Slate interview on Culling the Masses

Scarily, the potential congressman’s credo is nothing new. Here’s the truth on America’s racist immigration policy

BY ELIAS ISQUITH   JUNE 12, 2014

David Brat

David Brat (Credit: AP/Steve Helber)

While Speaker of the House John Boehner seems to want the media (or at least GOP donors) to think otherwise, most observers of American politics believe any chance of comprehensive immigration reform coming out of Congress this year is vanishingly small. The politics on the issue for the GOP are brutal, with the Tea Party on one side and the business wing on the other, and most Republicans see no need to create internal strife in advance of a midterm election in which they’ve got, according to Nate Silver, about even odds to retake the Senate.

Yet while it’s tempting to lambast the modern-day Republican Party — with David Brat now taking the political world by storm — as a frightful and xenophobic aberration from the welcoming, pluralistic and multicultural values embodied by the Statue of Liberty and symbolized by the metaphor of a “melting pot,” the truth may be that the most vocal opponents of immigration are the ones with a stronger claim on the model of American history. At the very least, that’s what Grinnell College professor David Cook-Martín and University of California, San Diego, professor David Scott FitzGerald argue in their new book, “Culling the Masses.” Rather than tell a story of a nation of immigrants, “Culling the Masses” is an in-depth look at how the history of immigration policies in the U.S. and all over the world challenge the general belief that democracies naturally tend toward welcoming policies of equality and anti-racism.

In order to better understand this contrarian and disturbing argument, Salon recently called up Cook-Martín to discuss the book as well as how his findings influence his view of immigration politics in the U.S. today. Our conversation is below, and has been edited for clarity and length.

Could you explain not only what your book is about, but also why you were inspired to write it?

In terms of what inspired me to write the book, after finishing a project in which I looked at citizenship laws in multiple countries … I was left with a lot of questions about how countries were selecting immigrants by race. I knew that they were selecting obviously by skills or in terms of abilities and so forth, but I had questions about how they were selecting by race or ethnicity. I was talking to the person who became the co-author of this new book about what he had found in the Mexican case. He had studied emigration from Mexico also in the long perspective and had been dealing with some of the same questions as he read some historical and legal sources on how Mexico itself was selecting immigrants by race in their immigration laws, even though they didn’t really have a lot of immigration.

So we had these questions and we thought, “Well, look, let’s just go out, do a little bit of research, and just find that book that tells about how immigration laws selected in different countries in the Americas.” The reason we wanted to look at the Americas is that most of what we had read compared the U.S. to Western Europe or countries within Western Europe, and if you do that, you get little variation in terms of different kinds of political regimes. So we wanted a little bit of variety in terms of liberal democracies, more authoritarian kinds of countries and so forth. That’s why we were looking at the Americas, because by looking at those kinds of countries you get a little more variation in that sense. We looked for that book that would do this, and we didn’t find it, so we decided — maybe foolishly; I don’t know — we decided we would do this and set out to write that book.

What we ask in the book is, “What explains the different patterns that we see in immigration and citizenship laws with respect to selecting either immigrants or prospective members or citizens?” And like anyone else, we had notions of democracy that meant that, y’know, we thought that democracies would treat everyone equally regardless of race — which appealed of course to our own political sensibilities — and, of course, we knew that there were exclusionary policies; we both are experts in immigration policy; but we didn’t realize how systematic this was, and what we saw on the ground, in terms of what actually happens with immigration laws, is that the most democratic countries — the most liberal, democratic countries — have the longest uninterrupted periods in which they selected immigrants by race.

Let’s talk about the United States. What do you think is the common understanding of the U.S. when it comes to immigration policy? Does your research challenge or complicate that conventional narrative?

With respect to the point that I mentioned earlier about the coexistence of liberal democracy on the one hand and racism in immigration law on the other hand, I think the conventional narrative is: Yes, of course, there were things like slavery, and, of course, there was racial selection; but that was just a matter of an immature liberal system, and liberal democracy over time had to work out its own internal kinks. So [racism] is sort of a passing aberration. The problem with that narrative — especially when it comes to immigration law — is that that passing aberration lasted for at least 220 years.

Let me put some dates to that: As early as 1790, with respect to nationality, the U.S. was already excluding non-whites. With respect to immigration, per se, in the 1850s, the U.S. was already saying, “No, we don’t want ‘coolies’ transported on American vessels.” And certainly by 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act began, you had a very overt exclusion against the Chinese that lasted in immigration law pretty much all the way through 1865 (although that changes when it comes to citizenship law) … From 1790 through 1952, most Asians could not naturalize, simply because they were Asian.

I think the preponderance of the historical evidence is in the direction of [racist immigration policy] not being a passing aberration or something that needed to [be] worked out. It was part and parcel of democracy — hence the title of our book.

What you just said sort of reminds me of Thomas Piketty and how his book also challenges a traditional understanding of America that is, in fact, the product of an aberrant period. For Piketty, he’s showing that the roughly 30-year period of relative economic equality following World War II is outside the norm and that the U.S. economy has usually been defined by great inequality. Your book makes a similar argument; you’re saying that the period most Americans think of when they think of U.S. immigration policy — the late 19th century until the early 1920s — was also aberrant and that the U.S. usually didn’t have such a welcoming official stance toward the rest of the world’s population.

The period between 1880 and let’s say the first World War … that period of time is often thought of as a golden age of immigration. But if you look not only at the U.S. but at most countries, whether they’re countries of immigration or emigration, it’s also a period of time at which states are building the capacity to control who comes and goes. So over time they gained more capacity and they did use it. By the time of World War I, arguably, the stem in the flow of migrants had more to do with both economics and war, but also states had built up the legal infrastructure and the administrative infrastructure to control who came and went. The closer you got to the 1930s, the more control states actually had. If that’s where you were going with it.

Can I follow up on a point that you made that I think actually contributes to the kind of analogy or link that you were drawing to Piketty’s work?

Of course.

You’re right: We have sort of judged immigration law on the postwar period, and from that perspective, the U.S. is very egalitarian … whereas both Canada and the U.S. were actually, over the long-term, extremely exclusionary, as suggested earlier. But not only that, when it [changes] around the time of World War II, it was not the U.S. and Canada saying, “Hey, let’s get right with our liberal democratic principles and change immigration so that it’s more egalitarian and doesn’t select based on race or ethnicity.” That’s not what happened. What happened is that there was sort of a series of geopolitical moments that drove the major world powers in that direction, of doing away with those kinds of exclusionary laws — and it was actually countries in the global South, Asian countries, Latin American countries, and a little later, African countries, who pushed this agenda on the world stage of anti-discrimination in immigration policy and other public policy. I think that’s another finding that some folks have found surprising, that it didn’t come from the enlightenment of the Global North but rather that that shift away from discrimination in immigration law came by advocacy from below, from some of these weaker countries.

OK, so fast-forward to today and the ongoing debate about immigration reform. Do you see any continuities with the past in terms of how the debate about immigration is conducted today?

On the continuity end, I want to say … that one of our findings is that the more open the political process is to a diversity of voices, the more likely you’re going to have some sort of exclusionary policy come from that. There are big historical qualifiers to that, but that’s a major finding. I wish that were not the case, as someone who is democratically inclined; but that’s what we find. By the way, it happens not only in democracies, but also in populist regimes that are open, at least rhetorically, to voices from below.

If I could interrupt for just a second, I want to underline the point you just made because it’s pretty counterintuitive and important. You’re saying that the more pluralist or democratic a country is, the more likely it is that its immigration policies will be exclusionary?

Yes. I don’t want to emphasize the number as much as I want to emphasize the plurality of interests represented. So let me make this more on the ground: If you were to think of a primary process happening in California in the 1870s and ’80s, [it was] very open, very democratic … because you had all these people at the table. But that led very directly to exclusions against the Chinese in California and, subsequently, that became part of federal policies … Similarly today, in those [countries] in which the political process is open to local voices, you have more of a tendency towards exclusion. The best example of that is probably SB 2070 in Arizona (and then subsequent iterations of that in different states) and in this trend to [make] immigration policy local, as opposed to the long-term trend of it being a federal domain.

Does that mean that if someone wants more inclusive, open immigration policy, they should push for a federal rather than state-by-state response?

Yes, I think so. I can add one other element to this: the higher you go up the political structure, the more there are other constraints on what actors can do. So, at the federal level, there’s one major constraint that we talk about in the book, and that’s geopolitics. It’s much harder for the executive today — let’s say Obama were to say, “We’re going to ban Mexicans by virtue of their origins; we’re just going to ban Mexicans.” Can you imagine the reputational fallout of that, and the multilateral institutions that would be involved and so forth? I’m not making a case for the fact that the U.S. is or is not answerable to these transnational intergovernmental organizations; I’m just saying they, at the federal level, are much more aware of geopolitics than Sheriff Arpaio. He’s not constrained by that so much.

Didn’t something along these lines happen in the early 20th century with then-President Teddy Roosevelt and Japan? Something about how he had to go over there and try to repair the relationship that was damaged by California’s anti-Japanese restrictions on immigration?

That’s a very astute example, actually. That’s a great example of how these geopolitics play out. So why did we sign — we meaning the U.S. — why did we sign an agreement with Japan [to] exclude Japanese immigrants as we had with Chinese immigrants? Well, partly because Japan was an empire at the time, a powerful empire, who had just upset the Russians in a war and were sort of seen as a very heavy player in the region. So it would have been very difficult to outright exclude the Japanese, and hence you end up with the gentlemen’s agreement [which was] essentially a bunch of internal memos that went back and forth between the U.S. and Japan that said Japan would take measures to self-regulate on emigration. That’s where geopolitics comes in.

The idea that there’s a divergence in priorities the higher up you go in the political hierarchy reminds me of the current dynamic within the Republican Party over immigration, in which the party’s more business-minded, elitist and educated wing — the country club Republicans, basically — want immigration reform while the more populist, salt-of-the-earth Republicans — Tea Partyers, basically — are intensely against anything they deem “amnesty” (which encompasses a lot). Considering we live in such a time of political and economic inequality, though, do you think immigration reform might happen soon because the GOP elites are more influential than the Tea Party?

I think what you pointed out about the disjuncture between conservatives on this particularly issue … I don’t think that that’s that different from what we’ve seen in the long-run. [In the past], you also had labor adamantly against immigration, basically of everyone, but it was also racialized at one point. So this issue has traditionally been one that has made for some pretty interesting bedfellows. You’ve had people like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce aligned with some left-wing folks and progressives on the immigration issue for very different reasons; and you also had the alignment in terms of division among the more conservative types, but also people who have made arguments against immigration on more environmental grounds and population grounds … you’ve had strange alliances in the past.

I think that’s because what happens with immigration is that it has two main contrasting and sometimes colliding orientations. One is to focus on issues that have to do with labor, and labor’s economic interests, and what a country needs in terms of its labor market to function as a competitive, capitalist economy. On the other hand, you have matters of the heart — or of identity, so to speak. These things, these kinds of different interests, have become more or less salient depending on context. At times, and often times, elites won on this issue of getting cheap labor, which is what they wanted … But sometimes this ideological side — what I refer to as matters of the heart and identity — sometimes that comes to the fore in such a way that even elites can’t ignore [it]. So you might find elites sometimes supporting exclusionary immigration policies even when it probably went against their own economic interests.

That makes me think immigration reform is bound to win. Not only do elites have economic interest in cheap labor, but the “heart” of America is, at least on the surface, so devoted to ideas of pluralism and diversity and the melting pot and so on, that a more ideological argument against reform — the kind you hear from Tea Party types who worry immigrants are moochers who are changing the national character — won’t be able to have mainstream appeal.

Right. Economic and also demographic imperatives … What do I mean by demographics? I’m sure you’re more than aware of the shifts that have happened in the U.S. with the growth of Latino and non-majority populations … so this is sort of a fact on the ground. What’s going to happen is that the political structure is going to have to come to terms with that. The Republicans are kind of between a rock and a hard place because … to make overtures to Latinos is going to take some time at this point, and we all know that the political game is sort of a two-year game … So on the one hand, Republicans want to please Latinos; but on the other hand, they have … the Tea Party crowd that is against immigration, and they’re the crowd you want to please for your short-term game. But on the other-other hand, they know that the long-term game is one in which they will have to engage the Latino electorate. I think that was already clear in the last election; it will be more clear as time goes on. So what do they do? I think that’s the dilemma for Republicans at this point.

Right, and the Democrats are all too happy to exploit this internal contradiction by trying to make the most controversial opponents of immigration reform — like Rep. Steve King or Sheriff Joe Arpaio — the face of the GOP on the issue. Anyway, to take a step back from the nitty-gritty of politics and look at the issue of immigration — and how liberal democracies haven’t lived by their supposed values in that regard — I wanted to ask you what this discovery meant to you on a more personal or philosophical level? Was it just kind of surprising and unexpected and interesting, or was its effect on you more significant?

It really kind of shook my assumptions about how much [racist immigration policy] was something that was just sort of an historical interest or something … that really [shook] the way I think of what’s going on today. What exactly do I mean by that? If you think of some of the very strong racist or borderline-racist rhetoric that’s out there — or even more insidiously, some of the rhetoric that purports not to be racist but is making the same kind of selections, and using the same kinds of rationales to make distinctions among people — if you think of [that] today, and the way that [it’s] sort of the very violent flailing of people who are losing privilege … I was really struck by the immediate postwar [era] in that sense.

Great Britain and Canada … now purport to be these multicultural paradises, and the U.S. [claims] to be a post-racial place; all of those [self-descriptions] really contrasted with the way that they went kicking and screaming into a period of doing away with these exclusionary laws. And they did it mostly, I think, because there were outside, big political constraints, and they wanted something [else] more than they wanted to … keep their privilege. But I don’t think that they fully comprehended the long-term consequences of, for example, opening up migration to a greater diversity of people … The U.S. is a clear example of [this] transformation, so that now you have constituencies of those very people who for over a century had been excluded, [and] they have become major political players. That really shook my world in the sense that it made me rethink now and the past; those two came into a conversation that I had not paid enough attention to.

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