The Nativist Tradition

The Nativist Tradition

Two recent books put the reemergence of anti-immigrant sentiment in the Trump era into historical relief.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 on Liberty Island in New York Harbor. (Corbis/Getty Images)

America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States
by Erika Lee
Basic Books, 2019, 432 pp.

All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics as We Know It
by Daniel Denvir
Verso, 2020, 352 pp.

In 1774, just two years before he helped pen the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote a preamble to his more famous denunciation of British rule of North America. In “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson stressed that his

ancestors possessed a right, which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.

Migration, he thundered, was the right of all. It was the foundation for the freedom he would fight for just a few years later.

The political language of those revolutionary years struck universal notes. Rights were “natural,” “inalienable,” possessed by all. Much of this rhetoric seemed to transcend both history and geography. Indeed, centuries later echoes of it could be heard in the words of revolutionaries the world over as they struggled to forge a postcolonial order. But Jefferson’s writings also betray the racial ideology of his particular time and place. The Declaration’s grievances against King George III famously denounced the incitement of “domestic insurrections” of Native Americans and slaves. The right to roam where one willed and to live free was circumscribed by various markers of difference. If the ultimate end—freedom from monarchical domination—could only be realized through migration, that implied conquest and the subordination and unfreedom of others—native, black, propertyless.

Two new books, one by renowned historian Erika Lee and the other by writer and Jacobin podcaster Daniel Denvir, explore immigration politics through the histories of xenophobia and nativism. Both authors take us from the colonial era to the present. Denvir and Lee have written profoundly different books in both style and structure, but they share a mission: to correct the misperception that Trump’s nativism is a profound departure from our political norms. His politics, they insist, tap into a political tradition that has shaped every stage of U.S. history.


As far back as the early eighteenth century, panic over an influx of European migrants led colonies like Pennsylvania to institute an immigration registry, a specific tax on immigrants, and a requirement that Catholic migrants disavow the Pope. In America for Americans, Lee traces the vitriol that greeted each set of newcomers. First, it was Germans (“strangers to our laws and constitutions,” “the most ignorant . . . of their own nation”); then Catholics (“mass of alien voters,” “foreign criminal or pauper”); Chinese (“moral and racial pollution,” “filthy, vicious, ignorant, depraved, and criminal”); Jews, Irish, Italians, and other Southern and Eastern Europeans (“as bad as Negroes,” “moral cripples”); Mexicans (“low-grade Spaniard, peonized Indian, and negro slave mixe[d] with negroes, mulattoes, and other mongrels, and some sorry whites”); Japanese (“enemy within our gates”); then Muslims (“the greatest Trojan horse,” adherents to “a religion that promote[d] the most murderous mayhem on the planet”); and finally, Mexicans again (“criminal aliens”).

Staring down this long list of targets leads to an inescapable question: why were some of these migrant populations eventually accepted while others were subjugated or expelled? For Lee, it’s impossible to answer this question without understanding xenophobia as a distinct iteration of racism tied to the political needs of settler colonialism. Eighteenth-century German migrants, for instance, initially faced a torrent of abuse. But Anglo settlers came to recognize them as uneasy partners in continental conquest: uneasy because the political project of self-governance entailed making these lowly figures into political equals; partners because natives weren’t going to dispossess themselves. Colonialism resolved the tension: westward expansion served as a “safety valve” for the “social problem” of increased European immigration and helped lessen the scourge of wage dependency in favor of the pastoral independence mythologized by Jefferson. In fact, recruiters “directly encouraged and facilitated migration with promises of free land, economic opportunity, religious toleration, and political liberty.” The political imperative to turn a continent peopled by native nations into a laboratory of white self-governance, then, permitted the transformation of Germans into equals.

But what of those who followed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Lee argues, in part, that distinctions in treatment were rooted in historically contingent claims on property that were steeped in ideas about race and gender. The bulk of early German migrants may have been perceived as lesser whites, but their Protestantism made them white enough. Chinese men, on the other hand, had both the wrong skin and a deviant culture. Settlers saw them simultaneously as covetous of white women and as sexually transgressive for engaging in reproductive labor (like cooking). True men’s work, by contrast, followed the tradition of John Locke: Mixing one’s labor with land gave one the right to property, which enabled men to make claims on government to protect their households. Real (white) men took land, fenced, and cultivated it—growing crops on conquered grounds was their path to popular power. Immigrants who threatened to take jobs, lower wages, or not work at all disturbed the foundations of property relations and, thus, freedom. Lee relates this history to recurrent cries against supposed migrant sexual deviance and the “hyper-breeding” of immigrant women. Today, defenses of work and family persist in talk of welfare cheats and “anchor babies.” An effective ban on homosexual migration was only repealed in 1990.

For Lee, xenophobia is not just a fear that occasionally wracks U.S. history but an ideology, a central pillar in how Americans have understood themselves over centuries. Lee is right to emphasize continuities. But her definition of ideology—she calls it “a set of beliefs and ideas” that “promotes an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants and demonizes foreigners (and, crucially, people considered to be ‘foreign’)”—leads her to elide a thorny, and politically salient, part of the story. There was nothing irrational about English subjects who believed they possessed English liberties feeling their power threatened by an influx of German migrants who, by definition, didn’t possess such liberties. Likewise, there’s little irrational in white middle-management suburbanites doing almost anything to prevent their Mexican maids from winning freedom. It’s not that their way of making sense of the world is false or irrational, it’s only that, in a literal sense, this sense-making is partial: they believe they worked hard to own property to protect their family and secure their self-rule. Meanwhile they ignore any questions that threaten the feeling that they deserve their station and others deserve the one underneath them. Do the maids not also work hard?

The earlier chapters of America for Americans are brilliant in exploring the rituals of race-making through social history. But as Lee moves into the twentieth century, elites increasingly become the book’s central subjects. Their xenophobia appears passed down and largely accepted rather than a contested ideology created by a particular bloc of U.S. citizens to make sense of and attempt to control the social terrain they encountered. As the social fades, the history loses some of its dimensions. There is no discussion, for instance, of why organized labor was once a crucial force of anti-Chinese agitation but, by the twenty-first century, has come to embrace the fight for immigrant labor rights, however imperfectly.

Nevertheless, Lee makes a compelling case for the centrality of elites in shaping the nature of nativist thought and action. Her catalog of xenophobes includes world-renowned statesmen and businessmen, celebrated scientists, Pulitzer Prize winners, Harvard professors, political leaders, and best-selling authors. Benjamin Franklin expressed distaste for “swarthy” immigrants and “all blacks and tawneys,” preferring instead “the lovely white.” California state attorney general and prominent publisher Frank M. Pixley described Chinese people as “thoroughly antagonistic in every particular, in race, color, language, religion, civilization, and habits of life altogether from our people.” Eugenicist Madison Grant’s widely read 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race drew the praise of both Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Lee, in other words, emphatically insists that the American nativist tradition was made not solely by the rage of the rabble but was rather a political project that was stewarded by the nation’s most powerful people.

As we move closer to the present, however, Lee’s description of the elite narrows in scope. She portrays xenophobia in the late twentieth century as a project driven primarily by the political right, and not without reason. The central avatars of recent anti-immigrant politics—from Pat Buchanan to Tom Tancredo, to say nothing of Donald Trump—are all reactionary figures. Lee doesn’t shy away from describing the egregious words and deeds of liberals, but one emerges with the impression that their xenophobia was a bug, not a feature, of their politics. Bill Clinton, for instance, drastically militarized the border patrol, expanded the grounds for deportation, and passed legislation that deprived immigrants of social services. Yet Clinton’s escalation of anti-immigrant politics merits roughly four pages in Lee’s book—about the same number of pages given to 1990s Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s failed campaign to implement similar policies in California.


In its analysis of our recent past, Daniel Denvir’s All-American Nativism provides a useful complement to Lee’s book. Denvir covers much of the same ground but focuses most closely on the history of nativism since the passage of the 1965 Hart−Celler Act. The new law provided some opening of immigration from places like Asia and Africa by allocating roughly 20,000 visas per Eastern Hemisphere country each year, but for the first time put a cap on and effectively criminalized long-standing Western Hemisphere migration patterns from places like Mexico that had much higher rates of entry (the earlier bracero program had allowed as many as 400,000 guest workers from Mexico into the United States each year). Denvir calls particular attention to the pivotal role played by liberals in creating these immigration restrictions.

In his telling, liberals’ genteel embrace of nativist policy comes from a fundamental contradiction—the desperate need for hyper-exploitable labor and the impossibility of undocumented labor’s political freedom. Their attempt to resolve this problem results in spectacular displays of moral depravity and political idiocy. In the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first, prominent Democratic leaders attempted to outflank Republicans in hopes of gaining approval from “moderate” constituencies and cooperation from recalcitrant congressional colleagues. Even at the moment of the passage of Hart−Celler, Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy accepted nativist framings of racial order, promising that the “the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.” Denvir reminds us of California Senator Dianne Feinstein bragging in the 1990s of “[leading] the fight to stop illegal immigration,” while Attorney General Janet Reno proudly proclaimed, “The days when the border served as a revolving door for illegal immigrants are over.” Bill Clinton’s senior advisor Rahm Emanuel stressed that the president could “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” The pattern has continued to the present: whenever liberals complain of Trump’s depraved treatment of immigrants, Denvir reminds us that formal removals of undocumented immigrants increased dramatically under Obama.

But why did so many leading liberals, some of whom garnered substantial support from Latinx constituents, indulge in anti-immigrant politics? One answer Denvir considers is that they were meeting voters where they already were. Since 1968, Gallup has conducted national polls on opinions about immigration. The number of U.S. citizens who have sought to reduce the immigrant population has almost always outnumbered by far those who sought its increase. The only exception to this half-century trend was in the early years of the Trump administration, though it’s hard to tell if this was a temporary reaction to the election result or a broader shift in opinion. Denvir doesn’t dismiss these attitudes; in a way, he writes, “the new immigration did pose a threat to the US order.” Summarizing legal scholar E. Tendayi Achiume, Denvir provocatively argues that “migration from a Global South pillaged for centuries by colonial powers is in fact, in many ways, an act of decolonization.” Self-interested U.S. citizens recoil at the thought of not just increased migration but potential immigrant power. And rightly so: their way of life depends on U.S. global dominance and a militarized (and criminalizing) migration system that produces a hyper-exploitable labor force.

Democratic Party strategy, to the extent that one exists, has been to attempt to split the difference in public opinion. As Denvir shrewdly notes, leading centrists have joined the nativist wing of the GOP to rail against illegal immigration as a way to make the case for legal migration. Looking right, liberals have seen a faction of business elites clamoring for cheap labor and a faction of nativists barely concealing their call for ethnic cleansing. Rather than fighting for the rights and liberties they supposedly hold dear, liberals have mostly sided with the business class. Moral questions about this strategy aside, the recent past reveals its practical folly. In immigration policy as in many other areas, the liberal embrace of conservative positions hasn’t led to compromise but has allowed the right to push for even more. Even in Denvir’s illuminating narrative of bipartisan nativism, the right tends to be in the driver’s seat, with liberals playing the part of deluded passengers.

Like Lee, Denvir’s most powerful analysis comes in his interpretation of earlier history when nativism appears as a social phenomenon rather than solely a tool of elite rule. Indeed, Denvir astutely draws on the history of the Great Migration to explain the development of nativist logic in the twentieth century. The massive movement of black Southerners to Northern and Western cities “created a model for resisting immigration: a template of white identity politics organized for territorial defense against the fiscal, criminal and demographic threats posed by racial others.” Under formal (which is to say legal) American apartheid, white Americans required the labor of black workers but rejected their political freedom. That tension has carried on into the postindustrial present: the United States cannot function without undocumented immigrant labor, and, in the nativist narrative, it cannot function with their freedom either.

Here historian Barbara Fields’s insight on the roots of racism proves indispensable for Denvir. Fields insists that it was the increased reliance on slave labor in conjunction with the proclaimed equality of American democracy that necessitated the belief in the racial inferiority of people of African descent. Faced with the incongruency between the need for colonization and the plantation, on the one hand, and cries for universal emancipation on the other, “white” settlers developed an ideology of racial inferiority that validated their domination. The struggle to create self-governing equals, in short, required the subjugation of those deemed categorically unequal. In Denvir’s reading, just as waves of migration dramatically transformed America’s social terrain, so too did nativist ideology transform and adopt new rituals to justify and retain white power in the land of proclaimed universal liberty.


Lee and Denvir’s histories of anti-immigrant politics are bracing but bleak. They make a more liberatory migration politics appear distant, if not impossible. But if there’s going to be any basis for emancipatory politics in the future, it must be built on the contradictions of our present. Those contradictions are embedded in everyday social relations where racial ideologies are produced and reproduced, rather than in the inconsistencies and depravities of elites.

Just as the enemies of slavery and monarchical rule upended hereditary hierarchy, so too, perhaps, can we turn national borders—and the domination they fortify and produce—from a given to a problem. The chances of abolishing borders might be slim, but they are impossible without discarding the idea that immigration is a political challenge imposed on the United States. Instead we should insist on seeing migrant struggles as part of a global labor crisis.

For much of the history Lee and Denvir consider, the majority of the world labored as subsistence workers in fields or in households. While today’s nativism echoes the xenophobia of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the world in which we live is profoundly different. Today most of the world’s workers sell their time and energy to others for wages in capitalist labor markets. This revolution in social relations took place within living memory, with the best estimates pointing to the 1980s as the tipping point in which the majority of the global population became wage dependent. According to the historian Aaron Benanav, the postwar demographic boom, the global Green Revolution, and waves of deindustrialization combined to produce a surplus population of approximately 1.3 billion who are chronically underemployed and toiling in irregular or “informal” work. In the United States and around the world, in other words, billions are compelled to sell their labor power at an unsustainable price. These are the social conditions that produced the recent politics of popular revolt against established elites. They are also the root of the precarity that often drives migration. In our world defined by global supply chains and interlocked labor regimes, the insecurity of workers born in the United States is, quite literally, tied to the struggles of precarious migrant workers.

Understanding how elites deploy power and frame social problems is essential. But forging the solidarity needed to dismantle domination will also require telling histories from below that bind our collective interests and dreams. One useful framework to that end is what political theorist Nancy Fraser calls the “crisis of care”: the increasingly strained relationship between capital accumulation and social reproduction. This crisis is sometimes understood in nationally bound terms—in the United States, for example, through the difficulty of maintaining “work-life balance,” or through the prohibitive costs of caring for aging parents and young children.

But this crisis of care is transnational. From the 1970s onward, unable to sustain themselves or their families, millions of migrants trekked to work in the United States and other wealthier countries to send remittances back home. Migrant women often labor in domestic spaces or the low-wage health sector, working or caring for people who themselves often work for meager wages and are stretched too thin to look after their own loved ones. The profound disruption in social reproduction has thus occurred on at least two scales: transnationally for migrants whose families are separated by the demands of global capital, and nationally within households and hospitals and nursing homes that often outsource care work to poorly paid immigrants.

The Trump presidency has produced a powerful literature examining the historical roots of the contemporary political crisis. Lee and Denvir’s histories of nativist power are outstanding additions to the genre. Yet we still lack many accounts of the emancipatory visions of those enduring the profound crisis of care. Naming and shaming elites helps identify culprits. Understanding the richness and texture of the lives of workers can help us get on the path to defeat them.

Joel Suarez is an Assistant Professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.