Episode 185: Nativism in Media (Part II) — The Artificial Cold War Distinction Between ‘Migrants’ and ‘Refugees’
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I’m Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: Immigration law should “stop punishing innocent young people brought to the country through no fault of their own by their parents,” the Obama White House stated in 2013. “Migrant Caravan Continues North, Defying Mexico and U.S.,” the New York Times warned in 2018. “Biden Administration Invites Ordinary Americans to Help Settle Refugees,” NPR announced in early 2023.
Adam: For over a century, US policymakers and media have distinguished between supposedly different types of immigrants. There are refugees, who are fleeing political persecution, and migrants, who are crossing a border for reasons that are maybe not so noble. There are deserving immigrants, who are upwardly mobile and law-abiding, and undeserving immigrants, who are tax-dodging gang members.
Nima: It may be commonplace to take this hierarchy of displaced people for granted as it’s become so commonplace in American immigration discourse. But there’s nothing natural or organic about it. These distinctions–between, for example, a “migrant” or a “refugee” are historically informed by racism, gendered notions of labor and a superficial ideological distinction between negative and positive rights. The plight of certain immigrants is instrumentalized and prioritized over others, depending on their proximity to contemporary notions of whiteness, their ability to create cheap labor, and their utility to combating the spread of dangerous leftwing ideologies like anarchism and socialism.
Adam: On today’s episode, part two of our three-part series on media narratives about immigration, we will examine the US government’s pattern of arbitrarily categorizing displaced people as some version of good or bad. We’ll look at how these distinctions are informed by, and often obfuscate, the US’s global relations and imperialist expansion, and how the policies behind these categories turn people seeking safety and stability into geopolitical pawns.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by writer, historian, and professor Dr. Rachel Ida Buff. She is the Chair of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her writing has appeared in academic journals as well as outlets such as Jacobin, Truthout, and Jewish Currents. And she is the author of the book A Is For Asylum Seeker: Words For People On The Move, published in 2020 by Fordham University Press and is currently working on her first novel, entitled Holy Toledo.
Rachel Ida Buff: By 1924, we have The Johnson-Reed Act. It’s really interesting what they do to come up with The Johnson-Reed Act. They study it for a long time. There’s a commission, a government commission, and what they do is they go back to the census of 1870. They’re like, okay, when was America great again? Sound familiar? Oh, it was good. Yeah, 1870, that was good. Everybody was still kind of like hard working in Northern European and Protestant and good. So they went back to that census, they did the numbers, and they were like, we want those percentages again. So The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 says, we don’t want Southern Europeans because you know, they’re Catholic, they’re Russian Orthodox, they’re Jews, they’re, you know, they’re people from the Middle East. We don’t want those folks, we want, like what we have, we want the northern Western, hardworking, Nordic. And this isn’t a time of racial pseudoscience that said, like those people are actually smarter, so we want more of them and better for our national brand.
Adam: Before we begin this particular topic, it’s important to define some key terms. According to the United Nations, refugees are people that are “fleeing the risk of persecution or serious harm, including human rights violations, armed conflict or persecution.” People who can prove they meet this definition are a refugee, and therefore eligible for asylum, that is, protection from deportation in the US and elsewhere, at least in theory, migrants, meanwhile, “choose to move not because of direct threat of persecution or serious human rights violations, but for a range of other reasons. This can include seeking to improve their lives by finding work or in some cases, education, family reunion or other reasons.” And finally, there’s a third category that’s used asylum seekers are “people who have left their country and seek protection from persecution, and serious human rights violations in another country, but who haven’t yet been legally recognized as refugees.” To be eligible for asylum in the US, for example, the person must first meet the definition of a refugee, which has historically been somewhat skewed as we will explain in this episode. We don’t want to give the impression with this distinction between migrant and refugee that like refugees are living high on the hog. They’re all usually in a very, very bad place, very bad lot in life. What we’re going to argue is that the distinction between migrant, refugee is historically very ideologically and racially loaded and is meant to create this kind of deserved an undeserved migrant narrative that we feel is entirely arbitrary and pointless. It really only exists to uphold existing power structures.
Nima: Yeah, this kind of coding is seen throughout political speeches and obviously, throughout the press as we discuss, really serving to create this tiered system of belonging and deservingness, right? Who deserves our care? Who deserves to be “taken in” which you know, itself is fraught with all sorts of phony benevolence. But as we will discuss on this episode, you know, the reasons why people move should not actually determine how they are treated upon arrival in a place. And also many of the reasons that are deemed non-refugee status reasons are often also caused by the very same kinds of forces, the same violence, the same colonialism, the same corporatism, that is driving others to be refugees. And so this distinction between refugee and migrant, as we will see, winds up being as you know, as you said, Adam, like really a political construction based on ideology, based on narrative, and so many policies that can be harmful to so many people. So let’s get into the history of this taxonomy. The artificial classifications of immigrants we know today originated in the first decades of the 20th century, following the First World War. By then the United States had already enacted many right-wing nativist policies restricting immigration as we have discussed on many previous episodes of Citations Needed. These targeted people based on race and ethnicity, mental health diagnoses, political inclinations, like anarchism, or communism and class among a host of other factors. Some of these racist laws included the Chinese Exclusion Act, yes, that’s really what it was called, of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1917. But in May of 1924, the US Congress passed into law the pivotal Johnson-Reed Act, which introduced a “national origins quota” in order to further restrict immigration into the United States. The quota would allot immigration visas to 2% of the total number of people of each nationality already in the United States. As of the 1890 national census, the law expressly excluded most immigrants from Asia. By then, this exclusion was a long standing US policy, and was designed to limit immigration from Southern and Eastern European countries and favor immigration from Northern and Western Europe. The Johnson-Reed Act also established for the first time the US Border Patrol.
Adam: The law’s aims were both racial and ideological. The Johnson-Reed Act followed the first Red Scare of 1919 to 1920, a reaction to among other things, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the growing socialist, communist movements within the US, a development US policymakers, of course, sought to squash. This law was thereby enacted in part to stop the flow of left-wing political currents in the United States. Weeks before the Johnson-Reed Act became law. On April 27, 1924, The New York Times ran an opinion piece authored by Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania headlined “AMERICA OF THE MELTING POT COMES TO AN END.” Reed, a sponsor of the legislation (and the “Reed” of eponymous Johnson-Reed), argued that the US’s “melting pot” posture was no longer tenable, as immigrants from Italy, Greece, Poland, Russia and elsewhere were driving down wages and standards of living and “demand[ing] too much of their government” and “rely[ing] too little upon their own initiative.” Reed explicitly championed Congress’s goal of an all-Western and Northern European, politically uniform (i.e. capitalist) country. Reed acknowledged, “It is true that 75 percent of our immigration will hereafter come from Northwest Europe, but it is fair that it should do so, because 75 percent of us who are now here owe our origin to immigrants from these same countries.” And Reed concluded that the Johnson-Reed Act “will mean a more homogenous nation, more self-reliant, more independent, and more closely knit by common purpose and common ideas.”
Nima: Pretty clear what he was getting at.
Adam: Yeah, the “Johnson” side of the Johnson-Reed Act, meanwhile, was Albert Johnson, a Washington State congressman and eugenics proponent. Johnson famously stated in 1927, “Our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed.”
Nima: Yeah, so it’s clear that this wasn’t an incidental policy — oh, well, there are so many immigrants coming into this nation. We need to have some sort of policy, some sort of law to keep this in check to make sure everyone gets what they need. Nope, that’s not what this was, right? The Johnson-Reed Act by the own words of Johnson and Reed was about exclusion. It was about keeping America as white and capitalist as possible. Now fast forward to the aftermath of World War II. It was at this time that the United States would use the ideological frameworks created by the Johnson Reed Act to further codify hierarchical immigration policies to promote its now Cold War agenda. The US passed its first major refugee law, the Displaced Persons Act in 1948. The law was explicitly designed to grant US visas to certain Europeans, namely those fleeing communist states, and contained an arbitrary stipulation that denied entry to more than 90% of displaced European Jews who had survived the Holocaust, a population viewed as being traditionally sympathetic to communism and other left-wing ideologies. So the introduction of the refugee category in our immigration law created an important and as we’ll continue to speak about, persistent distinction between people deserving or undeserving of asylum here in the United States.
Adam: Three years after the Displaced Persons Act was enacted, in 1951, the UN approved the treaty known as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defined a refugee as a person with a reasonable “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” But its architects had clear ideological aims, as friend of the show Sarah Lazare wrote for In These Times in 2018:
Officially, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention emerged as a global response to the horrors of the Holocaust, which saw the United States and much of Europe and Latin America turn away Jews fleeing persecution. Yet the convention was also a product of the Cold War, with the newly emerged military superpower — the United States — playing a major role in drafting the global accord. Of the 26 nations that participated, Western European countries and U.S. allies were disproportionately represented. The Soviet Union was conspicuously absent.
The US would shape its own notions of a refugee through a series of laws passed throughout the 1950s that reflected an even more extreme example of this negative rights focus. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, for example, permitted the exclusion and deportation of immigrants suspected of being communists — “undesirables,” as US media termed them. A year later, with the Refugee Relief Act of 1953, the US explicitly defined the term “refugee” as someone seeking to settle in a non-communist country because of “persecution, fear of persecution, natural calamity or military operations.” The act also specifically targeted the USSR, by creating and defining another class of refugee, the “escapee.” Its definition is as follows: as follows, “any refugee who, because of persecution or fear of persecution on account of race, religion, or political opinion, fled from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or other Communist, Communist-dominated or Communist-occupied area of Europe including those parts of Germany under military occupation by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and who cannot return thereto because of fear of persecution on account of race, religion or political opinion.” The United States had thereby enshrined in its laws, a hierarchy of immigrants that reflected US geopolitical interests. Refugees fleeing governments the US deemed adversarial were given special status and permissions. The rest of the displaced people seeking to cross borders, whatever the reasons may have been, were “migrants,” and were awarded no such relative advantages. I stress relative advantages. Contemporaneous news reports largely embrace the Refugee Relief Act and its framework, because it’s slightly looser national origin quotas ostensibly permitting more people to come to the US that they made little to no critical mention of stratifying effects on immigration, instead framing it as a humanitarian gesture towards non and anti-communist peoples fleeing persecution.
Nima: Yeah, these laws are really cynical because it’s pretty obvious what was going on. It’s like before the Cold War, immigrants from those same countries were like, deliberately kept out because maybe they were sympathetic to communism, but then after World War II, and the, you know, during the beginning of the Cold War, it was like, oh, if you’re fleeing those countries now, now you’re on our side, right, like you’re fleeing rather than migrating, right? And so this difference in status became purely political and exploited as such. Here’s an example from the Los Angeles newspaper The Tidings, from Aug. 21, 1953. And the article reads:
Although the recently passed Refugee Relief Act of 1953 has its limitations, there is reason for optimism because of what may be accomplished under its provisions. Monsignor Swanstrom, pointed out that, although the act’s regulations concerning assurances for refugees were much more rigorous than those in effect under the displaced persons program, he was particularly grateful because of the broad definition of the term “refugee” under the new law. ‘Almost anyone from a communist country who can prove that he was not a communist is eligible,’ Monsignor Swanstrom said.
Adam: So let’s fast forward to the Carter-Reagan era. These conceptions of refugees lasted until the waning months of the Carter administration when the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed and broadened the definition of refugee to a person with a “well founded fear of persecution,” removing the explicit requirements regarding political affiliation. The more neutral standard was established by the UN conventions and protocols, but while some de jour changes were made, the de facto immigration policy preserved the existing reactionary immigrant taxonomy, the ensuing Reagan Administration sponsored paramilitary death squads in Nicaragua, the dictator of Guatemala, and the Contras in El Salvador, among many other horrors in Central America and the Caribbean. Now were the people who suffered from these violence worthy of the refugee label by the administration? No. Instead, the Reagan administration termed those displaced by US funded and orchestrated violence, “economic migrants.” They were thereby ineligible for asylum in the US even temporarily.
Nima: “Economic migrants” is a great term by the way.
Adam: That’s a good one. The double standard of migrant classification had real impacts. According to reporting from the Washington Post in May of 1983, during the fiscal year 1982, the rates of asylum application acceptance were as follows: 6% of Salvadorans, 7% of Haitians, 26% of Nicaraguans (with Sandinistas in power), 44% of Ethiopians, 61% of Iranians. We, of course, point this out, not to sort of pit groups against each other, right? That’s not the sort of goal here, obviously, but to illustrate how the ranking systems very much continued to reflect the geopolitical propaganda value of the particular immigrants in question.
Nima: Now, notably, in the article that Adam, you just referenced, The Washington Post called US asylum policy, “a disputed issue” while including criticism of that policy, via you know, your usual distance, some say, dot dot dot asides, The Post really chose to equate the plight of asylum seekers with that of a US government trying to process their many applications. The piece’s chief source was noted war criminal, Elliott Abrams, then in government using the title “Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs” and who used the pretext of humanitarian aid to Nicaragua to smuggle guns to the Contras.
That same Post article quoted Abrams as saying this:
The key to the concept of asylum is targeting. It’s not sufficient to note that the country an applicant comes from is repressive, violent or poor. You must show something about you as an individual that would make you a target of persecution — your religion, your race, something.
And the article would continue to say this, “Abrams, however, makes a distinction between foreigners who genuinely fear persecution, and what he calls economic migrants to this country.” And it quotes Abrams again, as saying this, “We have no moral obligation to economic migrants.”
Adam: Yeah, and so this is really, really important here, right? Because economic migration versus being persecuted for one’s religion, political ideals, this is a classic ideological distinction that assumes that poverty is a natural state of existence. And that poverty and hunger and starvation and deprivation are in fact, not violations of people’s rights that makes them worthy of immigration. So it’s a fundamentally capitalist, fundamentally negative rights based view of the world. Because, again, economic migrants implies that they’re kind of doing okay, they’re making like 50,000 a year, but they want to make 57,000 a year, get a promotion, you know, it sort of implies that there’s this kind of whimsical, you like vanilla, I like chocolate kind of framework here. And it fits snugly into a capitalist worldview, right, that says that poverty is not only a natural state of most people, right, the sort of majority of the world is dirt poor, but we can’t really do anything about it anyway. And to the extent to which people are poor, it’s for the best because the system needs poor people to sort of justify itself and those who are poor are poor, because of you know, some moral failing on their part. There’s sort of a global scale of this anti-welfare system. And so, that is an ideological premise that many people reject that poverty is, in fact, not a natural state of being but is in fact, in a world of abundance and technological abundance is in fact a policy choice. It’s something we decide to do, and that moving from Country A to Country B because you can’t feed yourself or feed your children or are begging on the streets or reduced to eating shoe leather or what have you. But that itself is a form of violence that that itself is a form of persecution versus the strictly negative rights based, something we’ve talked about in the show a lot, view of rights. And so that is a highly contestable framework and a very ideological framework that the US media largely just kind of adopts. It sort of adopts this dichotomy without really questioning why that dichotomy exists.
Nima: In December of 1983, the Kansas City Star baldly reinforced this exact kind of Reaganite immigration dichotomy with a piece headlined, “Abuse of U.S. asylum system robs true refugees of protection.”
And here is an excerpt from that article:
The large scale abuse of the American asylum law by economic migrants and illegal aliens seeking to extend their stay in the United States is creating widespread cynicism toward the asylum system and undermining public support for our generous attitude toward those who are genuinely fleeing persecution.
The article then goes on to blame countries ravaged by US imperialism themselves, citing the UN. So the article says this:
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has recognized the serious problem of abusive asylum applications…The UN report also recognized that economic migrants are submitting asylum claims ‘as a means of circumventing normal immigration regulations.’ This, the report suggests, is caused in large measure by the worldwide economic recession which prompts emigration from less developed countries, this would be especially likely for a poor country suffering intentional economic devastation by Marxist insurgents, such as El Salvador.
Adam: Right, so US policy of funding and arming right-wing death squads is not what causes their economic hardship.
Nima: Oh, no, no, no, devastation by Marxist insurgents.
Adam: Yeah, and therefore, that’s the inverse of the good migrant, right?
Nima: Well, right, because the idea of an economic migrant assumes that the economy that they are moving from is a capitalist one and therefore, a just one. And so like that is the entire purpose of the term economic migrant, the economy in question is deemed sufficient enough to not have to move, right?
Adam: Right. Because if my newspaper gets shut down, I’m worthy of asylum. But if my daughter has to boil her shoe leather to eat, that is not worthy of asylum.
Nima: Right, exactly. And then the reason why maybe the economy is not to those people’s liking, is, as we just heard, because of the Marxist insurgency, not the capitalist economic system that they are fighting against. So I mean, it’s pretty clear and laid out here when you realize the difference between what we’re seeing — a Cold War refugee, right, fleeing communist states or an economic migrant fleeing states run by like the United Fruit Company.
Adam: Now fast forward to the 2000s and 2010s, this more Cold War framing, the remnants of it still exists, but it falls a little bit out of favor, and there’s a new deserving versus undeserving immigrant framework that emerges. This was exemplified with a 2001 introduction of the development, relief and education for Alien Minors Act, otherwise known as the DREAM Act, the bill, which has still never been signed into law, would grant special protections to people who “illegally” immigrated to the United States. Those people have since been commonly referred to as “DREAMers.” In 2012, Barack Obama, who was deported a lot of people as listeners of the show may know, he was known as the Deporter in Chief from immigrants rights activists for a few years, introduced an executive order entitled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The order gave a limited group of Dreamers a temporary work permit and a reprieve from deportation.
Nima: The Obama White House included the logic of DACA and a 2013 “commonsense immigration reform” proposal. Common sense for whom? You might ask. It’s a good question. Now, this proposal the White House claimed would “stop punishing innocent young people brought to the country through no fault of their own, by their parents.” DACA wasn’t exactly a humanitarian policy, obviously, it was still highly selective and punitive. There were a number of eligibility requirements, including certain educational levels and the absence of a criminal record which it was essential to, you know, get DACA status, but this idea of no fault of their own is something that we want to mention here. Specifically, this has reverberated throughout news media ever since. And while that phrase was meant to sound sympathetic, this idea of no fault of their own has implications that are deeply xenophobic and have huge repercussions. So the phrase itself suggests that the fact that these children came to the US wasn’t their fault, of course, but it was someone’s fault. Right? Wasn’t their own fault. It was the fault of their parents or their guardians who made the decision to come to the United States “illegally,” or without proper papers. These implications have extremely devastating consequences.
As author David Bacon wrote in 2015, the framing of parents’ decision to enter the US as their fault
is also the argument presented by the [Obama] administration to justify building two new detention centers in Texas to hold mothers and children from Central America. Two summers ago the President warned parents in Guatemala and El Salvador that they were endangering their children by bringing them north. Don’t come, he said. If you do, you will be detained and deported.
And in a 2014 speech, Obama outlined this commonsense approach, so-called, by separating immigrants into two camps and using mass deportation of the “wrong” kind of immigrant as bragging rights. Here is an excerpt from Obama himself.
Barack Obama: Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we’re also a nation of laws. Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws. And I believe that they must be held accountable, especially those who may be dangerous. That’s why over the past six years, deportations of criminals are up 80%. And that’s why we’re gonna keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize just like law enforcement does every day.
Adam: The no fault of their own framing is pretty clever and convenient in the sense that it conveys compassion for young immigrants without interrogating the need for their parents or family members or older brothers and sisters to leave their homes. It’s kind of this way we sort of wash them morally through one generation and say, oh, they didn’t break the law.
Nima: It’s also migration from nowhere, right?
Adam: It’s this great applause line — it’s like, oh, we’re a nation of laws. It’s like, yeah, but what about the laws? And who invented the laws and who do the laws serve? And are the laws just and fair? And do they actually reflect the needs of people coming to our borders, based on economic status, race, etc. Right? And nation of origin. In 2017, the Trump administration terminated DACA because they’re psycho assholes who won’t even do that. Reigniting defenses of DACA in the media in response, Obama repeated the no fault of their own refrain during the Trump years. For instance, in a Washington Post op-ed, former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended Dreamers “because they provide an outstanding pool of young women and men who can engage in national service, including military service.” Okay. And the Miami Herald in January of 2018 published the op-ed “Let the DREAMers become the true Americans that they already are”. One of the authors notes they proudly “fled Cuba.” So we have this, you know, respectability politics. And to some extent, I kind of understand why a certain liberal wing of you know, immigrant rights activist, we push with this because it’s, I guess it’s better than nothing or better than Trumpism, right. But the problem is, when you do these kind of deserved and undeserved dichotomies, you do begin to reinforce the premise that the vast, vast, vast majority of people who actually are migrants who are not not there because of no fault of their own, have it comin’ that they’re sort of law breakers, and that itself has its own ideological downside for obvious reasons.
Nima: And we see this, I mean, still today, right? The idea of deserving versus undeserving categories of immigrants is seen in our media constantly. Same as the refugee versus migrant dichotomy. Consider the coverage of the so-called migrant caravan, which reached a fever pitch, especially in right wing media in late 2018 as people from Central America migrated north. While some media took a marginally more compassionate tone during the Trump presidency, we still had plenty of headlines like this. From the New York Times, “Migrant Caravan Continues North, Defying Mexico and U.S.” From the Council on Foreign Relations: “The Migrant Caravan: A Policy and Public Affairs Challenge.” And from CNN, “The migrant caravan could be weeks away from the US border.” Dun, dun, dun. Now despite the causes of the violence and instability that people were fleeing, it was always a migrant caravan, never a refugee caravan, right? So let’s compare that with some 2023 articles from the New York Times illustrating the differences in the Biden administration’s policies regarding so-called migrants versus so-called refugees. Here, for the New York Times January 8th, 2023, “Biden Visits Southern Border Amid Fresh Crackdown on Migrants.” The article says this, “A surge of migration has made El Paso one of the most vivid symbols of the decades-long breakdown in America’s immigration system.” And another far gentler article from January 19 of this year headlined “Biden Administration Invites Ordinary Americans to Help Settle Refugees,” named only two groups as “refugees”: Afghan people and Ukrainian people. Here is an excerpt from the article, “In a major effort to open the door to more refugee resettlement, the Biden administration will begin inviting ordinary Americans to directly sponsor the arrival of thousands of displaced people from around the world into their communities.” Okay, great, that is not terrible. But notice how the different words migrant versus refugee are used in these contexts and what they are meant to symbolize.
Adam: Right and what they instrumentalize. A handful of Afghans are thrown in there because they need to morally absolve themselves of the sanctions that have destroyed the economy since August 2021 pull-out and not to mention the 20 year occupation. Then, of course, Ukrainians because they’re the subject of Russia’s war rather than our war are automatically, of course, considered, those are refugees, right? And again, we want everyone to be refugees, the goal is not to, like prevent Ukrainians or Afghans from migrating to the US, right? That’s not the goal. The goal is to expand the definition of refugee to where everyone who wants to come is a refugee, right, because people don’t make these long treks across hundreds and hundreds of miles, sometimes 1000s of miles for the laws. They do it because they’re desperate, and they really don’t have any other option. This is why the concept of economic migrant as this kind of selective whimsical thing, like I just want a slightly better job, that’s all. Yeah, I’m gonna get a job at Deloitte rather than Ernst & Young because, you know, I’m an economic migrant, going to New York City instead of taking the job in Philadelphia. I mean, that’s not really the right way to frame it. And, again, as we’ve moved away from this explicit Cold War framework, we’ve in many ways, there’s still the instrumentalization of migrants with respect to US wars versus Russia wars, right? But in many ways, it’s become more explicitly racialized now. We’ve sort of reverted back to the 1920s/1930s framework where it still has that political justification or political input but also has become explicitly racist, which is why even migrants from countries that the US doesn’t like including, say, for example, Venezuela, or Nicaragua, that even they don’t even get the refugee label anymore because of the racism is trumped to the anti-left wing government, anti-Americanism, right? There’s a four-box matrix, right?
Nima: The quadrant system here.
Adam: Yeah, the quadrant? Are you the right race? Yes or no? Are you the right geopolitical propaganda value to us? Empire? Yes or no. And if you meet both criteria, if you’re white and you’re of value to the US Empire, you’re obviously in a better position. If you have no expediency to US Empire, say, for example, you’re a Yemeni refugee, and you’re not white, then that’s the worst place to be. Now, of course, all boxes are bad to be in. But those distinctions established by US immigrant officials and politicians exist for a very specific reason, which is that to the extent to which we’re gonna allow a fraction of a fraction of the people who try to come to the United States, we’re only going to do so if they serve some geopolitical or racial purity, value, or they undermine labor and can give us cheap, cheap labor.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by writer, historian, and professor, Dr. Rachel Ida Buff. She is the Chair of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her writing has appeared in academic journals as well as outlets such as Jacobin, Truthout, and Jewish Currents. And she is the author of the book A Is For Asylum Seeker: Words For People On The Move, published in 2020 by Fordham University Press and is currently working on her first novel, entitled Holy Toledo.
We are joined now by Rachel Ida Buff. Rachel, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Rachel Ida Buff: I’m so happy to be here. It’s good to be with you.
Adam: So let’s start off by talking about the sort of subject of this particular episode is the kind of racist ideological moral tier system that was developed in the “West,” specifically for the purposes of this episode, the United States, as we are a sort of a US-focused podcast. And before we jump into the Cold War ideology that shaped these concepts, I wanted to start prior to that in terms of how race and people’s nation of origin and the fairly racist criteria for whether or not someone was a worthy or deserved or undeserved immigrant, really served as the primary basis before it had to kind of be masked through other means back before there was no sort of pretense of race neutrality. Can we start there, if you will, prior to the 1940s and 50s and kind of what was some of the original criteria for immigrants in the United States?
Rachel Ida Buff: No, absolutely. I so appreciate your framing. And there’s really no way to talk about immigration restriction in the US and I would venture to say the so-called Global North without thinking about race, and I would say specifically racial capitalism. So there’s two things that work, right, there’s always the tremendous pressure of needing cheap labor and needing to control that cheap labor, then the fact that we don’t have a system that thinks about human needs, we have a system that’s based on the advantages of the few — the factory farm owners, the ranchers, the industrialists. So if we go back to the very first immigration exclusion laws, which happened, so 1875, the Page Act specifically said that Chinese laborers who were at the time coming to California because of the Gold Rush, because of the railroad work, because there was opportunity, and you know, a lot of them came from very poor areas of China — I think they thought of themselves, many of them as sojourners not immigrants. And the Page Act in 1875, said, we don’t want to allow any Chinese women to come. Because we don’t want these people to say, you know, these people are strange. They look different than us. They talk funny, they’re not Christian. The men wear pigtails. And you know, that’s never good. So the Page Act specifically said, it criminalized Chinese migration, and specifically the migration of any but the most elite Chinese women. So if you start there, we then migrate to Chinese exclusion in 1882. There’s this tremendous anti-Chinese nativism, led often by first generation and second generation Irish American immigrants who see the Chinese as driving down wages, who see them as bringing disease, you know. This is like a racialized kind of race to the bottom like those people are going to drag our wages even lower. So instead of like welcoming them and forming unions and struggling for the better position of all of us, we’re going to say like, we’re not going to have them, we don’t want them. And what always always happens is a law against one group of people, in this case, the Chinese, migrates to, well, you know, the Japanese are kind of odd too like Japan is a little more politically powerful at the time. So Japan as a nation is able for a while, through the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 with Theodore Roosevelt to sort of negotiate like, well, you have to treat our people, you have to not put them in segregated schools, you know, they have to be able to bring over picture brides so that Japanese American men can marry. That lasts for a little while until you know that Asian exclusion migrates to include the Japanese to include South Asians. Filipinos are kind of exceptional in this period because the US is claiming dominance over the Philippines. So it sort of radiates out. So it goes from Chinese to Asians. And then by 1924, we have the Johnson-Reed act. It’s really interesting what they do to come up with the Johnson-Reed. They study it for a long time. There’s a commission, a government commission, and what they do is they go back to the census of 1870. They’re like, okay, when was America great again? Sound familiar? Oh, it was good. Yeah, 1870, that was good. Everybody was still kind of like hard working and Northern European and Protestant and good. So they went back to that census, they did the numbers, and they were like, we want those percentages again. So the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 says, we don’t want Southern Europeans because you know, they’re Catholic, they’re Russian Orthodox, they’re Jews, they’re, you know, they’re people from the Middle East. We don’t want those folks we want, like what we had, we want the northern Western, hard working Nordic. And this is at a time of racial pseudoscience that said, like, those people are actually smarter. So we want more of them and better for our national brand. So not only that, so you have like this weird racial migration of like, the Chinese are weird, the Japanese are weird, we can’t have them. We can’t have them too. Like we really can’t have anyone except the whitest of the white. And along with that, because the other thing that’s going on in that period, of course, if you think about the late 19th century, early 20th century is the expansion of the United States empire, which up until that period has been mostly a continental matter of wars with the Indians, of establishing the Transcontinental Railroad of winning a giant chunk from Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which is comes into our story, I think, a little later on, and I’ll talk more about that. But we’re establishing a presence in places like the Philippines. So we’re going to be really concerned with the specter of the foreign radical. And anarchists, anti-colonialists, people from the Ghadar Party in South Asia, Filipinos who don’t want to be occupied by the United States. So not only does immigration law evolve, as always, a racialized, very often a gendered and sexist idea about who’s acceptable, but there is also almost from the get go this kind of political legitimacy, like we don’t want immigrants who are going to make trouble. We don’t want immigrants who have been stirring up trouble in places that we’re trying to control abroad. Right? We want to make sure that we’re keeping tabs on these wacky anarchists. And of course that migrates right into these communists after 1917, after the Russian Revolution.
Nima: Anti-communist rhetoric is the go-to right-wing talking point still. So I’d love to kind of have you talk about that period after 1917 but also how it relates to this ever present threat to our noble democracy.
Rachel Ida Buff: I sort of said that these things are co-evil, the racialization of immigration along with like this fear of foreign-born radicals, and that was anarchists and anti-colonial radicals up until the Russian Revolution. And then there’s this like, terrible fear of communism, which like, can’t talk enough about this, like, it does kind of blow my mind. The right is still talking about this. And like, this is like the teacher, the mean, grade school teacher in me is like, what young man? Can you be specific? What are you talking about? Which communists?
Nima: Define communism.
Rachel Ida Buff: Like in my state of Wisconsin, which has a state legislature, you know, that’s banning the 1619 project and banning critical race theory and like always talking about the kindness woke people, like I just want to sit down with some of these guys and just give them a quiz. Like, who? What are you just like, really legit what are you talking about?
Adam: They think that DEI consultants are communists, rather than just people trying to cover the legal liability of corporations from lawsuits.
Rachel Ida Buff: Because like, in a certain way, because they never define what a communist is, like, I guess they have to be everywhere. So the origins of that really go back to anti-communism in immigration policy, which really interestingly, is always used against people who are trying to organize for labor rights, often for immigrant, often for undocumented communities. So that kind of fear of communism and you know, write about this and Against the Deportation Terror, my book before the A is for Asylum Seeker. Somebody like Harry Bridges, the Australian labor union organizer, or Filipino organizers in Alaska who are organizing for like, you know, people have like basic safety rights and the canneries is like really, really difficult, dangerous work, or the people who are organized finally, the Longshoremen who helped organize the very racially segregated plantation labor force in Hawaii. All of those people turn out to be shockingly dangerous communists, even though ideologically they’re actually quite diverse. Harry Bridges just started out as an anarchist and there were Wobblies, but like, it turns out to be anti-capitalist and foreign-born or even working with the foreign born somebody like Luisa Moreno, who’s a Guatemalan immigrant who helps organize a lot of the agricultural produce workers in the southwest and California. These people are dangerous communists, which is really useful if you want to have a vulnerable workforce that will work for very little that’s afraid to report infractions that it lives in fear of deportation, like that’s a very useful labor force for some people. So anyone who’s not that — Cesar Chavez, communists — like anybody who says, like, no, actually these people need certain basic rights can be deported as communists.
Nima: So, I kind of want to pick up right there. But talking not only about how immigration may follow a lot of the same trajectory in the United States while also shifting a bit during the Cold War because of Cold War ideology and because of the politics that kind of drive it but also about how language is used here. You know, we talk about language a lot on the show. It’s about media. It’s about the way we communicate about narratives. And so this idea — and you’ve written about this — of using different terminologies for, say, a refugee versus a migrant, and how that distinction really has its roots in this Cold War politic. Can you talk about that? How they are political, ideological, also racial signifiers, the history behind the kind of differentiation of those two terms, and how even beyond the ever present factor of racism, the post war capitalist distinction between negative and positive rights and how that shapes who is ultimately deemed morally worthy enough to be allowed to enter this wonderful land of American milk and honey.
Rachel Ida Buff: No, exactly. I mean, I think that that’s very apt. And if we sort of jump ahead to the Cold War to, let’s say, to the post 1945 period, you have the specter of Europe, specifically, and it radiates outward and more of an international focus. But in you know, there’s this like, you know, Europe is decimated, there’s like 10 million displaced persons in Europe, some of them the remainder of Ashkenazi Judaism, who survived the Holocaust, many of them poles or Latvia, people who have been displaced and can’t go back to their homes, right? So there’s this crisis, and the United Nations High Commission on Refugee convenes a convention in 1951 and it says really lovely things. And I always tell people, like, go back and read, you can Google it. And one Google hit the UNHCR Convention 1951, and you get what they said, which is so beautiful and has never happened, which is that displaced people deserve rights, like they all deserve the right to housing, to health care, to travel documents. If you don’t have your passport, says the UNHCR 1951, you should be able to get papers, wherever you are, that make you legitimate, you should be able to work, your kids should be able to go to school, like no one does this, but this is what the UNHCR says. It’s gorgeous. And it’s aspirational. And it never ever happens, because the problem is, by 1951, we have the Cold War heating up. It’s the UN, which is like a nice idea of international cooperation but they’re really riven between this developing really important rift between the Soviet bloc and the United States and the attempt at a non-aligned bloc, and they really don’t enforce it on anyone. So it’s kind of like the signatories to the 1951 Convention and the US signs on in 1967 but is present at the convention, and a lot of nations signed on in 1951, are like, sort of supposed to do that. But they all evolved their own distinctions. And what happens in the United States is, we eventually devise a refugee policy, there’s some refugee policy and the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. There isn’t really solid refugee policy until the 1980 Refugee Act. But you know, our refugee policy is basically this, which says, if you’re fleeing a nation we like, that we’re friends with, like, the good people of the fascist dictatorship of Greece or Portugal, or the many fascist dictatorships that we actually helped install in places like Guatemala or Honduras or the Dominican Republic. If you’re fleeing there, there’s probably something wrong with you, because it’s really great there. And we’ve been like supporting the Shah of Iran’s SAVAK torturers. So those are nice. Those are good folks. We know that we hang out with them, we drink with them, if you have to leave then there’s something wrong with you. So you’re just an immigrant, you’re just trying to make your life better. You’re an economic migrant. And we don’t say for that, because like, you know, if you couldn’t make it in your own home country, you know, with like, the lovely structures we’ve set up of banana plantations, or what have you, depending on the country, if you can’t make it there, you’re a loser, and we don’t want you. But we say and this is US foreign policy, but different countries do different versions of this. But if you’re fleeing, like the Soviets, obviously, you’re a high-minded, freedom-fighting person, and we want you, we want to help you. And like you’ll notice, as I’m saying this, like, interestingly, most of the folks that are going to be fleeing the Soviet Union are European and white-ish. And most of the people who are fleeing places like Haiti or Guatemala, or around you know, where our big buddies are experimenting with, like pretty severe forms of governance. They are not white, they’re brown, or black, Afro-descended and so like, it kind of happens at the same time, these Cold War priorities, right, because immigration policy is always about race and it’s also always, always about politics. So if you can say that you’re a freedom fighter, in ways that we recognize — this does not include like, gee, you know, I’m trying to organize against Papa Doc Duvalier, because he has these like crazy Tonton Macoutes who think that they’re voodoo doctors and like they run around torturing the populace — that’s not freedom fighting. “Freedom fighting” is saying, ‘I believe in democratic capitalism. I’m a good Christian and getting jailed or threatened to be jailed in a Soviet bloc country.’ Those are the people we like, and so it’s kind of a nifty Cold War thing, that it’s both political and racial like the two are together and that binary still exists. You know, I wrote A is for Aslyum Seeker starting in 2016 so the binary is like refugees good, immigrants bad. I would say up until the Trump administration, that binary kind of held with exceptions — it gets really complicated, right? Because we love Cubans. But as the people fleeing Cuba get darker, we’re really ambivalent about Cubans, right? So it’s not uncomplicated. But what I started seeing in the election of 2016, is students who were struggling with xenophobia, were saying really terrible things about refugees. And I, like, hadn’t heard that before. Like, I’m used to, I study this stuff. I’ve been working in immigrant rights formations for 25 years. I’m used to xenophobia. I hadn’t heard it mustered against refugees before. And so I started thinking, these very messed up Cold War distinctions, which nonetheless, have been the accepted wisdom for some time, are starting to erode because if you recall, Trump could make refugees sound like a curse word. And, you know, third-generation Jewish American refugees in my household was a good word. Like it meant somebody might take us in if things go wrong but suddenly started sounding like this horrible, like a refugee, like a dirty, you know, like, oh, my God, like, and I just was like, okay, well, I kind of want to write a glossary of like, what people think these words mean, and why they mean that. It’s the same thing we see now, with Trump’s Title 42, which is now like, transmogrified into Title 8, which is basically like, if you’re an asylum seeker — the only difference between being an asylum seeker and being a refugee is if you’re a refugee, you’ve been vetted abroad. This is why the stuff about refugees have to be vetted. It’s like the whole system as refugees get vetted abroad. And then they get transported into the United States, right, and resettled. An asylum seeker is somebody who kind of self selects and says, I’m gonna try and enter the United States. They have the right. We are signatories to the 1967 UNHCR protocols on asylees, that says, anyone has the right to set foot in a country literally foot and say, hey, I have fear of persecution if I go back. And then you get a hearing, like, oh, well, he says he can’t go back. So let’s hear you know, and like, even under that system, it was pretty hard to get recognized. But you did have the right to be here until your case was heard. With Title 42, with the remain in Mexico or so-called migrant protection protocols, with much of the policy we’ve seen and unfortunately, I can’t say this is just Trump, this has been evolving since really late Carter, Reagan. Suddenly people claiming asylum — because it’s a very interesting, it gives the asylum seeker a lot of agency, like you’re at the border, you don’t have documents, and you say, I have certain rights, like, you know, no country wants to hear that from some upstart human. Like you have rights? You have rights, oh go to hell. You know, like, and now we see that asylum seekers are being demonized, like, so you can leave your home country because somebody said they would kill your family and started in and maybe killed a couple of them, you walk from that country, or you take out a boat from that country at great risk and expense and danger. You walk overland you get to the border, and it’s like, oh, well, you know, we’re gonna kind of let you in just because you say that you’re at risk.
Nima: Yeah, I think we see the same thing with the endless “war on” language of, you know, namely, War on Drugs, right? And so it is very difficult to actually talk about immigration and migration honestly without discussing those things, as you were saying, whether it’s NAFTA, whether it is the CIA, literally just couping an entire continent, but also this militarization of not only police departments but also the transnational war on drugs. And the idea that these are often kind of separate discussion points in our media kind of reveals a lot. Can you talk about how our media consistently obscures the role that the US has played, along with very close allies in creating the very conditions that you’ve just been laying out? How this really fits into the refugee versus migrant versus legal immigration questions.
Rachel Ida Buff: Yeah, no, let me just say that I’m really appreciating the verb “to coup,” and I’m going to use it now so thank you for that. But yeah, absolutely. And I think we also have to add in here the War on Drugs, absolutely, the War on Terror. Because it’s important, it needs to be said that there has not been immigration reform, there’s been no immigration law, federal immigration law, which is harder ball of wax, but there’s been no federal law since 1996. What there has been since 2001, is Homeland Security appropriations. Very few people vote against DHS appropriations bills. So it’s like it’s one big like, even the fact that the immigration service becomes the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 tells you everything you need to know. So we’re going to pursue the War on Terror. We’re going to pursue the War on Drugs. What does that mean? It’s like really great to the military industrial-complex because we’re going to be like, all of the low-intensity conflicts that we fought in places like Columbia, places where we’re like fighting a war, but not fighting a war, all of that technology goes to the border — infrared lights, like black helicopters, all that stuff goes to the border to fight the War on Drugs, to fight the War on Terror. Like after 9/11, the federal government implemented the NSEERS program, which screened Arab and Muslim men. And so they all you know, anyone who’s not a citizen has to register and it was presented, like in this very disingenuous way as like, you know, this is gonna really help your community because, you know, we’re gonna figure out who the troublemakers are, and everyone else is going to be really safe. So, you know, there’s some pretty appalling stories about you know, legit community activists, encouraging people to register under NSEERS like, this is how we’re going to prove our loyalty and there’s going to be a problem because there was so much intense, entire about anti-Muslim racism and hate crimes after 9/11. All these people registered, and like thousands of Arab and Muslim men get detained, like suddenly their families are like, where’s dad? Nobody can find him for months. None of those people, not one of them, there was no incidents of terror found. We know it was like, oh, Hakim forgot to renew his visa. Damn, deported. All of the deportations were for immigration infractions, which is now seen as a kind of terrorism because you’re brown and you’re illegal so like, we just assume the rest, right? Same thing with the War on Drugs like right after Biden was elected, he sent Kamala Harris to Central America, and she’s in Guatemala. Just don’t come, y’all. Just don’t come, we’re gonna give you money. Like lovely, lovely gesture. So you think oh, Kamala Harris is going to figure out you know what, you know, she’s going to figure out how to like, give people in Guatemala, the work that they need, even though as we’ve discussed, it’s largely our country is at fault for why things are the way they are there. But where the money really goes after a visit like that is to arm the police there, to create more militarized borders so that it’s not just the US-Mexico border that’s militarized. It’s the Mexico-Guatemala border, it’s borders further south. We’re pumping money into the region and guns into the region. And we know that more guns makes everyone safer, right? Like, it’s really interesting question here. Because like, if you think about a country like El Salvador, we pump guns to like some pretty, not very nice individuals there to put it mildly. During the 1980s were like sending guns Reagan’s like, illegally diverting money to fund the Contras under the Iran Contra, right? We’re sending money to some, some really pretty undemocratic, pretty not above board folks. Lo and behold, fast forward 20 years, there’s a lot of like, drug-selling gangs that have those same guns, like that’s what happens when you militarize, right? And like, so that but then we have endless justification for the war on drugs that we created. Yeah. It’s kind of genius. Hey, we’re making guns, we’re making bombs. We’re doing great. This is perfect. You know, they want more technology ever, ever, ever more technology. Never, never, never, like, let’s really think about what the people of the region need. I mean, if you think about the amount of people in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan who helped the United States government who act as translators or interpreters, or guides who are promised that we’ll take care of them, if things go down wrong, who are still there, or who are not still there, because they didn’t get out and their families were rounded up and arrested or murdered. Those are like the people that were actually saying internationally like these are the good guys. These are our friends. That’s how we treat our friends like, wow.
Adam: Yeah, I think the militarization of immigration is interesting because I think that the narrative is that 9/11 happened. And then immigration moved into the Department of Homeland Security. But there was proposals to bring INS into a national security “Homeland Security Agency” in February of 2001. And it was all under the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, otherwise known as Hart-Rudman Commission. So like, emerging out of the 90s, right when they began Operation Gatekeeper and the kind of let’s starve and deprive them of water in the desert policy, that kind of hyper-militarization was seen. And it’s a point Noam Chomsky has made, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on it.
Rachel Ida Buff: I’ve been really puzzling over this. It’s like, Biden is not better than Trump on immigration. And, you know, so that’s really complicated. Biden sounds better than Trump on immigration. So money is not flowing into immigrant rights organization, like it did during the four years of the Trump administration, so it’s a little messed up. But the other piece of it is, we now have this 24-hour xenophobic spin machine on, Fox News is now actually one of the milder outposts of it. And many Americans are convinced, many white Americans are convinced that this is the problem that like drug-toting terrorist, mostly Mexicans, because that’s the imaginary right, it’s always a Mexican crossing the border, even though every single kind of person is in Mexico, trying to cross the border at this very moment but nonetheless, it’s the evil Mexicans that we hear about. Like, those are the risks and that right-wing spin machine has become more central. It has a lot of power. And I really, I think one thing that we’re seeing is that the timorous Democrats who kind of unfortunately, unlike the Republican counterparts, and to have no party discipline seem to have no program, seem to have a lot of fear. They’re obeisant to this notion that there’s such a thing, such a thing as cleaning up the border, what the heck does that mean? Right, when Eisenhower tells his West Point, buddy, Joseph Swing in 1950, he’s like, hey, Joe, why don’t you take the Sixth Army and go down and clean up the border and Joe Swing, who’s like a war hero so you know, he’s pretty used to killing people and thinking of brown people as the enemy. He’s like, you know, like, that’s the bridge too far. Like, let’s not do that. They’re just going to kill a lot of people, that’s not going to look good. So Eisenhower says, okay, well, I’m gonna make you head of the immigration service. And Swing is the perpetrator of Operation Webpack, which is this huge cleanup operation, so called at the border, it goes from the border into Mexican American communities in the southwest and California. And it brands this idea that the problem we have, and it’s really in explicitly anti-communist ways that like, these, like kind of socialist-inclined, dependent, Mexican illegals are a threat to democracy. So we’re in a similar moment where that grammar has become like I don’t think the Democrats have the political will to resist it even though in Wisconsin, the reason Wisconsin and therefore the nation went blue in 2020 was because of the organizing efforts of black and brown and immigrant organizations like literally Milwaukee. Milwaukee makes Wisconsin ws Milwaukee turns out, and a couple of other places. But Milwaukee, if Milwaukee turns out we can go sort of blue, purple. Those are the folks fighting for the Democrats to get elected against the Republicans. The Democrats then go ahead and betray them every single time. So we’ve had no motion on immigration reform from Biden. He’s kept the worst parts of the Trump agenda in place. He just doesn’t call them that. Like, the Biden administration doesn’t say, we hate these people, we’re gonna do this horrible thing, which Trump was really good at, but it still does them.
Adam: Yeah, well, one thing we’ve one distinction we tried to make on the show is that like rhetoric does matter, because like you’re inciting violence, but like, it’s maybe 15–20%. Right?
Nima: Right, there’s also actual policy.
Adam: Yeah, it’s like, not as substantive as I think some people had back when people were talking about, you know, freeing the kids from the cages and stuff. And you’re like, well, okay, but for the most part, the kids are still in the cages. And to the extent they were let go, they were trafficked into child labor regimes.
Rachel Ida Buff: Or like, nobody had been keeping track. And they were like, oh, sorry, we have this five year old nobody knows who’s like — horrible stuff. It’s still going on, detention and deportation are always family separation. But I remember driving around the country in 2019, during the family separation crisis, and like in every little town, like just normal people were out protesting this stuff. Now people are like, things are better. They’re not. They’re not at all better.
Adam: Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about the American Committee for the Protection of Foreign Born? You wrote an article about this for Jewish Currents. I thought it was very fascinating. I want to sort of touch on that if you can as a sort of example of anti-nativism in practice.
Rachel Ida Buff: Yeah, so that article comes out of my book Against the Deportation Terror, which came out as my involvement in the immigrant rights marches in Milwaukee of the early like 2005–7. We had Jim Sensenbrenner who came out of our state and was proposing like to criminalize everything including assisting, aiding and abetting undocumented people. There was a lot of protests, big 30,000 people marches and, you know, being historically-inclined, I would be like, hey, you know, where does this come from historically, and like, people would be like, I think we were planning it last week, that’s how activism is. You know, like, you can’t really think about the deep past because you’re like, just trying to survive and organize the next march, and like no one really knew. So I started digging around, and the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, founded in 1934, by the ACLU and the American Labor Defense Organization, because there started to be more and more of these anti-radical deportations like out in the west and miners strikes, people who were foreign born will be targeted for deportation as a way of undermining their organizing. So the American Committee starts in New York. It starts out and it’s predominantly led by first and second generation Jewish Americans. It’s small, and it’s a part of the Popular Front, which we’re, you know, you could say fellow traveling, not everyone in the organization is more communist, but it’s part of this broad popular front of organizations that are organizing along with communist organizers under sort of rhetoric of Americanism. So the American Committee was very much like, these are Jews in the 30s. They’re like what we see — the deportation terror, which is what they called it, and I think we have to start taking back the word terror and talking about who’s a terrorist and who isn’t. The deportation terror is part of what’s being perpetrated by Hitler, his ability to arrest and relocate is a fascist, you know, they called fascism when they saw it. So it was a small organization. And what happened with the American Committee was, they got bigger because what would happen like I talked about this in the book, this woman, Stella Petroski was targeted for deportation. She was an organizer in the Lehigh Valley, which is a really poor mining community in Pennsylvania, and the American Committee would send in a couple of lawyers and organizers. And there’d be like the Lehigh Valley Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born and this kind of radiates around the country. So this small New York organization starts working with Latinx, Mexican American organizations in the southwest against deportation. There starts to be a chapter in Los Angeles Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, which was founded in the 1950s to fight for Jews and Mexicans and Koreans who are targeted for deportation. And really interestingly, what happens with the American Committee like they’re totally targeted by the Red Scare, they have to register a system versus under the subversive activities board, their leader goes to jail because they’re working with the Civil Rights Congress, which is an African American popular font organization, the leader at the time, Abner Green, refuses to turn over records from the CRC and he goes to jail. All this stuff happens to them, but they survived the Cold War. And my argument is, the reason that they survived is there were always immigrant communities saying, you know, we need a committee for the protection of the foreign born, so they kind of like start sort of popping up all over the country in all different kinds of ethnic groups. Like if you go to their archives in the Labadie collection at University of Michigan, they’re just vast, vast case files of all the people that were defended by kind of these like add water and a lawyer and your local ACLU and whoever else you can throw together, your local civil rights organizations and fight deportation. So they actually last until the 70s and 80s. When really interestingly, the kind of old New York core people like Eric Alban, who was the defense counsel for the American Committee from the 1930s, into the 80s, they start to see like the wave of immigrants that comes after 65. And they’re like these people need representation. They start to see the Haitian refugee crisis of the 1970s and 80s, which starts under Carter, and is the basis for what we have now that the detention industrial-complex. That all starts in response to Haitians arriving here by boat, seeking asylum. People from the American Committee start working with Haitian American, with Mexican American, with Colombian American organizations, which is what they’ve been doing all along. Then I think I argue in the book, it’s a little more complicated than I can say in a radio interview. But that is one of the roots of the contemporary immigrant rights movement. But we don’t know that history. And the reason that we don’t know it, is because of anti-communism, because it wasn’t good enough to jail and deport people, it wasn’t good enough to get rid of organizations like the Civil Rights Congress. It was important to not only do that, but to get rid of the memory of it so that people sitting like I went to an activist migrant solidarity assembly in Austin, with Never Again Action, which is a Jewish-led organization that works in partnership with migrant organizations. And I gave a version of what all the stuff I’m saying now, when people younger than me, like people in their 20s and 30s sat there and said, we have never heard any of this. That’s intentional. Like we’re not supposed to know that there’s a history of fighting deportation, that there’s a history of finding ways, that there’s a history of saying deportation is always the fascist technology. I mean, it’s all there in the archives if you look for it, but if we don’t have that history, we don’t know that it existed before, right?
Adam: Yeah, a lot of that radical history is erased off like, as you mentioned, for very specific and deliberate reasons, because if you have an example from the past of kind of cross-racial solidarity, that’s not good. So you need to sort of create a narrative that to the extent to which there is racial progress, it’s handed down benevolently up high from white progressive, Protestant liberals. Like we did one criticism of like NPR’s like, they did a review of labor history and Labor Day one year and you would literally think that it was a bunch of Harvard Protestants who like created all the labor laws. No sense that there’s any kind of from the bottom radicalism that leads to these compromises. But yeah, that’s an excellent point.
Nima: Well, that’s why you know, we love having historians on the show to actually talk about this history and to illuminate it for ourselves and also for our listeners. Before we let you go, Rachel, can you tell us what you are up to these days? We know you are working on a novel, for instance.
Rachel Ida Buff: I’m working on a novel which is about immigrant rights. I think like we don’t have enough stories about just normal people who are activists, you know what I mean? Like it always, it’s like, it’s so easy to be like the evil life-hating communists of the funeral eulogy, but like, just a lot of people who like maybe would accept that and don’t know a person who actually, I had a friend a long time ago who talked about it, like brushing your teeth, like if everyone did as much activism as frequently as you brush your teeth, we would have a better country. Like if everyone just participated in something to fight the power — doesn’t have to be your whole life — I think that that’s really important. And I also wanted to tell some stories I know because I think the many stories of people fighting the deportation terror on many fronts in unlikely places — it’s always the besieged US Mexico border, right? It’s not people living, trying to survive working for an agricultural plant in Iowa. It’s not communities that are knitted together in places like Milwaukee. It’s not like the fact that, for example, the dairy industry in Wisconsin is wholly dependent on an undocumented labor, which has brought like very beautiful and interesting connections between like fifth-generation German American farmers, and very recent arrivals from Central America, like those people wind up needing each other in really interesting ways. So the novel is kind of trying to talk about that. And I’m also working on, I don’t know what it is yet, kind of a collection of stories that I’m calling tentatively — well, it’s either gonna be called Stray Communists or Lost in the Cold War because so many of these stories get lost. And for example, so one of the stories in that book is about Rose Chernin, who was one of the founders of the Los Angeles committee for the protection of the foreign born. She was under a deportation order for 10 or 15 years before she won her case. She was a Jewish communist, and she’s the mother of Kim Chernin, who was an early feminist who wrote an early book called The Obsession about the predecessor to fat as a feminist issue.
Nima: All that sounds absolutely amazing, we’ll obviously be looking out for the novel and everything else that you are working on, but we will leave it there. We’ve been speaking with writer, historian, and professor, Dr. Rachel Ida Buff, currently the Chair of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her writing has appeared in academic journals as well as outlets such as Jacobin, Truthout, and Jewish Currents. And she is the author of the book A Is For Asylum Seeker: Words For People On The Move, published in 2020 by Fordham University Press and look out for the upcoming novel, entitled Holy Toledo.
Rachel Ida Buff: Thank you.
Adam: Yeah, I think anytime there’s a bunch of isms and words kind of thrown out, that’s obviously, that’s kind of the entire focus of our show, in some ways, like your bullshit meter comes up. And you’re like, well, why is there a distinction between migrant/refugee? Oh, well, one is being persecuted and one isn’t? Well, what — how do you define that? What does that mean? And then you get into the details, and you look at the history in the late 40s, early 50s, and you’re like, oh, clearly, their idea of what it is to be persecuted as a very narrow, Western bourgeois idea of what it is to be persecuted.
Nima: Well, they live in a communist state rather than, well, they’re hungry and poor. So if they move, that’s just their own weird decision.
Adam: Not having healthcare. These things are not forms of persecution. These are natural law. They’re sort of the natural way of things. Now, again, you may agree with that ideology, right? You may be have that libertarian or neoliberal worldview, but it is an ideology, and it’s a contestable ideology and it’s one we should be complicating not just blindly accepting even as it has merged from that to this other kind of weirder sense racist also Cold War also, you know, we don’t want Latin American people in our country period kind of Frankenstein policy we have now but pretty much anytime, whether it’s welfare, immigration, paying for food stamps, paying for free college, whatever it is, anytime someone starts doing the deserved and undeserved taxonomy, starts sorting out the good guys and the bad guys in need of our solidarity, humanity. Anytime someone starts doing that, your wallets being picked by someone, right? Like you need to, like, why are we making these distinctions in the first place, because again, it assumes the degree of scarcity, as we talked about in episode one, and we’ll talk about more in episode three, it’s totally false scarcity. It’s not as if we don’t have the means to do much, much, much, much more than we’re doing to the extent to which it burdens our economies. It’s totally artificial. It’s only because of totally arbitrary federalist distinctions between local state and federal government.
Nima: Right, and also serves as we were just talking about to bolster the political purposes of things like the Cold War into the War on Drugs, into the War on Terror, and now into this new framework of climate migration. So we’re gonna see even more people needing to move because of climate chaos caused primarily by the wealthiest nations on Earth and hit hardest by those who have done the least to cause this. And then when those people move, they are going to be deemed national security threats to our border-obsessed nations. And you’re going to just see more militarization, more surveillance capitalism, more of the security state, and you know, it is all in service of these geopolitical policies, these geopolitical ends, but then couched when it comes to like the actual people moving and how they’re discussed in our media and in our political speech, like some are going to be more deserving, while others are just going to need to be held back and you know, fortressed out of the way by more walls and more guns. But that will do it for this episode, part two of our three-part series on immigration narratives in the media. Stay tuned for our third and final episode in this series. Thank you all for listening.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cardano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.
Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.