This piece originally appeared in Toward Freedom
THERE WAS SOMETHING UNSETTLING about the self-perception of the killer. After a six hour drive from his home in Allen, Texas to the Mexican border at El Paso, his head swimming with fever dreams of invading Hispanic hordes, twenty-one-year old Patrick Crusius walked up to a Walmart frequented by Latinos and, raising an AK-47 style assault rifle to his shoulder, opened fire. It took less than six minutes to carry out the deed, in which he slaughtered twenty three people and injured dozens more. The manifesto he released the day of the attack invoked The Great Replacement theory—the conspiracy that global Jewish elites are importing immigrants to destroy the white race. It then paid homage to the killer who gunned down fifty-one Muslims in a New Zealand mosque. But the second paragraph of the poorly-worded treatise contained an unexpected tribute: he invoked, as his antecedents, the slain Native Americans.
“The natives didn’t take the invasion of Europeans seriously,” Crusius wrote, making an absurd comparison between the European genocide of natives in the past to the influx of Latinos in the present, “now what’s left [of native Americans] is just a shadow of what was.”
His rampage prompted swift public condemnation by many of the ideologues who nonetheless shared his passions, the most prominent among them being President Donald Trump. But his attack—and his justifications for carrying it out—fit within a much larger tradition of anti-immigrant violence. And the practitioners and facilitators of that tradition include not just Republicans, but a large number of liberal Democrats.
In All-American Nativism, Daniel Denvir illustrates how the nativism of the Trump era is “[a] concept that allows us to rethink racism itself as a bedrock ‘nationalist population politics’ that functions to control the movement and status of racialized others.” Far from an aberration, this strain was an intractable component of the formation of the US over the past century.
Advocates of American exceptionalism have been wont to argue, as a counterargument to Trump, that the US is “a nation of immigrants.” The sentiment is of course worth striving towards. But the statement itself, as historical fact, is false. It’s “a novel popular mythology with strong amnesiac properties,” Denvir writes, describing it as a narrative predicated on the erasure of two crucial facts: that America’s original inhabitants were systematically exterminated, and that its wealth was then built on the labor of blacks kidnapped from Africa.
The truth is that the US had been a settler colonial project from the outset, rooted in violent capitalist expansion and the continued dominance of a caucasian majority. But that fact has since been airbrushed by popular mythologies in movies like Far and Away, whose narrative depictions of anti-immigrant xenophobia was limited only to that which was experienced by white immigrants. The fact that European minorities such as the Irish and Italians experienced limited forms of discrimination is undeniable. But those same immigrants were at the same time encouraged to participate in the project of white settler colonialism. Greg Grandin illustrated this with refreshing lucidity in his masterpiece The End of the Myth, in which he delineated how violent outward expansion served as a “safety-valve” deflecting class tension among poor white immigrants in the cities to the East. The difficulty Irish immigrant might have had in getting employment wasn’t a be-all-end-all, just so long as they had the option of starting anew on now empty prairies where the Lakota had been slaughtered and fenced off in reservations.
But the global migrant flow would undergo a fundamental sea change several decades down the line. After post-colonial convulsions began in the 1960s, the vast majority of immigrants coming to the US weren’t Italians or Poles, but black and brown people from the global south. As residents flocked from the periphery to the metropole, who then were an existential threat to the demographic equilibrium—the dominance of whites—upon which the US was premised.
The vision of America as a white country borne of its origins as a settler colonial project persisted well into the post-Civil Rights era; nativists were forced to find new ways to continue expressing their creed. They found an easy route to doing so by fetishizing the fertility of immigrant women, a cause celebre, around which feverish right-wing pundits rallied their followers, insisting pregnant Mexicans constituted a campaign to out-breed and overwhelm the whites. The subtext is unspoken but needs little elaboration: if the “country” is a place where whites predominate, the reproduction of non-whites will destroy it. The horrifying revelations published by The Intercept this October, that immigrant women in an ICE detention center were having their uteruses cut out without their consent, come as little surprise when seen in the longue duree of this macabre history.
The precarity of the immigrant underclass embodies a contradiction both Hegelian and all American: the same immigrants invoked as the culprit for the totality of our social ills also served as the vast, underpaid labor pool upon which American capitalism flourished. Their deportability was itself the precondition under which they could be abused and rendered invisible. As long as the threat of being deported looms, immigrants become in effect labor unconstricted by the need for rights or regulations.
How anti-immigration policies evolved
It was this contradictory dynamic that led to the creation, in 1924, of the precursor to the Border Patrol, the INS, which has since become the unhinged executor of US state violence along—and within 100 miles—of the border. Amid a slew of anti-immigrant reforms that created a racialized national origins quota system, nativists nonetheless failed to cut off immigration from Mexico. As conservative as they may have been, the farmer lobby in the southwest depended on Mexicans for picking tomatoes. To ensure their labor force wouldn’t be cut off, they struck a compromise: the Border Patrol’s precursor would be created so that the white supremacists frequent along the border, who were well documented committing anti-Mexican lynchings and shootings, could consecrate those actions through official government positions. They couldn’t stop migrants from crossing the border. But their new government agency meant they could use violence as they pleased to police, monitor, and regiment their movements.
It was the beginning of a long tug of war between two constraining poles—needing immigrants for their underclass labor while at the same time demonizing them to deflate class animosities—that fell apart at last with the ascendancy of Trump.
Amid the need for a public relations renovation amid the Civil Rights movement, LBJ replaced the national origins quota system with the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which set an even numerical limit on the amount of people from each country who could become naturalized citizens—irrespective of how large those countries were. The specter of the “illegal” immigrant was the ineluctable result of a system like this, one in which—though tens of millions of Mexicans might want to work in the US—Mexico could only have as many annual naturalized citizens as much smaller countries like Uruguay, Portugal, or Liberia.
The spurious distinction between the “good immigrants” and the savage mass of criminals constituting the “bad” was consummated a generation later, when Ronald Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (ICRA) into law. The act provided a path to citizenship. But it ratcheted up a simultaneous war against “the illegals,” sanctioning harsh punishment against businesses that employed undocumented workers and siphoning millions of dollars to a Border Patrol whose racism was self-evident. Even with the intensification of the de facto war against immigrants—many of whom, in a bitter twist of irony, were already refugees of Reagan’s wars in Central America—the mistaken belief that obstacles to naturalization had been swept away meant generations of liberals could bask in the illusion they weren’t complicit in anti-migrant savagery which their right-wing counterparts relished in. Three decades would pass before that illusion was destroyed by Trump. For liberals, Trump offered a vulgar deviation from what had been a rational immigration policy. For Denvir, the populist was merely that policy’s logical conclusion.
After all—so went the logic—if there were some criminals mixed in with the good immigrants, and the bad ones were ruining the country, then why not stop immigration altogether?
How Liberals Have Dealt with immigration
Starting in the early 90s, after embracing pro-corporate policies, mainstream Democrats sought to placate their Republican opponents by “out-toughing” them on illegal immigration. Politicians such as President Bill Clinton talked about the violence of illegal immigrants in the same way his contemporary, then-Senator Joe Biden, invoked the specter of the young black “super-predator.” It was as if entertaining racist tropes was the path to being taken seriously by their conservative counterparts. The hope was that in so doing, they would earn the respect needed to broker comprehensive immigration reform, which would allow easier naturalization for the “good” legal immigrants.
But it never worked. Instead, their appeasement only legitimated the false premise that illegal immigration was a threat in the first place. And it facilitated the massive militarization which has caused a spike in migrant deaths through Prevention through Deterrence.
Cynics aren’t wrong when they point out it was the liberals who preceded Trump who laid the groundwork for his massive crimes at the border. They had themselves begun committing that strain of violence—mass deportations, immigrant detention centers, the direction of migrant routes to scorching hot deserts—long before Trumpism reared its head. Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama had all voted for the Secure Fences Act of 2006, which authorized the construction of 700 miles of fences along the border. Obama, before Trump, had been the “Deporter in Chief” who ejected more immigrants than any President in history. Indeed, it was the very discourse of immigrant criminality seeded in the 90s which, as Denvir writes, shaped the “bipartisan consensus of commonsense xenophobia while incubating the ideological germ of an ascendant far right.”
The same Far Right, of course, that would flourish in the age of Trump.
Denvir describes immigration policy as it became intertwined with the militarization needed to control “surplus humanity” created by neoliberalism—what he describes as the deregulated form of laissez-faire capitalism facilitated by every President since Reagan, a system stripped of environmental or labor regulations. His book follows a clear abolitionist logic. In All American Nativism, we’re shown how the repressive mechanisms used to retrench state violence at the border—just like prisons, police, and other apparatuses of the carceral state—aren’t solutions to the problems they propose to fix. What they instead do is create a facade of “security” behind which we can “disappear” the problems or pretend they don’t exist. As thinkers like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have shown, we attack crime by “disappearing” criminals in Supermax prisons rather than eliminating the systemic deprivation forcing them to engage in criminal acts. And we attack immigration, Denvir writes, by trying to disappear migrants behind a border infrastructure rather than grappling with the myriad forces causing people to flee their countries of origin, such as global inequality, repression, militarism, and climate change.
For Denvir, the US-Mexico border is more than just a line demarcating two countries. It’s a “wound against which the Third World grates against the First and bleeds,” a boundary zone where inequalities are so colossal they could only be maintained by violence.
In JM Coetzee’s 1983 novel Waiting for the Barbarians, the outpost of a fictional empire is gripped by the specter of tribal savages looming over the horizon. The guards assure the populace that the enemies are on the cusp of a catastrophic offensive. But as scenes ensue of the authorities growing ever more authoritarian, torturing a suspected sympathizer while residents flee, the barbarians never materialize. And then it becomes clear: the guardians of empire had been the true “savages” all along.
It’s hard not to see this within the bloviating paranoia of the contemporary United States, when even the imposition of the most vast, militarized, and draconian border infrastructure in history still leaves many Americans believing our “hands are tied when it comes to border enforcement.”
The armies of agents, drones, and right-wing militias mean little to FOX News acolytes. We’re still a defenseless nation for all they care, besieged to no quarter by blitzkrieging hordes of savage Central American rapists.
“This is the basic paradox,”Denvir writes, “at the heart of US immigration politics: the border has never been more militarized, our prisons never more full, and our military never more hopelessly untangled, yet a vocal minority of Americans have become apoplectically adamant that our nation is insecure, inside and out, and vulnerable to threats foreign and domestic.”
Two days before the November 3rd election, Trump declared November 1 to be a “National Day of Remembrance for those Killed by Illegal Aliens.”
Forget Gilbert Anchondo, the two month old baby whose parents were both killed while shielding him from the bullets of a white supremacist in the El Paso Walmart. Forget the millions of indocumentados living in an underworld ripe with abuse they’ll never report for fear that doing so will provoke their deportation. Forget the thousands of migrants fleeing violent death in Central America who, upon arrival to the US, died of thirst in scorching wastelands where CBP policy forced them to cross. Their desiccated remains, sun-bleached, sheathed in sand, yield few details about the pain which drove them to perish here in anonymity. That’s of negligible importance: it’s the “illegals” sowing terror throughout the US.
“Over 500,000 criminal illegal aliens have been deported,” the November 1 White House document boasted of its track record in the macabre new holiday’s announcement. “We pay tribute to the enduring memory of every American killed by an illegal alien.”
The victory of Joe Biden occasions relief only insofar as we’ve prevented the immediate consolidation of twenty-first century fascism. But under Biden, a man who, along with President Obama, oversaw mass deportations of a scale surpassed only by Trump, the battle for ending border violence, and the system of global apartheid it upholds, will be a long one. Trump may have been one of the ugliest examples of All-American Nativism. But in a world buckling under the weight of climate change, inequality and militarism, fighting back against it means recognizing the problem goes far beyond just him.
Jared Olson is a writer and independent journalist with a current focus on the struggle for justice in Central America. His essays and reportage have appeared in Vice, The Nation, NACLA, El Faro English, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.