The Racial Subtext To The GOP’s Immigration Policies

Julio DeLeon, 40, of the Dominican Republic, holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony held by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Friday, Jan. 22, 2016 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/LYNNE SLADKY
Julio DeLeon, 40, of the Dominican Republic, holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony held by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Friday, Jan. 22, 2016 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/LYNNE SLADKY

There is a strong racial context and subtext to the debate about immigration reform taking place in the GOP presidential primary.

Frontrunner Donald Trump rocketed to the top of the polls after saying Mexican immigrants were “rapists,” “drug dealers,” and “criminals,” and as his campaign has gotten stronger and stronger, his opponents have raced to keep up and show just how tough they are on the immigration issue.

Perhaps implied, but usually not stated, is the fact that the practical effect of Republicans’ proposed immigration policies would be to restrict and reduce the number of people of color in America. Although the GOP candidates have not (yet) said that immigration should be limited to whites, their plans call only for reducing, removing, and rejecting people of color:

  • Donald Trump has called for rounding up and shipping out 11 million undocumented residents of America, 90 percent of whom are people of color.
  • Trump has proposed to build a wall to keep people in Mexico from coming to the United States (no such wall has been proposed on the Canadian border, and Scott Walker was widely ridiculed for even entertaining a barrier on the Northern border). Nearly all of the candidates have endorsed some form of wall, and “securing the border” (again, but not with Canada) is a touchstone of the Republican primary.
  • All of the candidates have endorsed repealing Obama’s executive order offering support and security to the “DREAMers,” the children of undocumented immigrants.
  • Trump has proposed — and few of his opponents have objected to — instituting a ban on Muslims (mainly Arabs) from coming to America.

This state of affairs should not be surprising; in fact, they have their roots in a long, explicit, and unapologetic tradition of restricting U.S. immigration and citizenship to white people.


The common modern expressions of “They should speak English,” “They should go back where they came from,” and “They are illegals” have deep roots in American history. After all, for most of the country’s first century, only white people could become U.S. citizens. For most of the second century, only white people could enter America and stay.

As one of its initial acts, for example, the first U.S. Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1790, stating that citizenship was reserved to “free white persons.” This framework guided immigration policy for 164 years — and the Supreme Court regularly reaffirmed the validity of the “whites-only” sign on the doorway to the United States. In 1857, the court ruled “citizenship was perfectly understood to be confined to the White race.” In 1920, the court re-examined the 1790 law, upheld its validity, and ruled in Ozawa v. United States and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind that Asians could not become citizens because they were not White.

In 1882, Congress passed, and President Chester Arthur signed, the unambiguously titled “Chinese Exclusion Act,” which barred most Chinese from immigrating to the U.S.

In the 1920s, the national origin quota system was created to guide immigration policy. That system allocated a limited number of slots — or visas — to each country, determining how many people from any country could come to the U.S. In devising this system, the plan’s architect, Dr. Joseph A. Hill, a Census Bureau statistician, tellingly said in 1926, “The stream that feeds the reservoir should have the same composition as the contents of the reservoir itself.” By “reservoir,” Hill was referring to the racial composition of the U.S., which was nearly 90 percent white at the time. Accordingly, countries of color received very few slots, and most people from Asian countries were banned outright from entering the U.S. until 1965 (which explains why 74 percent of Asian American adults today were born outside of the United States).

It wasn’t until the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that the official policy of excluding non-whites from entering the country and becoming citizens was consigned to the dustbin of history.


And today, the current situation facing our immigration system — with large numbers of Mexican-born people living in the U.S. without visas — is itself an unintended result of trying to correct the racist history of immigration law with a simplistic, “colorblind” approach that is race-neutral on its face, but that is extremely problematic in practice.

Right now, every country in the world gets the same number of slots, whether that country’s population is 1,000 people or 1 billion people. As Columbia University professor outlined in a 2013 New York Times op-ed piece, our visa system “stipulates that no country may have more than 7 percent of the total each year,” resulting in an annual per-country limit of 25,620 visas. The result of this system is that “it is easy to immigrate here from, say, Belgium or New Zealand, but there are long waits — sometimes decades — for applicants from China, India, Mexico and the Philippines.” This quota system explains why there are so many immigrants from Mexico without visas, as opposed to other countries.

It is not surprising that candidates seeking to navigate a path to the nomination of a party that is 93 percent white would promote policies and rhetoric that would make America white again. Although it’s perhaps surprising to hear the words spoken out loud today, a “whites only” immigration system has actually been the policy of the United States for most of its history.

Steve Phillips is a national political leader, civil rights lawyer, and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action. He is the author of Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority, which was published on February 2nd by The New Press.