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”
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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Book Review: Globalizing Borderlands Studies in Europe and North America

Globalizing Borderlands Studies in Europe and North America. John W.I. Lee and Michael North, editors. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. vii, 271. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00 Hardcover.

Globalizing Borderlands Studies in Europe and North America is as ambitious as it is unwieldy. The editors, John W.I. Lee and Michael North, have organized a diverse group of authors whose work spans a broad span of time from late antiquity to the mid-20th century, common era. Contributors consider multiple theoretical perspectives of the theme: conceptual borderlands, religious and cultural borderlands, imperial and medieval borderlands, indigenous borderlands, and medical borderlands. They also examine how communities often forged identity in contrast to their neighbors. Spatial relations, generally, is a critical theme throughout the volume. Continue reading

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Book Review: Native but Foreign

Rensink, Brenden W. Native but Foreign: Indigenous Immigrants and Refugees in the North American Borderlands. College Station: Texas A&M University, 2018. pp. 300. Illustrated. $38.00 Hardcover.

A victim of the wickedness of a few men, whose imposture was favored by their origin, and recent domination over the country; a foreigner in my native land; could I be expected stoically to endure their outrages and insults? Crushed by sorrow, convinced that my death alone would satisfy my enemies, I sought for a shelter amongst those against whom I had fought; I separated from my country, parents, family, relatives and friends, and what was more, from the institutions, on behalf of which I had drawn my sword, with an earnest wish to see Texas free and happy. –Juan N. Seguín, 1858

Juan Nepomuceno Seguín certainly knew what it felt like to be “native but foreign.” Scion of the famous Seguín family of San Antonio, Juan worked alongside his father, Erasmo, as “cultural brokers”—to borrow the phrase from historian Raúl Ramos—who sought to mitigate differences between settlers in Stephen F. Austin’s colony and the newly independent Mexican government during the 1820s. Seguín went on to prove himself loyal to the Euroamerican settlers by signing the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836. Nonetheless, after serving as alcalde of San Antonio, Seguín fell victim to the growing Anglo-American distrust of ethnic Mexicans during the 1840s, eventually fleeing across the Río Grande into Mexico. Although Seguín would later find himself back in Texas, he, like many other ethnic Mexicans, embodied his self-described status of being a “foreigner in my native land.” Mexican Americans were clearly a colonized people.

Much could be said for the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans across the larger U.S. West, who found themselves increasingly marginalized by Americans over the course of the nineteenth century as they sought to hold onto their own homelands. As Brenden W. Rensink argues in his compelling new book, Native but Foreign: Indigenous Immigrants and Refugees in North American Borderlands, however, historians should not overlook Natives who fled into the United States from the neighboring developing nations of Canada and Mexico around the turn of the twentieth century. Rensink’s book is comparative in nature. Over the course of about 221 pages, the author poses the following question: how did Yaquis, who historically originated in Mexico, and Chippewas and Crees, who crossed the U.S.-Canada border into Montana, prevail upon federal officials to recognize them as indigenous groups who belonged in the United States? Moreover, what does placing these histories in conversation with one another tell us about borders, migration, and belonging in modern nation-states?

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The Historical Reality of Violence in Westworld’s Frontier Fantasy

Our obsession with HBO’s Westworld, and how we can interpret it through a Borderlands history perspective, continues. Major spoilers ahead for seasons 1 & 2 of the series.

There are two overarching themes at play in the second season of Westworld. The first, and most prevalent, has to do with the consequences of violence. What Ford reminded his wealthy patrons at the gala in Escalante, when Dolores –as Wyatt– assassinated him, was that violence and borderlands have always been intertwined. Before, when the guests could act out their bloody fantasies without fear of injury to themselves, it presented only a partially-realized view of lived reality and history. In season two, Westworld introduced viewers to two additional parks, one based on Tokugawa Japan and another on India during the British Raj, both societies predicated on a finely-tuned balance of order and violence. Following the events in Escalante, however, removing the limits on the consequences of violence, not only democratized experience in the parks, but also brought them into historical continuity with the regions in which they are based. In short, it injected a bloody ambiguity into the narratives of the visitors who came to Delos’s fantasylands.

The second overarching theme: how identity is molded and who carries out the molding. Viewers see it with the obsession for fidelity that William, Dolores, Bernard, Arnold, and Ford share. The point is not simply to create a fully realized world, but one that also conforms to their idiosyncratic priorities. They desire to produce individuals who will serve their needs, whatever the reason. Language games and bodily comportment are critical to this process of molding another’s identity, and failure to achieve fidelity results in swift and violent consequences. For students of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and the frontier, numerous parallels with the state’s own obsession with social hierarchy, conformity, bodily comportment and language emerge. The Indian schools, women’s clinics, prison camps, and delousing checkpoints that appeared in the borderlands during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created their own parameters to determine the state’s measure of fidelity to the American racial ideal. The laboratory where William endlessly torments a mechanical copy of his father-in-law, James Delos, in order to create a version of the man to his pleasing, serves as a macabre allegory to the historical actions of the state.

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Alienating Laws: How Mexican Migration Became Illegal, Pt. II

By Diego Mulato-Castillo

This is the second part of Diego’s essay, to read the first installment, click here.

As undocumented Mexican migration increased, the debate raged within the United States government about how to put a stop to what was perceived as a flood of illegal immigration, a solution was proposed by the introduction of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which militarized the U.S.-Mexico border and further criminalized Mexican migration. The IRCA immigration reform of 1986 clearly highlighted the contradictory stance the U.S. government possessed towards Mexican immigration. IRCA provided amnesty to an estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, and sought to put an abrupt end to further illegal migration by imposing worker sanctions and beginning the remarkable militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border that continues to present day[1]. Ngai further explains that Congress authorized the doubling of the Border Patrol and set the groundwork for the vast network of walls, drones, surveillance equipment, and personnel which now costs taxpayers 2 billion dollars a year[2].

IRCA did little to dramatically reduce undocumented migration in the United States. The long-lasting impact of IRCA, nevertheless, includes the framing of Mexican migration as a criminal act. Mexican immigration as a problem became cemented in the U.S. psyche. The fatal flaw of the U.S. government and the implementation of IRCA was that it did not address the structural problems that drive migration—unequal distribution of wealth, globalism, poverty—and instead addressed immigration on an individual, and short-sided basis[3] . Continue reading

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