The United States has a long history of immigration, and many Americans celebrate their immigrant origins and the idea of the United States as “a nation of immigrants.” Immigration statistics also tell a story of America welcoming the stranger. From the beginning of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, the United States admitted three-fifths of all the world’s immigrants, or more than 80 million in the last 200 years alone. In addition, the United States has historically led the world in resettling refugees, welcoming 3 million since 1980. These trends have continued. During the 20th century, the United States remained the world’s largest immigrant-receiving country; into the early 21st century, it admitted more immigrants than any other country, over 1 million per year.1
However, the United States is also a nation of xenophobia, a story that is also told through immigration statistics. Since 1892, the United States has deported more immigrants (over 57 million) than any other nation.2 Our history, politics, and laws have also revealed that an irrational hostility towards immigrants has been a constant and enduring force in the United States. Germans were seen as a threat in colonial America. In the 19th century, anxiety directed at Irish Catholics fueled an anti-immigrant political movement. In the 20th century, Asians were barred, and Mexicans were deported. In the 21st, Muslims have been banned and Central Americans denied asylum.
Xenophobia is a global phenomenon. But there are also distinct national, and even regional and local, differences. Xenophobia in the United States has been built upon the nation’s history of white settler colonialism and slavery. It has become part of the systemic racism and other forms of bigotry and discrimination that have defined American society. It has adapted to and shaped successive migrations and settlement of peoples from around the world. It has defined American nationalism and nativism, and it has endured because it has helped some of the country’s most important institutions to function and thrive: American capitalism, American democracy, and American global leadership.
To understand why xenophobia has been such an important and enduring aspect shaping the United States, it is necessary to explore what purpose it serves. What work does xenophobia do? Why does the United States continue to manufacture xenophobia and for what purpose?
Here, I draw from political theorist Bonnie Honig’s similarly framed question. Rather than ask, “How should we solve the problem of foreignness?” or “What should ‘we’ do about ‘them?’” Honig reverses the question: “What problems does foreignness solve for us? Why do nations or democracies rely on the agency of foreignness at their vulnerable moments of (re)founding, at what cost, and for what purpose?”3 I argue that xenophobia has been so important in the United States not only because it worked in concert with settler colonialism and slavery, but also because it has helped some of the country’s most important institutions function and thrive: American capitalism, American democracy, and American global leadership.
First, xenophobia is profitable. The US economy has thrived on exploiting workers of color—including the enslaved, Indigenous, and the foreign-born—and on creating a permanent class of deportable immigrants. As anthropologist Nicholas de Genova has explained, immigrant “deportability” ensures that some migrants will be deported, but that the overwhelming majority will remain, albeit in a socially marginal and economically exploitable state.4
In short, we have let immigrants in. But xenophobia allows us to close the door at any time, in the service of American capitalism.
Xenophobia also translates into big business. As the United States has arrested, detained, and deported growing numbers of immigrants, it has relied on privately run immigrant detention centers to carry out these initiatives. As a result, many American corporations have profited handsomely. A prime example is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which won its first government contract in 1984 to run an immigrant detention center in Houston. The annual revenue of CCA rose from 50 million in the early 1990s to 462 million in 1997. After 9/11, the revenue that the corporation (rebranded as CoreCivic in 2016) received from the federal government more than doubled, rising from 13 percent in 2014 to 28 percent in 2016.5
Xenophobia and American capitalism also work together: siphoning working-class resentment away from corporate greed and economic inequality, and directing it toward immigrants instead. Promoting and celebrating the “good immigrant”—that is, the “capitalist immigrant” that embodies the American work ethic, as Honig explains—upholds “popular beliefs in a meritocratic economy in good times and bad.” Both xenophobia’s denigration of “bad immigrants” and its celebration of “good immigrants” function to undermine potential interracial and transnational worker coalitions and help sustain economic inequalities.6
Second: just as xenophobia has helped American capitalism thrive, so too has it driven our democratic political process. Across the centuries, Americans have supported and fully participated in what I call “political xenophobia”: the demonization of immigrants in order to secure votes, elect anti-immigrant lawmakers, make anti-immigrant policy, and gain political power. Xenophobia averts voters’ attention from enduring systemic economic and racial inequality, environmental degradation, and other large-scale issues. It fills the coffers of restrictionist organizations, garners support for specific policies, elects politicians, and keeps political parties in power.
As a result, politicians have effectively promoted xenophobia as part of the democratic process. In turn, xenophobia has also been a major function of American statebuilding. It has increased budgets for certain governmental agencies and helped to expand the reach, power, and function of our democratically elected and controlled local, state, and federal governments.
Demagogues and extremists may be particularly successful in fanning the flames of xenophobia. And yet, xenophobia would never be as powerful and enduring as it is in the United States without the support and full participation of Americans from all political, class, ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. In fact, the most powerful and successful xenophobic campaigns have been spearheaded by our religious leaders (the anti-Catholic campaigns of the 1850s) and academics and respected thinkers and writers (the efforts to restrict Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the 1920s), and have received broad mainstream support from Americans (the late 20th- and early 21st-century reactions to the “illegal immigration crisis”). Progressives, environmentalists, and labor unions have also supported and led xenophobic campaigns.7
US history shows that an entrenched fear of immigrants has shaped America from the colonial era to the present.
Third: xenophobia has been part of America’s global leadership. Americans have actively participated in and helped lead some of the transnational and international organizations and networks that promote and facilitate similar restrictionist immigration policies abroad. In the early 20th century, American labor leaders traveled to Canada to establish branches of the anti-Asian organizations that were already active in the United States, as well as helped to incite the anti-Asian riots in Vancouver in 1907. During the 1920s, California newspaperman V. S. McClatchy helped spread the anti-Japanese “Yellow Peril” message through publications in English and Spanish in North and South America.8 Eugenicist Harry Laughlin’s congressional testimony in the 1920s helped shape the national origins quota system in the United States. He later teamed up with Cuban colleagues to advance similar immigration policies in Latin America in the 1930s.9 In Germany, Adolf Hitler read Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, and applauded the US Congress’s passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, praising it as an effort to exclude the “foreign body” of “strangers to the blood” of the ruling race.10
Over the course of the 20th century, the US government has also sought cooperation (sometimes using pressure) with other countries to achieve its immigration priorities. American officials negotiated with both Canada and Mexico to police the northern and southern borders and prevent the entry of undocumented immigrants. During the mass deportation campaigns of the 1930s and 1950s, Mexico proved to be a willing partner in the policing of unsanctioned migration across the border and facilitating the return of deported Mexican nationals.11
Today, the United States continues to exert its global influence in immigration policy. US agencies regularly share information, technology, and training with border enforcement agencies in other countries. In 2009, the US Department of Homeland Security and the European Union’s Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) signed an agreement establishing operational cooperation in areas related to border security management. The United States has also helped shape (and fund) the “Southern Border Program” that aims to regulate migration from Central America into Mexico by pressuring various Central American governments, as well as the government of Mexico, to stop migrants from reaching the US-Mexican border. These measures have included increased border patrols, legislative changes, and detention and deportation procedures that, according to critics, violate migrants’ human rights.12
US history shows that an entrenched fear of immigrants has shaped America from the colonial era to the present. We have been wary of almost every group of foreigners that has come to the United States: German immigrants in the 18th century; Irish and Chinese in the 19th; Italians, Jews, Japanese, and Mexicans in the 20th; and Muslims today. Across the centuries, we have labeled immigrants a threat: because they were poor, because they practiced a different faith, because they were not white. We have argued against them: that there were too many of them; that they were not assimilating; that they were taking jobs away from deserving Americans; that they were bringing crime and disease into the country; that they had dangerous political ideals, were un-American, or even hated America.
We may have realized that the alleged threats posed by immigrants were, in hindsight, unjustified. Even so, we have allowed xenophobia to become an American tradition. As Americans continue to grapple with the legacies of the xenophobic policies of the last presidential administration, our long history of xenophobia will be instructive in understanding how to bring about its demise.
Excerpted from: Social Research: An International Quarterly, Volume 88, Number 4, Winter 2021, pp. 795–825 (Article). Adapted from America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States, Basic Books, 2019.
- US Department of Homeland Security 2018a; Migration Policy Institute 2019; Krogstad 2019; Zong and Batalova 2017. ↩
- US Department of Homeland Security 2018b. ↩
- 2003, 4. ↩
- 2005, 8. ↩
- Koulish 2007; Fernandes 2011, 169; Berestein 2008; Golash-Boza 2012, 151–53. ↩
- Honig 2003, 80–81. ↩
- FitzGerald and CookMartín 2014, 7. ↩
- Lee  2021, 125–36. ↩
- FitzGerald and Cook-Martín 2014, 25. ↩
- Whitman 2017, 8, 2, 12, 46–47. ↩
- Lytle-Hernández 2006. ↩
- Feldman and Olea 2004, 129–49; Boggs 2015; Miroff and Sheridan 2021. ↩