Liberal Americans like to think of Donald Trump as an aberration and believe that his idea of building a great wall along the US-Mexico border to prevent immigrants from entering the country goes against American values. After all, as Hillary Clinton says, “We are a nation of immigrants.” In certain ways, in terms of the grim history of this country, they couldn’t be more wrong.
Donald Trump may differ from other contemporary politicians in so openly stating his antipathy to immigrants of a certain sort. (He’s actually urged the opening of the country to more European immigrants.) Democrats like Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton sound so much less hateful and so much more tolerant. But the policies Trump is advocating, including that well-publicized wall and mass deportations, are really nothing new. They are the very policies initiated by Bill Clinton in the 1990s and—from border militarization to mass deportations—enthusiastically promoted by Barack Obama. The president is, in fact, responsible for raising such deportations to levels previously unknown in American history.
And were you to take a long look back into that very history, you would find that Trump’s open appeal to white fears of a future non-white majority, and his support of immigration policies aimed at racial whitening, are really nothing new either. The policies he’s promoting are, in an eerie way, a logical continuation of centuries of policymaking that sought to create a country of white people.
The first step in that process was to deport the indigenous population starting in the 1600s. Later, deportation policies started to focus on Mexicans—seen by many whites as practically indistinguishable from Indians. Except, white settlers found, Mexicans were more willing to work as wage laborers. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, Mexicans have been treated as disposable workers. As Europeans were invited to immigrate here permanently and become citizens, Mexican workers were invited into the country to work—but not to become citizens.
The particular legal rationales have changed over time, but the system has been surprisingly durable. Prior to the 1960s, deportation was based openly on discrimination against Mexicans on the basis of their supposed race or nationality. It was only with the civil rights advances of the 1960s that such discrimination became untenable—and new immigration restrictions created a fresh legal rationale for treating Mexican workers as deportable. Having redefined them as “illegal” or “undocumented,” nativists could now clamor for deportation without seeming openly racist.