Scholars Trace Violent History of Immigration Policy at 'Border Inhumanities' Panel


Scholars discussed the origins and evolution of migration and border politics at a panel discussion Monday evening, pointing out violence throughout the history of American immigration policy.

Panelists at the event, which was hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center, also highlighted how immigration intersects with issues of women’s reproductive rights, racial prejudice, and criminal activity. The discussion followed recent reports of forced hysterectomies on migrants in a Georgia detention facility, as well as long-standing sanitation issues in detention centers.

The event — the second in a three-part series entitled “Border Inhumanities” — was moderated by History professor Kirsten Weld. Panelists included University of Massachusetts at Amherst Professor Laura J. Briggs, Emory University Acting Professor Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Associate Professor A. Naomi Paik.

Despite the increased national attention toward immigration policy under the Trump administration, the panelists warned against what they called “Trump exceptionalism”: the idea that issues at the border are new or worse under the current leadership than they were previously. Several panelists alluded to policies enacted by the Clinton and Obama administrations that restricted and criminalized migrants.


“We get the impression that the solution to this is going to be a new president,” Briggs said. “In fact, what we see is Democrats, the Democratic Party, channeling opposition to the kinds of immigration policies that Trump has enacted. And yet, they are not that different from Democratic policies over a long period of time.”

Paik argued that the history of anti-black racism is intertwined with the history of immigration, referencing the 1929 Undesirable Aliens Act that criminalized unauthorized border crossing in the U.S. South Carolina Senator Coleman L. Blease — who led the push for the law in Congress — was a devout segregationist.

“I think it’s really important for us to think about how these kinds of tactics by the state to expel, exclude, and deport people are mobile,” Paik said.

The panelists also argued that those in power have continuously tried to portray and justify this history within a nationalistic narrative.

“It was a strong reminder that everything we're seeing with border inhumanities in our modern day is a repeat of history, and part of the reason we repeat history over and over again is because we never learn history accurately,” said Josephine M. Kim, a Graduate School of Education lecturer who attended the event. “It's intentionally kept out of our history books, and narratives are told from a single perspective only.”

Many migrants have already faced trauma in their home countries, Guidotti-Hernandez noted, such as domestic violence, genocide, and organized crime.

Panelists also described a paradox between the economic necessity of immigrant labor and the criminalization of these marginalized communities.

“Historically, the United States has wanted people’s bodies and labor, but not their reproduction, and not their citizenship,” Briggs said. “And so as long as Mexico and Central America and a host of other places can function — essentially bantustans — as reserves of labor that can be called up at certain moments and sent back at other times, people are welcome.”

Despite a focus on disheartening facets of the country’s immigration system, the panel ended on a note of hope. Guidotti-Hernández said she sees “real opportunities” to help one another and “find our voices” in the current climate.