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Erika Lee on the enduring history of American xenophobia, drawn ‘from a place of fear’

 “You cannot understand Trump’s America, or the history of how we got here, without specifically understanding the role of immigration in our history, and the history of its use as a political issue,” Lee says.

University of Minnesota historian Erika Lee
University of Minnesota historian Erika Lee: "Our country still has certain understandings of who is an American. I’m a third-generation American. But some may not see me as an American, because they see me as Asian."
University of Minnesota

This is the second of five pieces in an occasional series, derived from recent interviews with scholars at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. 

University of Minnesota historian Erika Lee’s just-published book is titled “America for Americans.” It is a history of our “nation of immigrants,” as the United States is sometimes called, and also a nation with a recurring history of xenophobia. 

Xenophobia is a fear of the “other,” the outsider, including the foreigner who seeks to come to one’s country. In fact, “America for Americans” is subtitled “A History of Xenophobia in the United States.”

(This is another in an occasional series of interviews with U of M scholars, originally written for the magazine of the U of M’s College of Liberal Arts. The overall theme of the interviews was “Work in Progress,” suggesting that America always has work to do to live up to its aspirations.)

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Romantic self-image meets anti-immigrant emotion

Except for the members of the native tribal nations, everyone in America is an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants. The romantic self-image of our country sometimes draws on that “nation of immigrants” image, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, standing in the harbor importuning the world to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

As Donald Trump rose to the presidency, tapping into, among other things, a wave of anti-immigrant emotion in the electorate, Lee was finishing her history of xenophobia. Naturally, when I interviewed Lee, we talked about the tension between the message on the statue and the anti-immigrant message that Trump rode to the Oval Office. Of course, she told me, xenophobia and anti-immigrant backlashes are nothing new to our history.

 “You cannot understand Trump’s America, or the history of how we got here, without specifically understanding the role of immigration in our history, and the history of its use as a political issue,” she said.

As a college undergrad herself, at Tufts University, Lee first took an interest in the topic when she studied the xenophobic reaction to the early waves of Chinese immigrants to America. That included the so-called “Chinese Exclusion Act,” adopted in 1882. The 1882 law was the first in American history to place broad restrictions on immigration. It declared a 10-year moratorium on new arrivals, specifically from China. The law was updated through the decades, and the total ban on new arrivals from China expired, but the last successor to that law was not repealed until 1942.

One of the versions of those laws applied to Lee’s own grandparents, although it obviously didn’t prevent them from coming to America. Lee said her grandparents hadn’t told her much, during her childhood, about how they came to America, or of the anti-Chinese sentiments they faced.

During her own life, anti-immigrant sentiment seemed milder than what her grandparents had had to overcome, although as a historian she knew that it was a recurring theme. She recalls thinking: “Thank goodness, it [anti-immigration sentiment] isn’t that bad anymore.”

Students often surprised by history of barriers

As she proceeded to grad school (M.A. and Ph.D. at Berkeley), immigration history became a focus. As she entered her teaching career, students often seemed surprised at the history of barriers to immigration, having grown up in a less xenophobic era. Up to 2016, Lee said, the country “seemed to have been lulled into a mood of complacency,” believing America had become a more welcoming place to newcomers.

Then came Trump, whose immigrant-bashing demagoguery seemed to contribute to his political success. Trump described new arrivals as “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

This was aimed less at Asian immigrants and more at Latin Americans emigrating across the Mexican border, and at Muslims, against whom Trump pledged as a candidate (and later, unsuccessfully, attempted) to impose “a total and complete shutdown.”

The United States has long granted citizenship to anyone born here. Trump has mocked that practice as ridiculous. He wants it repealed, but says that if Congress doesn’t act, he might try to do it by executive order. He has issued some orders designed to cut down on automatic citizenship, but has not ordered an overall ban on birthright citizenship. 

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Lee described her reaction to Trump’s rhetoric, and then to his unexpected election, as “stunned.” She recalled going to class the day after the election. She faced many students who were themselves refugees or children of recent immigrants. Bravely and honestly, many of them shared with their classmates what this sudden change in the climate toward foreign arrivals felt like to them, and “how desperately they feared” for their own families. They feared being deported themselves or worried about relatives, some of whom were languishing in refugee camps and were understandably worried that their chances of being accepted for admission into the United States was disappearing in the increasingly hostile political climate.

A need to reassess immigration history

As a historian, Lee knew that these impulses were not brand new to America. But as the issue moved to the front pages, she felt that “we really needed to reassess our immigration history, to really understand why in 2016, our country, built by immigrants, celebrated as a nation of immigrants, would have elected someone running on these politics and now supporting these increasingly draconian policies the likes of which we had not seen in our lifetimes.” 

“We needed to have an honest, brave conversations, about the democratic values on which the country was founded,” she said. “And we did have those conversations. We’ve been trying to encourage a broader and deeper understanding of xenophobia. It’s something beyond a prejudice that some people have. It’s almost an ideology, a worldview, a form of systemic discrimination against not only those who were actually born in a foreign country, but those who are perceived to be foreign because, for example, of the way they look.

“That’s important. Our country still has certain understandings of who is an American. I’m a third-generation American. But some may not see me as an American, because they see me as Asian.”

So to prepare for writing “America for Americans,” Lee traced the enduring history of American xenophobia. The definition of that term is not as simple as resistance to allowing more migration into America, she said. The meaning of the original Greek term means “fear of the stranger.” 

‘A fear of foreigners, but it’s more than that’

Lee said: “Xenophobia is a form of fear, a fear of foreigners, but it’s more than that. It’s a form of racism.” Racism and fear have combined at times, as in the ugly chapter during World War II, when, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated in barbed wire camps for no crime other than being of Japanese descent.

Lee said: “I promote the understanding that xenophobia is an ideology and a worldview that’s based on the premise that certain foreigners, and even the American-born descendants of immigrants, are threats to our nation and its people.

“I emphasize that it’s an irrational fear, often manufactured and exploited by those who are seeking to maintain or change the balance of power in the United States.”

“And it’s not just about issues of immigration. The reason it’s so important to America is that it’s about who has the power to define who gets to be an American, who gets to enjoy the privileges of being an American citizen and who does not.”

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Every nation is entitled to secure and police its borders to adopt regulations governing legal immigration and the path to citizenship, and to deal with these matters in what it believes are the national interest, Lee said. The U.S. government is certainly justified in making a judgment, based on the national interest, about how many immigrants and refugees to accept.

“But those positions and laws and regulations do not have to be xenophobic,” she said. “They don’t have to be drawn from a place of fear, or a violent and racist worldview of hatred for certain groups.”

Lee argues that President Trump’s exploitation of these issues, for political gain, have been racist and have stoked a rise in racism among his supporters, encouraging people to follow their worst instincts.

Coming to the U.S. border to seek asylum is a legal process, Lee said, and the laws governing that process should be followed. 

But Trump is deliberately casting doubt on the credibility and viability of those laws and processes. His goal, she believes, is “to make it harder for asylum seekers to get into that process” by first narrowing the ports of entry so they were stopped up and backed up, which created what she called a “made-for-media impression that the border is out of control” and that the homeland was threatened with being overrun by dangerous migrants.

‘A very savvy political strategy’

“It’s a very savvy political strategy,” she said. And it has worked for him, convincing his base that “the country is being overrun by dangerous criminals, and that only Trump’s proposed wall can fix it.”

But this issue certainly didn’t come out of nowhere. Her book provides some of the context that, Lee said, comes from and builds on a tradition that goes way back to many episodes across U.S. history when nativist groups and politicians have raised alarms that newcomers to America were a threat. 

The issue comes and goes in waves, Lee said, but Trump built on a wave that has been rising since the late 1970s when an organization called the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) came into being to advocate for reducing immigration. At first, Lee said, FAIR seemed too extreme to be taken seriously by mainstream public opinion. But FAIR turned out to be “very adept at pushing public opinion toward the view that immigration — both legal and illegal – was dangerous to America.”

An author and Forbes Magazine editor named Peter Brimelow wrote a 1995 bestseller titled “Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster.” Harvard University history professor Samuel Huntington made a bigger splash with “The Clash of Civilizations” (1996), which predicted that future wars would not be between countries, but between cultures. 

Also in the 1990s, Pat Buchanan made two angry outsider bids for the Republican presidential nomination on a platform that included the argument that America was under threat from a rising tide of Latin American and Muslim immigrants.

Lee said that Buchanan in 1992 “proposed a very specific border platform and talked about illegal aliens as an ‘invasion force,’ and about the need to control borders, but there was little interest. … But during the ’90s, both parties took on the issue of border security. … Under [Democratic President Bill] Clinton, we get the militarization of the US.-Mexican border, with increased border patrols.” In 2006, Republican President George W. Bush signed the “Secure Fence Act,” which authorized 700 miles of new fencing on the Mexican border.

The point, she said, is that long before Trump, presidents have been aware that a reservoir of fear existed in the electorate about lax border enforcement and that, well before Trump, “our reaction to immigration over the past decades has been from a position of fear.”

“It has focused on particular populations, like Mexican immigrants, while ignoring other factors that also explain immigration, including our continued need for migrant workers and our existing immigration laws, which provided hardly any way for unskilled or low-skilled workers to come into the United States legally,” Lee said.

“Going back to ’70s and up to today, and considering our economy’s continued dependence on unskilled workers, undocumented immigration has become a permanent feature,” she said. And yet politicians have continued “demonizing the people” who do these jobs that legal residents don’t want. Among the businesses that rely on this, she noted, is Trump’s own Mar-a-Lago Golf Club in Florida.