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

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One thought on “Teaching through a Pandemic and the Trump Presidency: Cruelty and the History of Immigration

  1. Pingback: Cruelty and the History of Immigration: Special Essay Series | Borderlands History

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