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'White Borders' explores America's long history of racially exclusive immigration policies

Reece Jones
Beacon Press
Reece Jones

Border Patrol agents charging at Haitian asylum seekers. Children in cages. The Muslim ban.

A common response after these events is, “This is not what America represents.” But a new book argues that these policies of racial exclusion are quintessentially American and can be found throughout its history.

Reece Jones is the chair of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of Geography and the Environment. He teaches classes on political geography and is interested in the ways that humans organize space, particularly borders and immigration. He also is a recipient of the 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship.

His first book, "Border Walls: Security and the War on Terror in the United States, India and Israel," looked at why countries continue to build walls — decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His second book, "Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move," looked at migrant deaths and why people die at borders.

His new book, "White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall," looks at the history of race and immigration in the United States. It will be released on Oct. 12.

Jones spoke with HPR's Jason Ubay about the Hawaiʻi naturalization case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and why immigration policies remain the same no matter the administration.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.)

JONES: The harsh treatment of immigrants has been in the news a lot lately. For Biden, it was images of Border Patrol agents, charging at Haitian asylum seekers on horseback and then holding them under a bridge at the border. During the Trump administration, it was the Muslim ban, it was holding kids in cages. The reaction a lot of people had to these harsh treatment of immigrants at the border was that that it was un-American, that this is not who we are, that this is not what America represents. But unfortunately, what I find in the book is that this is quintessentially American — that from the earliest foundations of the country through the present day, the border and immigration policy of the United States has been based on the exclusion of non-white people.

It's a reoccurring feature in the country, right? So the first naturalization law in the United States in 1790, said that to become a citizen, you had to be "a free white person." And that phrase wasn't removed from the citizenship law until 1952. Although after the Civil War, freed slaves were also added to that category. In terms of immigration laws, the United States did not have any federal immigration laws through the 1870s. So immigrants from Europe were free to come to the United States and settle. As soon as non-white immigrants started to arrive, and the first were large groups of people from China who arrived after the gold rush in California, and the US passed laws to exclude them. So the first laws were in the 1870s and 1880s, which excluded the Chinese. They were called the Chinese Exclusion Acts. And that was followed on very quickly with other exclusionary laws for other groups that arrived. So in 1907, there was the Gentlemen's Agreement that excluded Japanese immigrants to the United States. In 1917, the US banned all Asian immigration to the US have created an Asiatic barred zone. And in 1924, Congress passed an immigration law that created miniscule immigration quotas for most countries around the world, but very large ones for northern and western Europe with the idea to kind of reorient immigration back towards the white foundations of the country.

UBAY: There are some Hawaiʻi connections in the book. Can you talk about Takao Ozawa, who was born in Japan and moved to Honolulu in 1906? And when he tried to become a naturalized US citizen, that case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Can you talk a bit about that, and what role that played in America's immigration policies?

JONES: Takao Ozawa was born in Japan, but got a degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and then moved to Honolulu, where he lived with his family. His children were born in Hawaiʻi and became citizens at birth. And so he decided to apply for citizenship himself. And when he did, his citizenship was denied. And so he contested that all the way to the Supreme Court, and that reached there in 1922. And it was the first time that the Supreme Court considered that rule that only free white people could be citizens in the United States. And unfortunately, they decided that that wasn't the rule, and denied him his citizenship. And so after 1922, the categories of who could be a citizen remained very narrow until 1952, when Congress finally ended the free white person policy.

UBAY: I think another interesting part that you explore in the later chapters of your book is the environmental movement and how that morphed into some of the immigration laws that we saw being implemented during the Trump administration. Could you talk a bit about that? How John Tanton influenced immigration policy?

JONES: John Tanton has been called the most influential person that most Americans have never heard of. He is this larger than life figure. He was an ophthalmologist and lived in upstate Michigan. He performed 4000 surgeries over his life. But he also founded a huge suite of anti immigrant organizations that were designed to limit the number of immigrants entering the country. He believed that immigration was a threat to the environment of the United States if there were too many people to move here, but also the culture of the United States if too many non-white immigrants arrived in the country. So many of the groups that he founded, are today designated hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But nevertheless, they're very influential because John Tanton was able to recruit a lot of wealthy donors to give money to his organizations. Starting in the 1980s, people like Warren Buffett gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to his groups. But most importantly, he recruited a woman named Cordelia Scaife May, who was an heiress of the Mellon fortune. And in the 1990s, she was the wealthiest woman in the entire United States. And when she passed away, she left her entire fortune to a foundation that gives money to anti-immigrant hate groups. And so these groups have, over the last 20 years, been extremely influential in our debates about immigration. And they are directly tied to a lot of the figures that ended up in the Trump administration. For example, Jeff Sessions, who was a senator, and then the attorney general, is closely tied to a group called the Center for Immigration Studies. And then Stephen Miller as well, is someone who gave keynote address at these groups, and used their research to justify the harsh immigration policies of the administration. So Tanton succeeded in this lifelong quest of his to bring anti-immigrant thinking back into the mainstream of American politics.

We didn't have any immigration laws at the federal level in the United States until non white people started to arrive.
Reece Jones

UBAY: Your book ends around the end of the Trump administration. And I think, with the recent news people thought with the Biden administration, things would be different. But these policies seem to be persistent across presidential administrations, no matter who or what party is in charge. Why do you think they persist?

JONES: If we look back at the history of immigration laws in the U.S., it's been a bipartisan affair. And they, the rules typically passed with bipartisan support. For example, even in 2006, when the U.S. voted to put walls on the border with Mexico, then Senators Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton all voted in favor of putting that out on the border in the Secure Fence Act. You know, I think that immigration policy is something that tends to have bipartisan support because there's not a strong enough constituency in the United States for the rights of immigrants. And it's often an easy way for politicians to demonize each other, and to blame problems on someone else, rather than looking at the factors that might be directly behind them. I think that Donald Trump was particularly good at this. When he, during his campaign, took a wide range of complex issues around globalization, jobs moving out of the country, wages stagnating in the United States, and immigrants arriving into the country, and boiled all that down to, "We need to build a wall on the border," into that symbol to represent all of these larger issues. And so by demonizing that other it builds that support for him. And I think it's a trend that we see across the history of the United States, that immigrants tend to get blamed for problems.

One of the things that's striking when I looked back through the history of the early immigration laws, the Chinese Exclusion laws through the present day was the through line, the continuity in the language that people use. If you look at the speeches against the Chinese in the 1880s, it's an invasion that's going to change the culture of the United States. They take away American jobs, and they bring diseases, they bring drugs with them into the United States. It's the exact same things that we hear today when people talk about immigration from Mexico or from Central America. So the demonization of immigrants is something that has happened throughout the history of the country.

UBAY: Reece, you're a white man, and I understand that reading through this that might think these are a lot of issues that a lot of folks might not think is racist, but might be offended by some of the arguments made in this book. So what role did your whiteness play in writing this book?

JONES: I think to me, this is something that white people need to address because the people who have enacted these racist immigration policies throughout the history have been white people. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, has criticized the actions of white people. Immigrants rights groups today criticize the actions of the government. I think the problem is often white people, right? So to me, it's important as a white male, to talk about these things. And to be frank about the racist history of immigration laws. The immigration laws that we have today were established for the purpose of racial exclusion. We didn't have any immigration laws at the federal level in the United States until non-white people started to arrive. So the entire basis of the idea that the country should limit immigration is based on a racist premise. And so to me, I think it's important to talk about this and to raise this issue and to understand the history of the country.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 7, 2021.

Jason Ubay is the managing editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Send your story ideas to him at jubay@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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