6 (2012): 665.

[5] Natalia Molina, How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 81.

[6] Molina, How Race is Made in America, 81.

[7] Cristina Beltrán, Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 76.

[8] Ernesto Chávez, The U.S. War with Mexico: A Brief History with Documents, 1st ed. (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 26.

[9] Beltrán, Cruelty as Citizenship, 81.

[10] Mark Overmyer-Velázquez, Beyond la Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 56.

[11]  Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), 121.

Categories: Essay Series | 1 Comment

Texas Rangers and Institutional Violence: How Foundations of Racism Have Continued to Threaten the Preservation of Latinx Immigration, Culture, and Bodies After All This Time, cont.

By Jordan Geriane

In my first post, particular historical ideas and events, such as Herrenvolk Democracy, westward expansion, and manifest destiny, all come together to mold into the nightmare of white supremacy. Today, we see much of that in ways we live through society. We see it in the unjustified murders of Black and brown bodies, the mass deportation and mistreatment of people at the US-Mexican border, and we see it in institutions that are meant to protect us.

One of the biggest examples of institutional violence can be found in racist paramilitary groups such as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the police force. These two forces are legalized manifestations of Herrenvolk Democracy. As Beltrán explains in the second chapter of her Cruelty as Citizenship, after the U.S. war with Mexico, there was indeed a “desire for land, but not people.” During this post-war period, we see the emergence of the Texas Rangers, the precursors to ICE and the border patrol. The history of this Texas Rangers and how their tyranny became such a force under the guise of white supremacy and racism, laid the foundation for our country’s future men and women in blue, as well as ICE agents at the US-Mexican border.

Because of Herrenvolk democracy and its radical themes, Anglo-settlers believed that it was their God-given right to colonize and settle on any land they set foot on. They believed they were the first and rightful owners of Southwestern/Western land. Due to this grossly believed god-complex they attained, white settlers defined any nonwhite inhabitants as inferior and a danger to their ways of life. They disallowed them citizenship, they drove them out of their homes, or they captured them and exploited labor. These sentiments increased violence against Mexicans across the west, leading to massive violence against Mexican-origin people.  

With these discriminatory sentiments in mind, Texas Rangers, according to Beltrán, provided cover for Anglo-settlers to “treat Mexicans with impunity” under the guise of enforcing the law. It was a source of white power and vigilantism that ignored any distinctions between those who were citizens and those who were not by imposing racial terror and ignoring state laws against violence. While creating the Rangers as a group to protect their property and their people, these white settlers became Rangers not to enforce or protect, but to oppress and terrorize nonwhite people. It makes sense when historians attest that Texas Rangers, over time, transformed into police officers and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

It should be known that most Texas Ranger positions were held on a volunteer basis. Beyond such a chivalrous act, white citizens who stepped forward to volunteer revisit practices of white superiority and racialized hierarchies, so their intentions to “serve and protect” their people were rooted in whiteness and racism.

According to Ryan Reft in The Legacy of Texas Rangers, it is unsurprising that local legal and law enforcement traditions have shaped what we see at the US-Mexican Border. The ICE agents’ technique on or off the US-Mexican border mimic Texas Rangers. Just like our modern-day police, Texas rangers can be compared to the modern-day police, perhaps with leniency. Texas Rangers took the laws into their hands, upholding the logics of white supremacy and Herrenvolk democracy throughout the land.

As scholars Dévora González and Azadeh Shahshahani explain, in Constructive Engagement of Conflict for the United World Colleges movement, early ICE agents were members of the Ku Klux Klan, Texas Rangers, or from border town police departments. The group was created in response to migration in the United States by controlling bodies through a quota system that discriminated against any migrant not of Western European descent and committed violence in the name of “border protection” has been the “modus operandi for Border Patrol.” Essentially, their methods and habits of working is violence for the sake of “border protection.” Such violence toward Latinx and Native American people living near the US-Mexican border is blatant racism.

Since 2010, hundreds of people have died at the hands of this racist paramilitary group. Hundreds of children have yet to be reunited with their parents, and thousands of people have disappeared. No Border Patrol agent has ever been held accountable for their negligence or recklessness. It is a method for border agents to practice inhumanity: Water is unavailable, food is scarce and makes them sick, they are thrown into cold and overcrowded cages, medical care is unattainable and insufficient to the point where children die in their custody. . .it’s a game of survival to live a good life in the US, and it is so racist and unfair. Their systems of operations thrive entirely on their cruel culture against Latinx people at the border. They neglect the benefits of Latinx migrants, culture, and bodies by keeping them detained at high levels of impunity.

In conclusion, the history of these paramilitary groups has been built upon a solid foundation of white supremacy and racism and this is clear when examining our history through the concepts of Herrenvolk Democracy,  westward expansion, and manifest destiny.

Herrenvolk Democracy → Manifest Destiny → Westward Expansion → Xenophobia/Racism/White Power → Texas Rangers → Police Officers → ICE → Border Patrol → Impunity → Biased Education System → Erasure of Latinx Experiences

Categories: Essay Series | 1 Comment

Herrenvolk Democracy and Manifest Destiny: How foundations of Racism Have Continued to Threaten the Preservation of Latinx Immigration, Culture and Bodies

By Jordan Geriane

The United States education system is flawed, there is no denying it. Our founding fathers built this country on white supremacist and Christian values (or lack thereof) that empower white people and disenfranchise nonwhite people. As this nation has developed, Herrenvolk Democracy has reigned in subtle ways within our schools by erasing key parts of our history while depicting other aspects as heroic. For example, historically contingent ideals such as Manifest Destiny and immigration enforcement are seen as patriotic and honorable when they are the opposite of those things. In this two-section post, I will discuss the idea of Herrenvolk Democracy, as articulated by Cristina Beltrán, Ernesto Chaves, and Laura Gomez, in order to expand our understanding of a hierarchical racial order, white supremacy, and their connections to racist paramilitary groups along the U.S.-Mexico border. This framing helps us understand the history of Latina/o/x immigration and the Latinx community in the United States under the tyranny of white supremacy.

According to Cristina Beltrán’s introduction to Cruelty as Citizenship, Herrenvolk Democracy embodies tyrannical characteristics and “a form of democratic violence that generates violence and taught tyranny.” This suggests that throughout our country’s history white citizens have operated under Herrenvolk logics and have essentially given each other ‘permission’ to engage in and support extralegal acts of white violence against those deemed to be nonwhite. Such violence included acts of lynching, raping, defrauding, murdering, and rioting against nonwhite bodies and communities. The most sickening fact about these acts is they have been consented by the local, state, and even federal governments. These acts are scarcely ever given any consequences to those who commit them. When reading through this history, students will discover how white settlers and white citizens created ways to take it upon themselves to ‘defend’ their communities from nonwhite people. In our current K-12 history books, white settlers are written about as heroes, fighting against oppressors (nonwhite peoples) for centuries.  

Our history books tell white citizens that they are the rightful owners of the land they live on even after acknowledging how white settlers drove Native peoples and Latinx people (Mexico and Puerto Rico) off what was originally their land. Beltrán discusses the historical tragedy of westward expansion, a tragedy that pushed innocent Native Americans and Latinx people away from their homes and off land that was rightfully theirs. This is where the idea of manifest destiny projects. It is the belief that white settlers were destined and justified to settle across America. In school, we were taught that this concept was a revolutionary and righteous historical conquest in most history classes. Though in reality, such conquests damaged the culture and lives of many Latinx and Native American people.

Upon pushing nonwhite peoples out of their homelands, an anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and anti-nonwhite narrative gradually built itself up in the US. Through the legal system and cultural ideals, white citizens have painted these Latinx people as incompetent, dangerous invaders. These perceptions have built racialized societal structures and systems over time, such as criminal justice, education, and healthcare.  Our education system fails to teach students about them time and time again. The erasure of Latinx history in the United States is a systematic problem that we must fix so that students preserve their history and lived experiences in this country.

Given this, I argue that our education system in the United States is propagandist. The way US History is taught in our public education system is biased. Latinx, Native American, Asian, and Black experiences are deliberately ignored and twisted in ways that are harmful to everyone living in our society today. Concepts such as westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, the American Revolution, and the Louisiana Purchase are all parts of history where students are taught to adulate our founding fathers, our former presidents, and the ‘first’ Americans to colonize stolen land.

Chicano/a scholars Ernesto Chávez and Laura Gómez discuss themes Beltrán describes as part of Herrenvolk Democracy. Chávez and Gómez describe manifest destiny as central to this white vision of white democracy. Both authors examine how these ideas are essentially the same thing: They are deeply rooted in racism.

Chávez considers manifest destiny as the pursuit of western territory in the United States, and that it was “the belief that Americans had a God-given right, based on racial superiority, to expand to the Pacific Ocean.” This ideology continued to cast all nonwhite people—Indigenous, Mexican, Asian and Black people — as inferior beings. This toxic pursuit of power established a racial hierarchy that eventually embraced the acts of slavery, discrimination, and hate crimes in the coming years, radically developing into what we know now as white supremacy.

This destiny — this flawed and dangerous way of thought — ingrained a toxic and violent right to build a nation through territorial expansion and was essential to ideas for the development of white American racial superiority. Gómez articulates that Americans, Anglo-settlers and white citizens, “tend to not think of themselves as colonizers.” They tend to forget that they chose to war with Mexico and that their ‘brave pioneers’ attacked Mexico with aggression. Nonwhite people who lived on this land were seen as unwelcome invaders. There was no altruism or peace for these people, only war and pain, and all that history is seemingly nonexistent in our US history classes.

Frustratingly enough, the way such historical events are taught or muted within the US education system demeans and erases the lived experiences of Latinx immigrants and people. It highlights the wrongdoers as heroes, and the innocent as disposable. To this day, our brothers and sisters of color are continuously being erased and living in fear. Immigrants, specifically Latinx immigrants, are still targeted for simply living their lives. In my next post, I will further discuss the growth of white supremacy and how violence has skyrocketed into institutions that allows white supremacists and racism to play out under the law.

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Teaching through a Pandemic and the Trump Presidency: Cruelty and the History of Immigration

It’s difficult to go back there in my mind—the days and weeks before spring semester 2021. Amid teaching, writing, increasing Covid-19 deaths, and political uncertainty, I attempted to prepare for my History of Latina/o/x Immigration course. It all seems a blur now. As a historian of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the pandemic, coupled with the Trump presidency, had produced a nearly unending barrage of calamities in the region. How was I supposed to put this into perspective for University of Iowa students eager to learn the significance of this moment? How would I help them gather the historical analysis needed to contextualize these situations, to truly understand the magnitude of what was unraveling before their eyes? 

During this time, I came across Cristina Beltrán’s recent book, Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). Etched across its pages were the themes that would unite my course in the spring—a focus on cruelty as an expression of liberatory and participatory citizenship, a white (Herrenvolk) democracy as a more precise description of the U.S. experiment, and the centrality of the immigration system and migrants to this protracted narrative. Beltrán’s incisive monograph examined the genealogy of “violence against migrants [and how] it creates a kind of Herrenvolk loophole for nativists—offering them a legally sanctioned opportunity to impose tyranny over a nonwhite population while still claiming constitutional protections for themselves.”[1]

As 2020 turned into 2021, and I prepared to celebrate my fortieth birthday on 6 January, America’s Herrenvolk led a siege on the U.S. Capitol. My family and I were driving. They were taking me to Minneapolis so that I might get some quiet time alone to write during my birthday-week celebration. We sat in silence listening to NPR’s reporters describe the macabre scene unfolding in Washington D.C. Joy and excitement quickly turned to fear and an uncomfortable resignation. Democracy dies in darkness, I thought. Or perhaps, it dies in the daylight by a thousand cuts, some big others small, but unrelenting and cruel, nonetheless.

In the wake of the insurrection and in the shadow of the Trump administration’s release of the 1776 Commission’s findings—that a more “patriotic” version of history should be taught in U.S. schools, one that ignores the ramifications of settler colonialism and Indigenous genocide, racialist immigration policies, the lengthy legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and more—students and teachers across the country began spring semester with the weight of generational pain on our shoulders. I spoke with my dear friend and Borderlands History Blog co-editor, Michael K. Bess, about bringing the blog back to life for my class. I wanted students to have the option of writing about what they were learning—and what they were feeling—for a wider audience.

As we started class accompanied by Beltrán’s book and dozens of other wonderful scholars’ work, including Natalia Molina’s How Race is Made in America, Mai Ngai’s Impossible Subjects, Mark-Overmyer-Velazquez’s edited volume Beyond La Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration, Ana Raquel Minian’s Undocumented Lives, Mireya Loza’s Defiant Braceros, Ernesto Chávez’s The U.S. War with Mexico, Laura Gómez’s Manifest Destinies, Julian Lim’s Porous Borders, Kelly Lytle-Hernandez’s Migra, and Omar Valerio-Jimenez’s edited volume The Latina/o Midwest Reader, among countless articles and documentary films, students quickly began to piece together the history of American democracy with the history of the U.S. immigration system and its distinct focus on Latina/o/x descent people.

There were several students who wrote blog posts examining various aspects of the themes mentioned above and others including U.S. foreign policy, the census, eugenics, disease, and white supremacy. Students also wrote about their own connections to immigration and migration through their family’s past. This is a cross-listed course, so not all my students are history majors (or minors). Still, most of them used history as a powerful weapon against the constant gaslighting and erasure perpetrated at the highest levels of our government and media. Inspired by the scholars mentioned above and our conversations in class, via Zoom and under cloister, here are my students’ ruminations, writing in the midst of a pandemic and the Trump presidency, on the history of Latina/o/x immigration, white democracy, and violence.

[1] Cristina Beltrán, Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2020), 111.

Categories: Essay Series | 1 Comment

Getting Back to Borderlands History

Dear readers, for more than 12 months, the Borderlands History Blog has been frozen in amber, lacking new updates. That is about to change as the blog gets ready to turn 10 next spring; we’re going to be making some important changes to ensure it has another decade of success.

First, we’ve already begun by cleaning up and simplifying the layout. We’ve changed the picture in the masthead, which is a beautiful map depicting El Paso and the Franklin Mountains in 1886. We chose El Paso, because that’s where the idea for the blog was born at UTEP back in 2012.

Soon, we’ll be launching a new essay series Lina’s running with contributions from students at the University of Iowa. We’ll also be debuting a new site design for the blog.

In addition, we’ve got a few other big surprises still baking in the oven, which we’ll share once they’re ready.

Join us: as we get back to Borderlands History, browse the old posts, especially our classic book reviews and Borderlands History Interview Project items, which really helped define what we do at BHB.

More to come.

Categories: News and Announcements | Leave a comment

Review of Boats, Borders, and Bases

By Nicholas Piraino, Stony Brook University.

A graduate student in the Department of History, Nicholas studies 20th Century U.S. history, U.S. politics, race, and labor.

Review of Boats, Borders, and Bases: Race, the Cold War, and the Rise of Migration Detention in the United States, by Jenna M. Loyd & Alison Mountz,University of California Press, 2018.

Boats, Borders, and Bases is an ambitious book that blends together several fields such as geography, sociology, immigration studies, and history. In doing so it reveals new facets of the discussion on U.S. immigration laws, outlining government programs and political schemes which completely challenge the common understanding of immigration into the United States. However, at certain points this blending of fields feels a little too ambitious. While the research involved in Boats, Borders, and Bases is exhaustive and seems extremely sound, at times it feels as if the methodologies used by the authors are not utilized to their full potentials. This may be because of the sheer variety of perspectives the authors use, such as a historical perspective, despite specializing in geography.

Continue reading
Categories: Book and Journal Reviews | Leave a comment

Website Built with