*Editor’s Note: This essay is part of the Abusable Past’s “The Border is the Crisis” Series*
In today’s immigration discourse, history seems to be made and unmade daily via the president’s Twitter account or through a barrage of administrative actions, rule changes, proclamations, and executive orders. President Trump will declare his version of the truth about migration one day, deny it the next, and reassert the original thought a day later. Migrants and advocates push back too, often using the courts to check the administration, which then returns with another volley of unconstitutional policies until one passes legal muster.
The whiplash is overwhelming at times, pushing us all to demand, search for, and provide historical context. Take family separation and “zero-tolerance,” for example, which the Trump administration piloted, then implemented, and only partially halted. Was it an invention of the Trump administration, or to what extent did the Obama administration, or their predecessors, separate families first? Thinking more broadly, isn’t separation part of all forms and stages of migration—from historic displacement abroad, to border processing, to detention and deportation, and even for those in sanctuary? And while Barack Obama earned his title ‘deporter-in-chief’ for formal removals, if you are looking for presidential thumbprints on immigration enforcement, it really depends how far you want to go back.
The issue of immigration is bound up in the nation’s founding laws, in every military conflict, in the Cold War, in the Civil Rights Movement, in economic booms and busts, and in regional xenophobia that becomes national anxiety. It’s never one of these issues, but all of them, a continuum of fits and starts with a cumulative consolidation of power. A focus on one issue detracts from the others, as well as the big patterns, the legal precedents, and the resilient ability of migrants to build lives after arrival and despite hostile receptions. While presidents, pundits, and even mass shooters draw from U.S. histories of xenophobia and exclusion, they rarely acknowledge it (or, at best, they cherry-pick such histories and rhetoric) and instead speak from the moment, from the “crisis” or spectacle of the day, to advance regressive policies steeped in age-old racial animus.
‘3 Mexican Countries’
In considering the “abusable past” in immigration history-making, I want to take two risks here. The first is to bypass whatever last night’s Tweet was or the most recent and predictable mass shooting and look backwards within the Trump administration, roughly six months ago—an epoch in Trump’s frenetic and unilateral policy-making. The second risk is to consider seriously a mistaken suggestion from Fox News (yes, that Fox News) in how they frame Latin American migration.
On Sunday March 31, 2019, three Fox morning news hosts correctly reported that the Trump administration was cutting aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for the nations’ purported inability to stem the outward flow of asylum seekers transmigrating through Mexico. Their visual graphic for the report, however, infamously said, “Trump Cuts Aid to 3 Mexican Countries.” Huh? “3 Mexican countries?” The gaffe spawned a bevy of humorous memes on social media—my favorite a map of all Latin American nations as a single Mexican one, with regions like “soccer Mexico,” “oil Mexico,” and “Communist Mexico,” among others. The blunder elicited an on-air apology from a Fox News co-host hours later.
But was this a blunder? Treating the entire Western Hemisphere (except the United States and Canada) as Mexico is not too far from the truth in terms of racial politics and past and present migration policy proposals. “3 Mexican Countries” is on one hand a dangerous lie and racist sleight of hand, and on the other, a test balloon for even further rightward drift in immigration policy.
The error is reflective of the overemphasis and normalization of Mexico in border-centric immigration-thinking—from bipartisan policy choices and placement of boots on the ground to Trump’s dream of a border wall and long-term illustrations of the U.S.-Mexico border as a chaotic spectacle diverting attention from everything else. Non-Mexican migrants and their needs and histories traditionally get short shrift, unless their migration is framed, often by multiple sides of the debate, as a “crisis,” and thus unlike normative Mexican migration patterns. “3 Mexican countries” takes the obfuscation of “other than Mexicans” (OTMs) one step further, conflating all migration as Mexican migration, or in other words, “you’re all Mexicans.” As such, the Fox News gaffe is at once an historical observation and policy recommendation. It deserves a little more attention than just laughter.
A Single Mexican Race
Racially speaking, it’s not uncommon to hear people speak of all Latinas/os/xes as Mexicans. A comparison might be to refer to all Asians or Asian Americans as Chinese or the local regionally dominant Asian community, or the increasingly diverse set of black Americans as African Americans, or indigenous North Americans of many nations under a single racial moniker. For Mexicans, there are demographic and racial histories that underscore their significance at the expense of other Latinas/os/xes. Nearly two-thirds, or 63.3% of the over 58 million Latinas/os/xes in the United States are of Mexican origin, and it’s always important to recall that about 1/3 of the U.S. landmass (of 48 states) was once Mexico proper.
The primacy of Mexican presence in the United States—and simplistic reductions of this fact—has masked Latina/o/x heterogeneity and new migration patterns which have loosened Mexicans’ demographic grip. Recent years have seen an increased lawful and unlawful migration from Asia and other parts of Latin America. Mexicans no longer represent majorities of new undocumented migrants (less than 20% over the last five years) nor a majority of the total of 10.5 million undocumented, of which Mexicans represent, for the first time in half a century, less than one-half. The majority of new undocumented migrants arrive lawfully through visas (that expire later) or through the asylum process (which is also legal), especially from what Fox News called the “3 Mexican countries” of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Mexico has also occupied a special place in histories of migrant enforcement. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mexicans were treated and quarantined as potential carriers of diseases at the southern border at far higher rates than European migrants at Ellis Island. Territorially, so were other migrants passing through Mexico, including returning U.S. citizens. Geographically, then, the Mexican space was also presumed to be uniformly contagious.
As well, in the 1930 national census, “Mexican” was listed as a racial category, as if it was a substitute for “brown” to go along with white and black. If you were not Mexican, but of Latin American origin, what box did you choose? Was the goal to count more Mexicans, or less? The racial box-checking coincided with a decade-long coerced repatriation campaign targeted at Mexicans and their Mexican American children between the world wars, which would be repeated again in the 1950s. Although the 1930 census was almost 100 years ago—and we witnessed this past year the Trump administration’s effort to game the 2020 census—the conflation today of all Latin American groups as racially Mexican persists in the popular imagination, and as I am suggesting here, it is a repeated tool of anti-immigrant policymakers.
Mexico and Asylum
When it comes to asylum-seeking, Mexicans rarely figure into the discussion, except as a foil to successful asylum claims, even though Mexican nationals have fled poverty, revolutions, organized crime, and natural disasters for centuries. Jenna Loyd and Alison Mountz in Boats, Borders, and Bases: Race, the Cold War, and the Rise of Migration Detention in the United States detail the formation of contemporary refugee policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Haitian asylum processing served as a laboratory for policies considered normative today—mandatory detention, interdiction at sea, mass hearings, and third-country detention. Loyd and Mountz explain how Democratic and Republican administrations justified the denial of asylum to Haitians by equating them to Mexicans, as paradigmatic economic migrants, relying upon what Loyd and Mountz call “the common sense of Mexican excludability.” In other words, Mexicans often represent a low threshold in the immigration rights regime, and it’s productive for administrations to locate others in their space.
As with Haitians, in the contemporary context of Central American-asylum seeking, the concept of the “3 Mexican countries” informs key features of the Trump administration’s policy agenda. In March 2019, Kirstjen Nielsen, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, wrote Congress seeking “legislative solutions” to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), which grants the right to an immigration hearing to child migrants from noncontiguous nations who are ‘other than Mexicans’ and non-Canadians. Mexican (and Canadian) unaccompanied minors do not have that right and Nielsen argued that, as a result, the Bush-era law creates a “dangerous ‘pull’ factor.” Nielsen, one week before her resignation, lamented the inability to remove Central Americans as quickly as Mexicans. “We need the authority to treat all arriving migrant children equally” (my emphasis), wrote Nielsen, meaning to treat them “all” like Mexican child migrants.
If, as Fox News inadvertently suggests, you can turn all asylum seekers from Latin America and the Caribbean into Mexicans—the classic model for economic migrants—then it’s game over for asylum. It should come as no surprise that Mexican nationals have the highest rate of asylum denial (88%)—more than any other sending nation. When measured by successful asylum claims, Mexicans are the lowest rung on the ladder of asylum. Any attempt, then, to extend Mexican marginality to others is not folly, but a serious policy suggestion.
The Trump administration’s recent efforts at unilaterally making all of Latin America a “safe third country” to stifle asylum claims further echo the “3 Mexican countries” strategy. The United States has long relied on Mexico as a buffer zone between it and Latin America, pressuring Mexico to direct its enforcement efforts at its southern neighbors. In recent years, for example, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the United States. The Trump administration also sought to declare Mexico a”safe third country”—that would have forced asylum seekers to seek refuge in Mexico before requesting asylum in the United States—which Mexico rejected. Mexico, however, relented on the U.S.-Mexico “remain in Mexico” policy, or Migrant Protection Protocols, which beginning in 2019 permits the United States to return non-Mexican asylum seekers to Mexico as they await their asylum proceedings. The binational plan transforms Mexico into a third country host for refugees and not just a transmigratory space. The Trump administration implemented a parallel version of this policy called “metering” in 2018 which slowed border asylum processing to less than 100 persons a day, also stranding non-Mexican asylum seekers in Mexico.
Pressing even further, in July 2019, the Trump administration attempted to administratively implement a universal “safe-third country” policy barring asylum from anyone who passed through another “safe” country before reaching the United States. It effectively would have created a Central American barred zone—similar to the Asiatic Barred Zone in 1917—limiting asylum for Latin Americans who almost entirely travel by land through Mexico. The administrative rule was quickly blocked in federal court but the Trump administration responded by signing a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, moving the choke point for asylum from Mexico south to one of the “3 Mexican countries.”
The result of these asylum policies is to make Mexico—and perhaps Guatemala if its safe third country agreement withstands legal challenges—the final destination or deportation site for transmigrating asylum seekers. Geopolitical interests have always impacted the asylum and refugee processes, especially Cold War purviews, but these latest moves, all outside of the legislative process, reflect Trump’s total opposition to asylum and other forms of relief for migrants. Only a week after cancelling aid to the “3 Mexican countries,” for example, Trump declared that the United States should “get rid of the whole asylum system,” adding, “And frankly we should get rid of judges.”
Vulgar Racism and Xenophobia
The Trump administration’s barrage of anti-immigrant policies is supported by the president’s sweeping, one-size-fits-all, racist and dehumanizing rhetoric conflating all Latinas/os/xes, citizens and non-citizens alike, into a singular racial enemy. The point is not that the racial enemy is explicitly Mexican—although sometimes it is—but that we must consider the naked and vulgar simplicity of Trump’s racial animus. As historian Mae Ngai told the Los Angeles Times in response to Trump’s racist and sexist “go back . . . from which they came” comments made to political opponents, Ngai stated plainly, “Excuse me for being so frustrated, but there’s not a lot to parse here. This is just racism.”
Donald Trump is a consistent purveyor of racist and violent speech, often repeated or admired by mass shooters, white supremacists, participants at Trump rallies, and immigration authorities. He has referred to immigrants—often specifically Latina/o/x immigrants—as “animals,” “rapists,” “murderous thugs,” and their desire for asylum as an “invasion.” When reports (by the media, advocates, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General) broke about the administration’s abusive and deadly treatment of child and adult detainees in its custody, Trump denied it, calling the accounts “phony and exaggerated” and a “hoax.”
The administration knows that sweeping racist rhetoric and policies provide cover for policymakers, permitting them and the general public to ignore the complexities of migrants’ lives, especially the reasons they are displaced from their home countries in the first place. Racist and dehumanizing characterizations of migrants take the place of common sense queries about why an individual, or family, or caravan of people would leave their home country on a perilous journey only to be greeted with hostility. This willful ignorance is a central impediment in U.S. immigration policymaking and popular understandings of past and present migration histories.
The concept of “3 Mexican countries” both flows from and inspires the sweeping racial statements and actions of the president and his followers. Recall that although the El Paso mass shooter sought to stem “the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” he also told police he traveled to El Paso to shoot “Mexicans” explicitly. Further, when Trump told naturalized and U.S.-born politicians to “go back” to where they’re from, he was expressing his distaste not just for migrants, but nonwhite citizens. Recall that Trump is the leader in the “birtherism” movement that questioned Barack Obama’s citizenship and propelled Trump’s political career. Now in office, he is proposing to end birthright citizenship, targeted at nonwhite citizens born in the United States.
So when Trump stirs his followers to repeat his new campaign chestnut, “send her back,” it doesn’t matter where, because any Mexican country will do, and all of Latin America is Mexico. Whereas Latinas/os/xes are the frequent target of President Trump, so are Black Americans, Muslims, the news media, and political opponents. The racist mass-killings in Pittsburgh in October 2018, Gilroy, CA in July 2019, and a week later in El Paso in August 2019 were responses to presidential calls to arms rooted in anti-Latina/o/x sentiments, but easily expandable to other racial groups. That’s because sweeping, undifferentiated racial categories—which have a long, presence in immigration history, including spatial categories like “3 Mexican countries”—are the abusive tools of marketers, media hucksters, politicians, and mass shooters.
David Hernández is Associate Professor of Latina/o Studies at Mount Holyoke College. His research focuses on immigration enforcement, the U.S. detention regime, in particular. He is completing a book on this institution titled Alien Incarcerations: Immigrant Detention and Lesser Citizenship for the University of California Press. He is also the co-editor of Critical Ethnic Studies: A Reader (Duke University Press, 2016).