War is central to U.S. immigration history. Yet too often that fact has been obscured by folktales that rhapsodize about the feel-good Ellis Island story: lured by the American Dream, strangers come to a promised land, put down roots, and triumph over adversity through industry, resolve, and pluck.
Scholarly treatments tend to foreground admission and naturalization regulations as the drivers and measures of immigrant mobility, acceptance, and assimilation. Our narratives cling steadfastly to a timeline punctuated by legislation and the paradigm of “exclusion” versus “inclusion.”1 “Gates” and “doors” slam shut (1882, 1917, 1924) and crack or swing open (1943, 1946, 1952, 1965, 1986, 1990) as Lady Liberty unfurls her arms or turns her back to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 looms especially large for periodization in U.S. immigration history, and its kindred fields like Latinx Studies and Asian American Studies. Specialists usually talk in terms of “pre-1965” and “post-1965”; this temporal marker has become the taken-for-granted turning point.2
Always centering our narratives on the twists and turns of government immigration policies risks narrowing our vista. It downplays the significance of war and militarization as catalysts for the sprawling, varied patterns of migrant entry, exit, exclusion, and inclusion that have characterized the United States since the late nineteenth century. It obscures how much U.S. empire, among other empires, has been an important engine of cross-border transit.3 And it sidelines refugees, asylum seekers, colonial subjects, military spouses, adoptees, students, detainees, deportees, and others who do not fit neatly into the classic profile of “immigrants” as voluntary arrivals attracted by opportunities for work, well-being, and permanent settlement.
Underlining the significance of geopolitical tensions and armed conflicts in U.S. immigration history requires the crucial step of reframing “immigration” as “migration.” As Adam Goodman explains, this conceptual renovation “enables us to incorporate the free, forced, and coerced migrations” that have shaped U.S. history into a single narrative.”4 This consolidation, in turn, is indispensable for correcting misguided, if well-meaning, celebrations of the United States as an exceptional “nation of immigrants”—a rhetorical sleight of hand that valorizes voluntary, sanctioned entry while concealing or miscasting other forms of migration.5
The methodological appeal of “migration” rests on this broadness. It better captures the multidirectional and multicausal nature of human movement to, from, and within U.S. territorial boundaries. It also steers us toward remembering the contexts and contingencies that expedite or foreclose certain outcomes, and recognizing that a particular migrant's legal status, social standing, and self-identification may also evolve as circumstances change.6 Thinking through “migration” allows us to generate more capacious, textured, and honest accountings about the peopling of the United States.
To direct our awareness more squarely to migration's inextricable relationship to war, I want to suggest two stand-out avenues of inquiry. The first is migration as both a consequence and tool of war. The second is the militarization of migration management. Together, they make a strong case for the necessity, even urgency, of prioritizing war in studying, teaching, and writing about migration in U.S. history.
The analytical payoff of connecting war to migration in these ways extends far beyond this particular field. It beckons historians of all stripes to consider war as an “enduring condition” and a “way of life” in the modern United States, rather than a temporary aberration from the “normal,” to borrow Mary L. Dudziak's and Michael Sherry's formulations.7 It presses scholars toward a fuller grasp of the sweeping consequences—both intended and unintended—of the United States's global ambitions during the “American Century” and, ultimately, brings them closer to taking up the gauntlet thrown by the late Marilyn B. Young: to shoulder the “continuous task of making war visible, vivid, an inescapable part of the country's self-consciousness, as inescapable a subject of study as it is a reality.”8
Migration as a Consequence and Tool of War
Emphasizing war as central to U.S. migration history demands a studied consideration of how migrant streams from abroad have functioned as both the consequences and tools of armed hostility. Refugees (typically persons fleeing life-threatening homeland conditions, often involuntarily) and asylees (persons already present on U.S. soil requesting protection from homeland persecution) elucidate this theme most emphatically.9
Refugees and asylees have sought safety in the United States since the country's founding. But the magnitude of these migrations, and Americans' responses to them, took on a new importance in the aftermath of World War II and the segue into the Cold War. U.S. geopolitical ambitions, especially the overarching goal of defeating communism everywhere, spurred the exodus and entry of refugees and asylees.10
The vast devastation wrought by World War II ignited a colossal refugee emergency. The United States had previously hesitated to take in Jews fleeing the Nazi onslaught. But the changing geopolitical situation after 1945—that is, the need to rebuild the ruined European continent as part of the contest with the Soviet Union for international dominance—forced U.S. leaders to address the issue head-on. Congress approved the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, the first-ever refugee law in modern American history, which led to the resettlement of 400,000 Europeans. Legislators overcame anti-Semitism and a reluctance to relax border restrictions by pointing to the grim possibility that displaced persons might be forced to return to their communist-dominated homelands.11
After 1948, federal authorities built up refugee policy in fits and starts. They continued to circumvent the tight national origins quota restrictions of the Immigration Act of 1924 with the Refugee Relief Act of 1953, which granted entry to more than 210,000 additional individuals. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act introduced a key innovation in immigration law: the advent of “parole” power authorizing the attorney general emergency discretion to admit outsiders into the United States as needed.12 While Congress initially intended parole power to be a last and infrequent resort, President Dwight D. Eisenhower applied it liberally to admit 38,000 Hungarian “freedom fighters” fleeing Soviet aggression in 1956.13
For decades, stakeholders upheld the Cold War as the major criteria for determining who counted as a “refugee” and how many of them should be admitted into the country. The United States welcomed persons fleeing Communist regimes (Chinese, Hungarians, Cubans, Southeast Asians, Soviet Jews) as “refugees” much more readily than those fleeing anti-Communist, right-wing, brutally oppressive dictatorships (Haitians, Dominicans, Chileans).14 While this prioritization did not make sense from a human rights standpoint, it fulfilled a geopolitical purpose. Such migrations could be lifted up as evidence of the superiority of democratic-capitalist societies to totalitarian-communist ones.15
Yet a closer look reveals that refugee and asylum seekers also came, not coincidentally, from the very places most marked by U.S. intervention. The United States's doomed efforts to contain the spread of communism in Southeast Asia resulted in the spectacular influx of 1.2 million Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong migrants between 1975 and 1992, comprising the largest refugee resettlement program in U.S. history. The surge impelled Congress to devise the Refugee Act of 1980. This landmark decision established for the first time an approach to refugee migrations distinct from voluntary immigrants. It brought the United States in closer alignment with the United Nations's definitions of “refugee,” including all persons fleeing their homelands because of a “well-founded fear of persecution,” rather than the narrow criteria of communist regimes and the Middle East. The 1980 legislation also recognized asylees (persons already present on U.S. soil seeking haven from persecution in countries of origin) as distinct from refugees.16
The intention behind the Refugee Act of 1980 was to reorient U.S. policy toward human rights imperatives. But anti-communist geopolitics continued to overshadow decision making. In the 1980s and 1990s, political repression, turmoil, and violence in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador—instabilities exacerbated by the United States's counterinsurgency efforts against leftist guerilla movements—drove an estimated two million people to North America.17 The United States played “reluctant host” to more than one million displaced Central Americans, treating them as “economic” migrants rather than bona fide refugees.18 The Reagan administration insisted on this label to avoid acknowledging the United States's role in backing the murderous, right-wing authoritarian regimes that had created the war zones from which the migrants had fled.19
Central American arrivals found themselves trapped within a vexing intersection of domestic and foreign policy with little regard for their actual suffering. Through the 1980s, for example, most Salvadorans remained in the United States without authorization or were deported back to the war zones.20 Between 1983 and 1990, U.S. officials approved just 2.6 percent of Salvadoran (and 1.8 percent of Guatemalan) asylum applications.21 It took the persistent pressure of migrant advocacy organizations (notably, the birth of the Sanctuary movement in the 1980s) and liberal members of Congress, alongside peace negotiations in El Salvador and the twilight of the Cold War, to overcome these hurdles.22 Finally, the Immigration Act of 1990 created a new “Temporary Protected Status” category, which allowed 200,000 unauthorized Salvadorans to stay their deportations and apply for asylum.23
The end of the Cold War opened up the possibility for the United States to refocus its refugee and asylum policies on humanitarian priorities. Moved by the horrific scale of mass rape as a weapon of genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda, feminists successfully convinced the Immigration and Naturalization Service to recognize gender-based persecution, such as sexual violence, as a basis for claiming refugee/asylee status in 1995.24 Thanks to prodding from refugee advocates and nongovernmental organizations, the United States also bumped up its allotment of annual refugee slots to African nations—Sudan, Liberia, and Somalia in particular—to almost one-third of the total allotment in the 1990s.25
But following the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, national security roared back to eclipse humanitarianism as the guiding paradigm of refugee and asylum policy.26 In the immediate aftermath, the United States suspended all refugee admissions and tightened its vetting procedures.27 Echoing previous wars, U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq generated upheavals that forced local people to run for their lives. The migrants confronted exceedingly difficult odds in their attempts to gain entrance to the United States.28 Shockingly, the United States admitted just 701 refugees from Iraq out of the two million displaced between the start of the U.S. invasion in 2003 and April 2007.29 Critics fretted that instead of protecting Americans from harm, such stinginess actually compounded the global refugee problem inflamed by the “War on Terror.”30
Worth underscoring, then, is the history of refusal in the United States's handling of refugees and asylum seekers. Today, Islamophobia coded as “national security” serves as policy makers' compass. Perhaps the most unsparing result to date is political leaders' enmity towards Syrians. The first five years of the Syrian civil war forced 10.8 million civilians from their homes; of these, 4.8 million sought safety outside the country.31 Yet by 2014, the United States had only let in a paltry 121 refugees.32 In 2016, President Barack Obama's administration belatedly admitted 12,486 Syrians. Thirty state governors, including Indiana's Mike Pence, then countered by attempting to thwart resettlement in their jurisdictions.33
President Donald Trump took this inhospitableness to its most extreme conclusion with his “Muslim Ban.” Its first iteration, Executive Order 13769, issued January 2017, suspended the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely. This part of the injunction withstood several rounds of legal challenges and was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States in June 2018.34 Denial, in short, has lurked as the evil twin of acceptance. Both are the consequences and tools of war in modern American history.
Wars and other military interventions create refugees. They also spawn labor migrations.35 Overseas takeovers resulting from the Spanish-American War of 1898, for example, gave rise to new flows of colonial subjects looking to offset the economic disruptions of imperial rule. Granted unfettered movement around U.S. territory, yet ineligible to equal rights and full citizenship, they supplied steady reserves of low-paid, exploitable workers to power the markets and infrastructure of empire. Puerto Ricans and Filipinx comprised the two most prominent streams. They journeyed as hired hands to Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations, Alaska's fish canneries, mainland farms and factories, and the Panama Canal Zone.36
Conquered peoples served as valuable labor pools for the U.S. military itself. The Jones-Shafroth Act granted citizenship rights to Puerto Ricans in 1917, and the draft soon followed. The federal government also instituted a contract-labor program to recruit Puerto Ricans to work in war industries and on military bases.37 In the 1920s and 1930s, Puerto Rican marines were deployed to the “Banana Wars” in Central America and the Caribbean as part of the U.S. effort to protect its economic interests in the region.38 Puerto Ricans have since served in major U.S. military engagement, as have Filipinos. The U.S. Navy began recruiting Filipino cooks and stewards in 1903, and continued to do so until 1992—46 years after the formal independence of the Philippines.39 During those decades, Filipinos were the sole group of foreign nationals permitted in the ranks of the U.S. armed forces.
War has also provided the context and excuse for bringing certain groups of laborers from places not directly under American rule to the United States. The federal government piloted the bracero and the H2 visa programs during World War II to address workforce shortages in agriculture. Southwestern growers began to import braceros, or temporary Mexican farmworkers, in 1942 through bilateral government-regulated channels. Mexico consented to the initiative as part of its “good neighbor” contribution to the Allied war effort. Mexican leaders also agreed because a permit system promised decent pay and housing to buffer against employer exploitation. The reality, however, turned out to be low wages, arduous conditions, social stigmatization, and the constant threat of deportation if they shirked their obligations. Despite these hardships, 4.6 million Mexicans participated until its termination in 1964.40 H2 visa guest workers from Jamaica, British Honduras, and Barbados, mostly recruited to work Florida's sugar cane fields, faced similar circumstances throughout the duration of the program (1943–1986).41
In leaning on the logic of wartime exigency, the bracero and H2 visa schemes set a precedent for the Japanese Agricultural Workers' Program of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952, former boosters of Japanese settler colonialism in 1930s Manchukuo approached the U.S. Department of State to start up a stateside farming education program for Japan's rural youth. The U.S. would benefit from this soft power engagement, and Japan would gain by training a cohort of specialists who might then be sent elsewhere (e.g., Southeast Asia, Brazil) to assist with agricultural development and shore up Japan's influence abroad. California growers—mostly Japanese Americans—spied the potential to expand this effort into an ongoing source of short-term, low wage field hands. They tried different avenues, including “refugee” admissions, and courted the support of the Japanese government and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.42
In 1956, the Japanese American Workers' Program formally kicked off, modeled chiefly on the British West Indian H2 visa program. This meant that employers had the prerogative to decide whom to hire with minimal government interference. State Department officials also mellowed organized labor's accusations that the scheme relied on “cheap oriental[s]” by billing it as a Cold War opportunity for “students” to learn both the latest technologies and U.S. democracy. The guest-workers soon learned, however, that such misleading marketing obscured exploitative conditions similar to those endured by Mexican braceros. Mired in controversy, the Japanese Agricultural Workers' Program fizzled out by 1966.43
“Operation Paperclip” offers a contrasting moment of highly skilled labor migration resulting from and rationalized by warfare. At the end of World War II, the U.S. military began to funnel German and Austrian scientists, engineers, and technicians to the United States as a kind of “intellectual reparations.” The aim was to leverage their expertise in such fields as V-2 long-range rocket-building into geopolitical advantage vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency under the Joint Chiefs of Staff convincingly wielded national security arguments to fast-track the conversion of these “enemy aliens” to “resident aliens” eligible for naturalized citizenship by 1948. It downplayed or overlooked many of the specialists' previous involvement with the Nazi Party. “Our Germans” eventually became celebrated national heroes for their contributions to the Cold War space race—a telling instance of war's “enduring conditions” in the modern United States.44
Throughout the twentieth century, war-making seeded and nurtured new human connections across borders, which in turn spurred yet more migration. The ever-expanding reach of the United States military demanded occupying forces and bases abroad, leading to “fraternization” between personnel and area civilians. Relationships between American men and local women took many forms. International marriages and multiracial children obliged the U.S. military, Congress, the courts, and the general public to reconsider prevailing assumptions about what constituted legitimate American families.
“War brides” first appeared on the U.S. Army's radar with the World War I–era boomlet of “Franco-Yanko Romance.” The Europeans who wed U.S. soldiers were the first alien military spouses sanctioned by the U.S. government, and it was then that the “war bride” as a legal category materialized in U.S. immigration bureaucracy.45
As the size and scope of U.S. forces exploded during World War II, so too did the numbers of war brides. At least 125,000 G.I. marriages resulted from the military's global engagement.46 To sidestep the severe national origins quotas set by the Immigration Act of 1924, especially the absolute rejection of prospective newcomers from Asia, Congress approved five bills between 1945 and 1952 allowing for the non-quota entry of military spouses and fiancées.47
As short-term exceptional pipelines for admission, the post–World War II war brides legislation did not overturn the numerical ceilings, nor was it intended to do so. Nonetheless, the measures revealed the potential of war-making to unravel the racist “national origins” quota system. Congress rationalized loopholes for military partners as a “special and privileged category of foreigners” as a matter of veterans' earned “entitlement.”48 Similarly, the valorization of men-in-arms, plus the high-stakes quest for geopolitical superiority in the Cold War, also helped to garner support for the liberal provisions of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, eliminating racial bars to entry and citizenship.49 Supporters underscored its symbolic significance as a reward for the “Gold Star” parents of Japanese American soldiers who had fought “heroically to defend democracy and freedom in World War II and Korea.” But most urgently, as one advocate reminded the U.S. Senate, overturning race-based restrictions in immigration and naturalization law would provide a “dramatic and concrete demonstration of our regard for our fellow freemen who are enlisted with us in the great war for survival against the Communist threat” in Asia and the Pacific.50
The movement of adoptive and biological children from conflict zones abroad paralleled war bride migrations. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 facilitated the placement of refugee orphans from Greece, Germany, Italy, and Poland with U.S. families.51 American parents also welcomed babies born to local women and U.S. servicemen stationed in Germany and Japan.52 But it was U.S. intervention in the Korean War that stimulated the rise of organized intercountry adoption. The export of stateless “G.I. babies” to the United States began as an emergency humanitarian response, initiated by G.I.s themselves. It was eventually systemized by faith leaders and social workers who felt called to find homes for the children relinquished by Korean women, many of whom labored as hostesses and sex workers in “camptowns” adjacent to U.S. military bases.53
The remarkable willingness of white Americans to take in mixed-race (Asian/white, Asian/black) Korean babies in the 1950s can be explained as acts of Christian faith yoked to Cold War–inflected patriotism. Their sense of duty to both God and country (in this case, countries) encouraged them to set aside their racist reservations.54 Parents successfully lobbied Congress to bypass race-based quota restrictions for their children through provisions of the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 and subsequent stopgap laws. The first couples to adopt Korean children laid the legal foundations, as well as institutional and cultural underpinnings, for the rise of the international adoption industry.55
The organized passage of children from Vietnam to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s both echoed and departed from the Korean antecedent. Again, many Americans were motivated to adopt mixed-race G.I. babies, or “Amerasians.”56 While altruism, love, and the importance of family were certainly factors, a politics of “national redemption” also came into play, just as it had after Korea.57 With the defeat in Southeast Asia, the promise of reconciliation via family-making offered a compelling rationale for the U.S. government to take the unprecedented step of assuming official responsibility for the offspring of American military personnel.58
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of these children had become young adults, and some sought their American fathers. The Reagan administration sensed this as a political opportunity to revamp the image of the United States, and the president himself, as a benevolent power. To “welcome home” the children, it threw its support behind the Amerasian Immigration Act (1982) and the Amerasian Homecoming Act (1987). This rhetoric obscured the complexities of the situation, erasing the existence of Vietnamese mothers and families and the history of sexual encounters inseparable from the deployment of U.S. forces abroad. Altogether, some 20,000 Amerasians, accompanied by an additional 54,000 Vietnamese mothers, siblings, and spouses eligible through the program, resettled in the United States by 1993. Relatively few, however, happily reunited with their biological fathers.59
Beyond trailblazing novel family configurations, war-making in modern U.S. history also propelled the emergence of student and professional “exchanges” to win hearts and minds around the world. At the turn of the twentieth century, American officials sought ways to shore up their country's reputation in China—a kind of damage control after the United States joined other imperial powers in 1900 to quash the Boxer Rebellion, the anti-foreign Chinese uprising. They decided to finance scholarships for Chinese students with some of the Boxer indemnity funds paid by the defeated Qing state. Concurrently, colonial Filipinx students, known as pensionados, began schooling in the United States in the wake of the Philippine-American War (1899–1902). Americans treated these migrations as avenues to cultivate an educated, Westernized class of Chinese and Filipinx who could serve as U.S.-friendly leaders of their respective homelands.60
The recruitment of students, trainees, and visitors from abroad peaked during the Cold War. Educators, government officials, and ordinary citizens agreed that schooling foreigners would be an effective instrument of soft power. Their hope was that face-to-face interactions in the context of higher learning would spread American ideas and legitimize the U.S. way of doing things around the globe.61 The best known of such “exchanges” remains the Fulbright Program, established by Congress in 1946 (and itself funded by the federal government's overseas sales of “surplus properties,” or “war junk”).62 In the first two decades, 51,000 Fulbright scholars—intellectuals, experts, instructors, and students—traveled between the United States and other countries to research, teach, and study.63
Outside universities, a range of institutions launched similar types of initiatives during the first years of the Cold War. The Mutual Defense Assistance Program, established by Congress in 1949, invested billions of dollars in molding the armed forces of emerging nation-states. More than 141,000 foreign troops from South Korea, Taiwan, South Vietnam, and other decolonizing areas circulated through the United States in the 1950s to train with the U.S. military.64 At least seven of them refused to return home. In one well-publicized case, Taiwan's Hsuan Wei, a first lieutenant of the Chinese Nationalist Marine Corps, filed for political asylum to avoid deportation, and ultimately made a new life for himself in Ithaca, New York.65
The Information and Educational Exchange Act (1948), also known as the Smith-Mundt Act, supported federally funded “interchange[s]” of “persons, knowledge, and skills” activities “to increase mutual understanding” between Americans and “the people of other countries.” One such venture was the Exchange Visitor Program (EVP), which recruited participants to labor or learn with U.S. sponsoring institutions. Between 1956 and 1959, more than 11,000 nurses from the Philippines worked in U.S. hospitals under the auspices of EVP in cooperation with the American Nurses Association. For Americans, EVP did double-duty: the program furnished U.S. medical facilities with inexpensive skilled workers at a time when nurses were in short supply, while also showcasing the supposed plusses of U.S. democracy and tutelage. The women who signed up for EVP did so to benefit from the relative freedom of working abroad, and the access to material goods and wages to better their families' socioeconomic conditions back home. Even so, they recognized its problems (such as exploitation, race and gender discrimination, culture shock).66
Not least, the battle for hearts and minds as a critical dimension of war-making played out in successive immigration reforms at mid-century. The Pacific region stood out as particularly important. Congressman Walter Judd (R-MN), one of the leading champions of midcentury immigration reform, plainly delineated the risks and rewards in 1949: amidst the “fierce struggle … for the minds and hearts of the billion people who live [in Asia] … half the potential producers and consumers and soldiers of the world,” righting racist wrongs would yield invaluable diplomatic dividends.67 Between 1943 and 1952, lawmakers overturned various Asian exclusion laws to grant token quotas and rights to naturalization to Chinese, Indians, Filipinx, Koreans, and Japanese. With the Cold War still brewing, liberals, immigrant advocates, and ethnic Americans continued to press for a more complete overhaul. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, finally replaced the national-origins system with preferences for skilled workers, family unification, and equal numbers of admissions slots for all countries. President Lyndon Johnson and his contemporaries celebrated its passage precisely for its tremendous geopolitical value as an ideological weapon of war: evidence to show the world of U.S. democracy's ability to auto-correct its mistakes.68
Supporters of the 1965 law did not anticipate its far-reaching impact on the demographic makeup of the nation. The swell of Asian immigration illustrates this strikingly. International students lured by Cold War training opportunities in STEM fields in the post–World War II decades ended up staying in droves. They were able to convert to permanent residency through the new skilled worker provisions. From the 1950s through the 1970s, for instance, most students from Taiwan never left. Of the 15,959 students who arrived between 1962 and 1969, only 486 (about 3 percent) returned. Other top “brain drain” countries included India, South Korea, and the Philippines. Once these students became citizens, they could then petition to sponsor their relatives as non-quota immigrants under the revamped family unification preferences. When the Hart-Celler Act passed in 1965, Asian Americans accounted for less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Fifty years later, they made up 5.8 per cent of the country, and they remain the fastest growing U.S. racial or ethnic group today.69
The Militarization of Migration Management
War's pervasiveness as a “habit” in modern U.S. history, especially its tangled connections with people on the move, becomes even more obvious with an examination of the militarization of migration management.70
Since the colonial period and the days of the early republic, influential Americans have actively curated their population based on a slew of membership criteria.71 Migration and citizenship policy have been momentous in this regard, invoked as protection from “threats” to the nation's integrity—especially along the lines of ideology, race, and place of origin. This framing has long provided the state justification for diminishing the rights of undesirables as well as deploying excessive shows of force against them.72 The Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) took aim at newcomers' foreign allegiances by upping the wait time for naturalization from five to fourteen years; authorizing the president to deport any aliens believed to imperil the tranquility of the United States; and sanctioning the arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of resident aliens from enemy countries during wartime.73 Amidst the Haitian Revolution, legislators in several slave states (1793–1795) and at the federal level (1803) banned the entry of enslaved and free black people from the Caribbean or South America because they might spread perilous assumptions about the universal right to liberty.74
Arguments about national security continued to underwrite more modern migration policies. In 1889, the Supreme Court decided against Chae Chan Ping's challenge to the Chinese Exclusion Act by ruling that the United States had the sovereign power to protect its “independence” and “security against foreign aggression and encroachment.” Such hazards could take the form of “vast hordes… crowding in upon us.”75 In the twentieth century, the 1917 Immigration Act listed among “excludable classes” anarchists and others who advocated the overthrow of the United States or otherwise to opposed to law and “organized government.” The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act classified anarchists, communists, and supporters of totalitarianism or coups against the United States as deportable in the name of “internal security.” Both the 1917 and 1952 statutes evinced nativist assumptions linking political disorder to Southern and Eastern Europeans.76
Nonetheless, for xenophobes, white supremacists, and many powerful Americans, anti-mobility laws have not been enough. Increasingly, these actors have turned to militarization as a solution to keep migrant “threats” at bay.
What does it mean to “militarize” something? At its most concise, militarization is “the contradictory and tense social process in which civil society organizes itself for the production of violence.”77 This process is multi-dimensional. It depends on material transformations, such as devoting labor, resources, and institutions to “military purposes.”78 Just as crucially, it depends on cultural shifts—changes in ideas, beliefs, values, language, and stories. “The more militarization transforms an individual or society,” political scientist Cynthia Enloe warns, “the more that individual or society comes to imagine military needs and militaristic presumptions to be not only valuable but also normal.”79
Sociologist Timothy Dunn explains that the U.S. federal government and local authorities have intentionally deployed an aggressive combination of “military rhetoric and ideology, as well as military tactics, strategy, technology, equipment, and forces” to curb unauthorized migrant entries. The organized, state-sanctioned use of deadly arms against targeted civilian populations follows the U.S. military's doctrine of “low-intensity conflict,” which calls for the “coordinated and integrated efforts of police, paramilitary, and military forces” to reach its goals.80
The U.S. Border Patrol has formed the vanguard of this militarization, with its agents adopting a “definite, consciously constructed paramilitary character” since its beginnings in 1924.81 Operation Wetback (1954), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)’s sweeping effort to root out and expel undocumented Mexican migrants, epitomized this disposition. The U.S. Army declined to participate in the roundup. Undaunted, the INS (headed by retired U.S. Army Lt. General Joseph Swing) organized 800 Border Patrol agents into “Special Mobile Forces,” pioneering the “first large-scale, systematic implementation of military strategy and tactics used by the INS against Mexican immigrant workers.”82 It was effective: Operation Wetback netted over one million deportations to Mexico by June 1955.83 But perhaps more significant than its immediate returns was the long-term precedent that it set: Operation Wetback normalized extensive border enforcement by militarized means.84
Since the late twentieth century, the state's approach to countering migrant “threats” has become increasingly militarized in both spirit and substance. The climb in both authorized and unauthorized immigration after 1965 plus high-profile waves of refugees and asylum seekers in the 1970s and 1980s fired the reawakening of organized nativism. Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR, established 1979) and other restrictionist groups couched their position in the language of environmental conservation, population control, resource scarcity, and quality of life. In the context of economic troubles and the conservative ascendancy, their arguments gained traction among political leaders and the general public.85 This opened the door to more military-inspired, aggressive gatekeeping.
The underrecognized role of the United States Coast Guard in policing borders makes this dramatically clear. A self-described “military, multi-mission, maritime force offering a unique blend of military, law enforcement, humanitarian, regulatory, and diplomatic capabilities,” the Coast Guard is the nation's leading maritime law enforcement agency.86 “Migrant interdiction” became a top priority after two surges across the Caribbean in 1980. The 130,000 Cubans who took part in the Mariel boatlift bound for Florida were blacker and poorer than previous waves of Cuban transplants. They faced a chilly reception from the U.S. media and the Cuban American community, but were eventually permitted to resettle.87
Haitian asylum seekers fleeing Jean-Claude Duvalier's violent regime did not fare so well. The Reagan administration treated as them “illegal aliens” after October 1980. The following year, the Coast Guard initiated an active interdiction policy to stanch the flow of Haitians. It intercepted watercraft transporting migrants and rushed through asylum hearings. The Coast Guard refused nearly every Haitian asylum seeker, allowing only eleven of the 22,940 claimants to stay. The rest were sent back to Haiti with no regard for the United Nations policy of non-refoulement (forced return of refugees).88 Executive Order 12807 (1992), issued by President George H. W. Bush, codified this practice by authorizing the Coast Guard to repatriate any migrants intercepted on international waters without first screening for refugee or asylee status per international human rights law.89
The Coast Guard has continued to patrol maritime borders for “offenders at sea.” In 1994, Operation Able Manner stopped 25,177 Haitians, while Operation Able Vigil halted 30,224 Cubans. The U.S. Navy provided “vital surge capacity” for both.90 Migrants fleeing the Dominican Republic comprised another “threat vector,” in military parlance. Between 1982 and 2004, the fleet caught 24,143 Dominicans.91 Smugglers transporting migrants from China have also been a key focus.92
The United States's reliance on the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) to detain migrants added another layer of militarization to this history. In 1991, the Coast Guard redirected some 20,000 Haitians fleeing the aftermath of a military coup against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to GTMO. They waited there in limbo. The majority were blocked from moving on to the United States, and most eventually went back to their homeland when Aristide returned to power.93 Of the minority granted asylum, 205 HIV-positive migrants remained in captivity until they won a lawsuit securing their admission to the United States.94 The U.S. government also ordered the 25,000 balseros intercepted while fleeing Cuba's economic crises in 1994 to GTMO to await their fate. But, in contrast to the Haitians, they were allowed entry to the United States.95
The in-betweenness of the Coast Guard as both uniformed service and federal regulatory agency and GTMO as both naval base and migrant detention facility might serve as metaphors for U.S. migration management in recent times: an enterprise that straddles the line between military and civilian operations.
This blurring characterizes each facet of the state's approach to “border security”: criminalizing, monitoring, apprehending, detaining, and deporting migrants-as-threats to the nation. The INS first began experimenting with electrified border fences in 1970 by installing motion detection sensor technology piloted during the Vietnam War.96 During the Carter, Reagan, and Bush Sr. administrations, Congress and the executive branch expanded the capabilities, authority, and reach of the Border Patrol, especially at the U.S.-Mexico line. Notably, this included resources for upgrading to high-tech military-issue equipment and surveillance research and development in collaboration with the Army and Air Force. The Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) was established in 1984 as a “special forces” paramilitary unit trained to deal with riots and terrorism.97
The War on Drugs amplified policy makers' “siege mentality” and tightened the overlap between military and civilian policing at the U.S.–Mexico border. Beginning in 1982, Congress gradually relaxed the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act limiting the federal government's power to use the military for domestic law enforcement purposes. Thereafter, military personnel were permitted to “assist”—rather than merely “support”—civilian agencies with the use and upkeep of military equipment. Revisions also authorized the military to lend its facilities and provide training and expertise as needed to law enforcement agencies tasked with enforcing drug, immigration, and contraband laws.98 For example, during Operation Border Ranger II (1989), the National Guard acted as supplementary “eyes and ears” for the Border Patrol, Customs Service, and local law enforcement. While the mission was ostensibly conducted for the War on Drugs, the operation yielded arrests of several hundred undocumented immigrants. Similarly, information gathered by a Marines-operated drone near Laredo, Texas, in 1990 aided the Border Patrol in capturing 1,009 pounds of marijuana and 372 unsanctioned migrants. In 1991, under the guise of reducing drug smuggling, U.S. Navy Seabees constructed a ten-foot-high wall stretching seven miles inland from Pacific Ocean at San Diego/Tijuana—the busiest crossing point for undocumented immigrants at the time. Fittingly, the barrier was built from repurposed steel used during the Vietnam War as military aircraft landing mats. The California National Guard smoothed surrounding back roads to ease the Border Patrol's access to the wall.99
Amidst the buildup of nativist pressure, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing provoked Congress to pass the hard-nosed Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) in 1996, the harshest immigration law since 1924. IIRIRA added more than 5,000 Border Patrol agents, inflicted tougher penalties on smugglers, and upgraded certain misdemeanors committed by migrants to aggravated felonies.100 Aggregated felonies now became grounds for deportation.101
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks triggered further border fortification, notably the creation of three agencies under the new Department of Homeland Security: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).102 Resource allocations for border control, encompassing personnel, fencing, drones, surveillance technologies, and detention facilities, paint a stark picture: between 1986 and 2017, the United States earmarked a jaw-dropping $263 billion to advance this goal.103 Budgets for the three new agencies have jumped. ICE's spending shot up a colossal 85 percent from $3.3 billion (2003) to $6.1 billion (2016), and staff sizes have mushroomed.104 The number of Border Patrol agents nearly doubled from 10,717 (1993) to 21,370 (2016).105 By 2014, CBP had become the biggest law enforcement agency in the U.S., boasting 60,000 agents and administrators on its payroll.106
Arrest, detention, and deportation rates have spiked accordingly, especially after Congress mandated an increase in the number of available prison beds in 2004.107 Some 2.5 million people have moved through migrant detention facilities since 2003. Incarcerating migrants is a lucrative business: about three-quarters of these jails and prisons are privately owned. The two largest contractors alone made $4 billion in FY 2017—and to ensure continued profits, these companies actively lobby and donate to sympathetic political candidates.108 Immigration control is today the number one feeder of offenders into the federal penal system.109
Deportation has also skyrocketed as a blunt instrument of migration management. The United States deported 50 million migrants between 1882 and 2015, but nearly 95 percent of those deportations took place since 1970.110 In the 1980s, the scope of deportable offenses expanded as part of federal, state, and local government War on Crime efforts. Congress's decision in 1996 to lift the statute of limitations on deportations for criminal violations proved pivotal. Migrants who are otherwise lawfully present in the United States could thereafter be deported for post-entry offenses, regardless of how long they had lived on American soil.111 Migrants have therefore become more and more vulnerable to forced removal, sometimes to harmful or even life-threatening circumstances.112 Perversely, deportations of individuals from Southeast Asian, Central American, and other refugee communities bring the history of war and migration back full circle.113
The militarized infrastructure of migration control does not take place only at the literal geolocation of the border. For the besieged, the border is already everywhere, and it keeps growing.114 The escalation of state power at all levels in the name of “national security” has cleared the way for a clutch of measures aimed at “clandestine transnational actors” assumed to endanger American society: persons racially profiled by authorities and ordinary citizens alike as Mexicans/illegals, Muslims/terrorists, and others presumed illicit and menacing.115
The expansion of the border into the interior has been facilitated by two key pieces of federal legislation. In 1996, Congress empowered local police officers and sheriffs to identify those without legal status and to enforce federal immigration policy with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and Section 287(g) of the IIRIRA. The effect was to realize an “expanded, ongoing, and formal relationship between federal immigration agents and local police … a sea change in federal attitudes.”116 More recently, several states have enacted “attrition through enforcement” practices to encourage migrants' “self-deportation.” Arizona took the lead in 2007 by becoming the first state to require employers to verify the status of their employees and it made it a crime to knowingly hire workers without papers. The state legislature then dogpiled further restrictions on unauthorized migrants and punishments on those who sheltered, hired, or transported them with SB 1070 (2010). In 2012, the Supreme Court struck down several of its provisions but upheld the right of local police to determine the status of those apprehended if there is “reasonable suspicion” of their illegality—a win for state-sanctioned racial profiling.117
The normalization of everyday surveillance, justified in terms of national security and warfare, is a critical dimension of the “thickening” border in daily life.118 The rise of a “virtual” border—“layered, electronic, mobile, and policed by an escalating number of public and private actors”—has intensified the power and saturation of regulation.119 Take, for example, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), implemented by the Department of Justice and a linchpin of the War on Terror between 2002 and 2016. NSEERS required all non-citizen men at least sixteen years of age arriving in the U.S. from one of twenty-five countries (nearly all with significant Muslim populations) to register with federal authorities. DOJ mandated each registrant to check back in periodically and also to report any changes of residence, employment, or schooling. Those who failed to register risked fines and removal. NSEERS did not produce any terror-related convictions. But more than 13,000 of the total 83,000 who complied ended up deported on charges of immigration status violations.120
Vigilantes, organized hate groups, and domestic terrorists have also functioned as partners in the militarization of migration management.121 These extremists have eyed Mexican immigration as a reconquistadores “invasion” bent on usurping control of the Southwest. In the mid-2000s, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps waged a “war on illegal immigration” through armed border stakeouts, face-to-face intimidation of migrants including citizens arrests, and media campaigns to pressure Congress.122 They demanded “border security first, border security only and border security now” against the infiltration of “potential terrorists, gang members, drug, arms and human traffickers and illegal migrants.”123 Extremists have also preyed on other immigrant groups, especially those they “read” as Muslim terrorists. One of the bloodiest hate crimes was the massacre of six Sikh Americans at their Oak Creek, Wisconsin, gurdwara in August 2012 by a white gunman.124
The trifecta of xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia that has thoroughly infected migration management continues to embolden nativists and white supremacists.125 In his crusade to “Make America Great Again,” President Donald Trump has placed migrants from so-called “shithole countries” in the crosshairs, actively destroying countless lives with little if any recourse or remorse.
The attacks have been relentless. Alongside the Muslim Ban, he has redefined “interior enforcement” priorities to target all undocumented immigrants for removal for the sake of “public safety” (Executive Order 13768).126 He has attempted to abolish both the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Hondurans, Nepalese, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, Sudanese, and other vulnerable groups. (Challengers have filed multiple lawsuits to protect both DACA and TPS.)127 Through it all, he has regurgitated falsehoods about a “national emergency,” equating “chain migration” to “open borders” inviting terrorists, gang members, and drug dealers to flood into the United States. He even shut down the federal government for 35 days in December 2018 and January 2019 to pressure Congress to fund his long-cherished dream of building a southern “border wall.”128
No migrants are safe from these assaults, although certain populations are particularly susceptible. Under “zero tolerance” policies, thousands of children have been cruelly separated from their asylum-seeking parents fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. In the hands of the state, they have suffered trauma and abuse and face uncertain futures. In December 2018, two of them—Jakelin Caal Maquín and Felipe Gómez Alonzo—died in federal custody.129 Meanwhile, Trump's Department of Justice has reinvigorated “Operation Janus,” introduced during the Obama administration, to denaturalize naturalized citizens charged with immigration fraud.130 Incredibly, even birthright citizenship has been under attack.131 The Trump administration has also dusted off an older concept—the “public charge” criteria for barring migrants deemed likely to go on the government dole—to deter migrants from accessing green cards and social benefits.132
Predictably, Trump has not hesitated to call on the military to back his demonization of migrants. In October 2018, he ordered 5,200 active-duty troops to the U.S.–Mexico border to guard against the purported “invasion” of Hondurans and “Middle Eastern” intruders.133 The deployment recalled the optics of earlier “visible show[s] of force”—Operation Hold The Line (1993), Operation Gatekeeper (1994), Operation Safeguard (1995), and Operation Jumpstart (2006)—when federal authorities sent hundreds to thousands of Border Patrol agents and National Guard reinforcements to the U.S.–Mexico line to repel furtive crossings.134 Trump's decision has generated no shortage of criticism, but he persists in dispatching more troops.135 On February 15, 2019, Trump finally declared a “National Emergency” at the U.S.–Mexico border as a means to divert funding allocated for military construction projects towards his promised wall.136
All told, the plausible outcomes for everyone subject to militarized migration management are fearful, dangerous, and sometimes lethal.137 In 1997, 18-year-old Esequiel Hernández died at the hands of a Marine corporal assigned to a military–Border Patrol Joint Task Force. The shooting marked the first time that soldiers recruited for a War on Drugs mission killed a U.S. citizen.138 Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 19-year-old Guatemalan woman, was killed by a Border Patrol agent in Rio Bravo, Texas, in 2018.139 Countless others have suffered and perished as a result of the intentional, racialized devastation of human beings on the move waged by the United States government and its collaborators in the name of “national security.” This systematic, state-manufactured violence is nothing short of a war on migrants.
There is one additional irony here. War mobilization has long served as a springboard to national inclusion for migrants—one of the most potent “crucibles” for converting erstwhile aliens into Americans.140 Throughout U.S. history, newcomers and racial minorities have relied on military service to speed their assimilation into American society, albeit with uneven results benefiting whites the most. During World War I, Poles, Italians, and other European residents of tenuous social standing secured their citizenship by taking up arms as volunteers and draftees. Foreign-born males made up 18 percent of the U.S. Army at that time.141
Martial patriotism has proved to be a powerful way to claim national belonging. Even Great War veterans of Asian ancestry, otherwise subject to exclusion laws, gained rights to naturalization with the 1935 Nye-Lye Act.142 Accused en masse of disloyalty to the United States, Japanese American prisoners of World War II U.S. concentration camps effectively proved their fidelity to the nation by fighting in uniform. Their sacrifices undergirded their recasting as “model minorities” in the postwar period.143 Mexican Americans organized the American G.I. Forum in 1948 to fight simultaneously for veterans' rights and civil rights. (They also opposed the bracero program and undocumented immigration as a drag on the working conditions and social standing of Mexican Americans.)144
As xenophobia continues to ratchet up, this time-honored vehicle for acceptance is now imperiled. Khizr Khan's extraordinary monologue at the 2016 Democratic National Convention recounted his family's journey from Pakistan. “Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy—that with hard work and the goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings,” he avowed. The painful loss of their son Captain Humayun Khan, killed during an Iraq War suicide attack, did not dampen the elder Khans' devotion. Instead, it only strengthened their commitment to robust citizenship as “patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country.” Khan's moving story, and his admonishing of then-candidate Trump's Islamophobia (“Have you even read the U.S. Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy”) catapulted him to instant celebrity status.145 But it did not stop Trump's presidency, the Muslim Ban, or the administration's ongoing offensive.
Martial patriotism no longer seems a viable means to securing one's status. Recently, the U.S. Army quietly began discharging reservists and recruits who had hoped their service would yield a “path to citizenship.”146 Veterans seeking to stay deportation orders for themselves and their family members are now facing doubled odds (compared to the last fiscal year of Obama's administration) that their pleas will be rejected.147
In the end, the migrant “threat” is not to the nation's integrity but to migrants themselves. As Edwidge Danticat reminds us, “We are indeed, all of us, suspects. However, as immigrants, we live with the double threat of being both possible victims and suspects, often with deadly consequences. Will America ever learn again how to protect herself without sacrificing a great number of livelihoods and lives? We can only hope that this is still possible.”148
As the war on migrants gains momentum, historians must decide what our role will be. Militarization depends on material stuff to happen: arms, barricades, troops. Yet it also needs discursive validation to work: words, laws, and histories that “glorify and legitimate military action.”149 A counter-discourse can be powerful for dismantling and defeating it. Per Marilyn Young's prompt, our research, writing, and teaching should keep striving to render war “visible, vivid, an inescapable part of the country's self-consciousness, as inescapable a subject of study as it is a reality.”150 Reframing U.S. immigration history to center war and militarization is one meaningful step.