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, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/us-detention-child-migrants.

[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, https://www.lgraham.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2021/3/graham-introduces-legislation-to-stop-asylum-abuse-and-reclaim-control-of-our-southern-border.

[3] Jeanine Pirro, “Judge Jeanine: Biden’s Border Crisis,” Fox News, April 3, 2021, https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/judge-jeanine-bidens-border-crisis

[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

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One thought on “What is a “Crisis” at the Border Anyway?

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

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