This article places Black mobility and anti-Black racism at the center of the history of US immigration restriction. Black migration has often been marginalized in immigration historiography, but I argue that anti-Black racism has played a major role in creating what I term the nativist state. From the colonial era through the present, policies and practices to exclude, detain, and repatriate immigrants often first targeted Black people. In addition, constraints on Black mobility have been central to denying African Americans citizenship rights and rendering Black people foreign, even when born in the United States. Looking at moments of intersection between anti-Black racism and the nativist state serves to illuminate both systems, and to expose the ways they emerged together, reinforced each other, and recycled each other's discourses.


—UndocuBlack Network1

COUNTLESS IMMIGRANTS PARTICIPATED in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations of 2020, many risking deportation if arrested. Almost 10 percent of the Black population in the United States is foreign born: nearly five million people.2 But the protests included many non-Black immigrant participants as well. Some immigrants find a terrifying resonance in police and other racist violence against African Americans, as it resembles the police abuse they face in their own communities, the racist or xenophobic harassment they or their loved ones experience, and/or the deadly power of immigration and border authorities. As a BLM march in my Queens, New York, neighborhood chanted, “la Migra, la policía, la misma tontería,” loosely translated: ICE and the police are the same stupid thing.

Even with these parallels, however, many Latine, Asian American, and other non-Black immigrant or POC protesters were careful to keep Black experiences central in the demonstrations and social media conversations, careful not to lose the important focus on violent and systemic anti-Blackness, and attentive to reckoning with their own privileges, biases, or complicity within an anti-Black society.3 In this nuanced way, Black and non-Black immigrant protesters articulated many of the profound and troubling intersections between anti-Blackness and nativism. Those intersections became shockingly visible in September 2021, as horse-mounted Border Patrol agents violently repelled Haitians trying to cross the border in Texas, including wielding horse reins as a whip.4 By looking closely at such intersections, we can see the interlocking architecture of anti-Black racism and what I term the nativist state.

Nativism is often used to refer to extreme anti-immigrant bias or hate, but I argue that, like white supremacy or anti-Blackness, nativism is better understood as structural rather than merely psychological.5 Nativism is the systematic privileging of the native born over foreigners or those rendered foreign.6 The nativist state, then, is government's investment and involvement in maintaining and enforcing nativism as structural inequality. This framing of the nativist state draws our attention to efforts to control human mobility across national borders, to police those rendered foreign within the nation, and to use the threat of porous borders and undesirable others to consolidate political power.7

The nativist state, in its current form, includes the mechanisms of immigrant exclusion and deportation, of course, but it also extends far beyond them.8 The nativist state includes, too, the diffuse detention-carceral system, an amalgam of private prisons and shared infrastructure with the criminal legal system. It encompasses local police cooperation in immigration enforcement and the role of the National Guard and the Coast Guard in patrolling US borders. It includes cooperative agreements with foreign countries that allow the execution of US immigration policies even overseas or in international waters. Immigration enforcement and militarized border policing involve serious intrusions into people's lives, not only for immigrants but also for racialized communities within the United States, particularly near the border where checkpoints and Border Patrol stops are among the daily indignities imposed by the nativist state.9

Beyond enforcement, the nativist state refers, as well, to the requirements that only native-born citizens can be president, that even legal permanent residents must wait years and pay dearly to be citizens, that only citizens can vote in most elections, and that US citizens in territories like Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands continue to be denied federal voting rights. The nativist state includes a social service system from which immigrants—even legal permanent residents—are fully or partially excluded.10 It encompasses requirements that employers verify citizenship or right to work of all employees, even as it refers to the reality that many employers choose not to do so with relative impunity in order to facilitate exploitation. Further, the nativist state refers to the ways in which the immigration system is utilized to achieve other goals of the state. For example, after 9/11, in order to evade the habeas corpus protections in the criminal legal system, the US government utilized the immigrant detention system to hold and investigate Muslims and South Asians.11 Finally, the nativist state incorporates the ways in which even US-born groups have been legally or discursively stripped of their citizenship rights and/or national belonging.12 In all these ways and more, the native-born (although not Native) are systematically privileged over foreigners or those rendered foreign, and these privileges are backed by the full power and force of the government.13

By focusing on Black experiences, we can see that anti-Black racism has played a major role in the formation of the nativist state. African American history has long focused on migration as a central strategy in individual and collective struggles for liberation.14 Immigration history as a field, however, has rarely sustained this level of attention to Black experiences, and thus the centrality of Black migration and anti-Blackness to the US immigration system remains under-analyzed. Violet Showers Johnson argues, “The foreign-born of African descent have always been at the periphery of American immigration historiography.” She calls attention to Black migration an “enduring lacuna” in the field of immigration history.15 This scholarly marginalization obscures the centrality of Black migration to US history. From the colonial era to the present, policies and practices to exclude, detain, and repatriate immigrants have often been pioneered against Black people, and constraints on Black mobility have been central to denying African Americans citizenship rights and rendering Black people foreign, even when born in the United States.

This article places Black migration and anti-Black racism at the center of the history of US immigration restriction, nativism, and militarized exclusion.16 With this reframing, immigration history looks quite different than in our current historiography. First, by centering anti-Black racism, we see the roots of nativist exclusion in colonial-era efforts to preserve the slave system. We see the first federal policies to restrict the admission of “dangerous” foreigners implemented against Black people at the dawn of the nineteenth century, several decades before the Chinese exclusion legislation that most scholars cite as the origins of US gatekeeping.17 We see key foundations of the nativist state emerge in response to fears of Black rebellion, including the state-level architecture of immigration restriction before the Civil War. We see the centrality of anti-Blackness in shaping the major immigration legislation of the twentieth century. And finally, through this lens, we see the ways in which immigration policy served as one of many methods innovated to prevent Black people from obtaining the full rights of US citizenship. The nativist state (like the slave system, the carceral state, and Jim Crow) was—and remains—a method of subjugating Black people through violently controlling their mobility. As Guerline Jozef, president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, describes it, anti-Blackness and US immigration/border policies are all “systems to keep Black bodies in their place.”18

The importance of anti-Black racism to the formation of the nativist state is clear in an array of different historical transformations, but it is particularly overwhelming when we examine radical US efforts to exclude Haitian asylum seekers beginning in the late 1970s. Efforts to exclude this group of Black migrants provoked major changes to US policies and practices as well as a blatant disregard for international law. Many of the most despised aspects of our current system of migrant exclusion were established in an effort to deter, reject, and expel Haitians: indefinite and automatic detention of asylum seekers; offshore or beyond our borders immigration enforcement; systematic use of military personnel and military technology to defend US borders against unauthorized immigration;19 and arbitrary denial of asylum or the right to even apply for asylum. All of these practices either were first developed or reintroduced in the effort to exclude Black migrants arriving by boat as they fled the dictatorships of François and then Jean-Claude Duvalier and the military regimes that followed, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.20 Although the nativist state has its roots in much earlier eras, it was in this period, what I term the long 1980s, that it evolved into its contemporary form.21 Haitians, although only a tiny proportion of those attempting to migrate in this era, were at the center of this transformation.

Looking at this and other moments of intersection between anti-Black racism and the nativist state sheds light on both systems. The examples that follow are far from comprehensive; I endeavor merely to sketch out a few historical moments that allow us to see how these systems emerged together, reinforced each other, and recycled each other's discourses. It is not possible to address every point of intersection in an article-length essay, nor to address the moments when these two systems diverged, ran parallel to each other, or at cross purposes. Anti-Blackness and nativism also existed beyond the state and were sometimes in tension with other government goals, and that too is beyond the scope of this paper. Also missing here are the individual stories of Black migrants, the social history of Black immigrant communities, and the political history of their resistance and activism. Anti-Black racism and the nativist state, in their combined power, presented deadly obstacles to Black mobility, and thus to Black freedom. Through this lens, migration becomes visible as freedom seeking. Tremendous work remains to document Black immigration history, to illuminate the lives of those brave Black migrants who insisted on their right to seek escape, refuge, or opportunity. My goal here, however, is simply to show the tremendous obstacles they were up against.

African Rebels and Dangerous “French Negroes”

Nativism is an essential aspect of settler colonialism. Displacement and dispossession of actual Native peoples entailed the appropriation of a “native” identity by settlers as well as an array of legal policies and military violence to expel and contain Indigenous peoples beyond the borders of colonial settlement, to force them into foreignness.22 Indeed, the first deportations and exclusions in US colonial history were of Indigenous peoples, who were often prohibited from entering colonial settlements and who were frequently captured and sold off into slavery in the West Indies, particularly Native children.23 Yet we can see nativism clearly in the colonial-era slave system as well. Violent control of human mobility was essential to slavery and the slave trade, as was excluding African Americans from the rights and privileges of citizenship as the nation became independent. Forced migration and constrained mobility were combined with efforts to exclude African Americans from citizenship throughout the slave era. What remains understudied, however, is the nativist fear that Black foreigners posed a particular threat to the slave system, and the array of colonial, state, and federal legislative efforts to exclude foreign-born Black people that emerged in response.24

It is broadly understood among immigration historians that there was no federal legislation to exclude immigrants before the Civil War; while states legislated to keep out foreigners considered undesirable, national policy either encouraged immigration or left immigration matters to the states for the first near century of the nation's existence.25 A closer look, however, at federal efforts in the early nineteenth century to exclude Black foreigners, whether enslaved or free, reveals the roots of the nativist state in anti-Blackness. In 1803, Congress passed legislation to prevent the admission of slaves or free Blacks into states where they were prohibited, and in 1807, Congress prohibited the importation of foreign slaves into the United States. While enslaved people were forced migrants, not “immigrants,” it is nonetheless true that the first foreigners excluded through federal policy were Black, and these laws form the foundation of the architecture of exclusion. These two pieces of federal legislation were not abolitionist measures to eliminate the horrors of the slave trade. On the contrary, they were the culmination of an array of long-standing efforts to protect colonies, and later states, from the presumed rebelliousness of foreign-born Black people.26 They were primarily efforts to preserve, not eradicate, slavery, and their method was the militarized exclusion of Black foreigners from the nation.27

These efforts to restrict the importation of slaves began in the colonies long before the national legislation. Real rebellion, and the fear and paranoia it inspired, generated a host of colonial efforts to exclude foreign-born Black people, whether enslaved or free, from Africa or elsewhere in the Americas. South Carolina, for example, suspended the African slave trade after the Stono Rebellion in 1739. While deeply invested in the slave system, colonial leaders believed that African-born slaves presented a particular risk of rebellion, and their importation was temporarily halted in order to protect the colony. In 1751, South Carolina attempted to slow the arrival of Africans by imposing a special tax on foreign slaves. Nine years later, the colony banned the importation of African-born slaves once again, out of fear of their growing numbers.28 When the British authorities disallowed South Carolina's ban and attempted to re-open the trade, the colonial legislature once again levied special taxes on African-born slaves for fear that otherwise their rising number “may prove of the most dangerous consequence.”29 Many of these bans or duties were direct responses to slave insurrections, and they did not only occur in the South. For example, a slave rebellion in New York City in 1712, largely instigated by recently arrived Africans, led Pennsylvania to pass an “Act to prevent the Importation of Negroes and Indians,” which laid a prohibitive duty of £20 on imported slaves.30 To many colonial-era legislators, keeping slavery intact meant keeping foreign-born slaves out. Colonial-level exclusions or prohibitive duties like these, however, were consistently undone by royal authority, as Great Britain profited immensely from the slave trade. In 1772, Virginia anxiously and unsuccessfully petitioned the king to allow such prohibitory legislation, as colonists feared that the continued importation of slaves would “endanger the very existence of your Majesty's dominions.”31 When in 1776, Virginians framed their constitution, it condemned the king for “prompting our negroes to rise in arms among us, those very negroes whom, by an inhuman use of his negative, he hath refused us permission to exclude by law.”32 In other words, the right to exclude dangerous foreign-born “negroes” was one of the fundamental freedoms revolutionary Virginians were seeking through their independence.

During the American Revolution, all of the colonies-then-states prohibited the international slave trade. War, it seems, was not the time to be importing presumably dangerous foreigners, particularly given the fear that the British might incite slave rebellions.33 In addition, the revolutionaries avoided the trade, dominated as it was by the Royal African Company, as part of their refusal to engage in commerce with Britain. While to some northerners, this wartime prohibition served as a first step toward abolition, many in the southern states had every intention of re-opening the trade. At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Georgia was the only state openly allowing the importation of slaves.34 But southern delegates protected their future right to import slaves with a provision in Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, preventing Congress from ending the trade before 1808, at which point delegates assumed the South would have sufficient political power to ensure the trade remained open.35

In the intervening twenty years, however, a dramatic slave insurrection in the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue changed the calculus and made even southern states rethink the wisdom of admitting foreign-born Black people.36 The slave rebellion that began in 1791 and culminated in the 1804 independence of Haiti, the first free Black nation in the Americas, shocked the slave and imperial systems throughout the Atlantic world.37 As refugees fled the upheaval, and as news circulated of the abolition of slavery and the growing power of the Black leadership in Saint Domingue, slave-state leaders in the United States grew frantic over the risk that the “contagion” of slave rebellion might spread.38 White Americans began to panic over the “insidious” work of “French negroes” in their communities. In the “Secret Keeper Plot” of 1793, for example, letters were intercepted that indicated a planned rebellion by Black and mulatto Charlestonians. A white resident attributed the rebellion to the fact that the local Black population “had heard so much from the French negroes about it, and [about] liberty and equality.”39 An article in the Boston Gazette reported “emissaries were expected from St. Domingo, to assist and even to take the lead in this infernal business.” While this rebellion never came to fruition, another plot was uncovered in Charleston in 1797, again led by “French negroes.” At least two of them were executed and another two expelled from South Carolina.40 White residents in slave states worried over the influence of Black Saint Dominguans on African Americans and the threat these Black foreigners posed to the slave system. This perceived threat was not limited to the South; in New York City, “French negroes” and African Americans protested together in 1801 when a prominent slave owner attempted to send her slaves south to evade New York's emancipation law, and in 1804 hundreds of African Americans marched in military formation through the streets of Philadelphia armed with bludgeons, protesting racism in the city, threatening white passersby that they “would shew them Santo Domingo.”41 Fear of “French negroes” marks the intersection of anti-Blackness and nativism. Restricting the admission of these presumably dangerous foreigners became key to maintaining the system of slavery and white supremacy throughout the nation.

A torrent of state-level exclusion and expulsion orders against slaves and free people of color were put in place in the wake of the slave insurrection in Saint Domingue. In 1792, South Carolina prohibited the importation of slaves “from Africa, the West India Islands, or other places beyond sea.”42 The following year, the governor decreed that all free Black and colored Saint Dominguans must leave the state within ten days. Further, all incoming Black or mulatto migrants, whether slave or free, were to be deported (and detained at Fort Johnson until then).43 In 1793, Georgia prohibited the entry of slaves from the West Indies and the entry of all free “negroes.”44 The same year, Virginia banned the migration of all free Black people, as well as the entry of slaves from the West Indies.45 In 1794, North Carolina passed an “Act to prevent further importation and bringing of slaves.”46 The following year, they prohibited the entrance of all slaves and free people of color over fifteen years old from “West India, Bahama Islands, or the Dutch or Spanish settlements on the southern coast of America.”47 Maryland had allowed French subjects to enter with their personal slaves but ended that concession in 1797, as did a few other northern states. In 1798, the governor of Pennsylvania prohibited the landing of “French negroes” in Pennsylvania.48 Georgia, in 1798, extended its prohibition to ban the importation of all slaves, placing this prohibition into the constitution of the state.49 South Carolina's 1792 prohibition was extended until 1803, and even when it was lifted, the state was still careful to exclude “Negroes from the West Indies.”50

Not only states engaged in these exclusion policies: the federal government prohibited the importation of foreign slaves into the territories in some of the first federal efforts to restrict the admission of foreigners considered undesirable. The 1798 act establishing the Mississippi territory prohibited the importation of foreign slaves, as did the 1804 legislation establishing the Orleans territory in Louisiana.51 While the debates over these provisions were complex, fear of insurrection shaped them, and the specter of the Haitian Revolution loomed over the discussion. Senator Samuel White (Federalist-DE) cautioned that Louisiana must “avoid the fate of St. Domingo.”52 The sheriff of New Orleans remarked that if Congress were to allow the importation of foreign slaves, “it is surely to be dreaded that a considerable share of that importation will be derived from the French islands, and consist principally of such negroes as cannot be retained [there] with safety to their owners or the public peace.”53 Excluding foreign slaves, however, was not enough to assuage these fears; free Black foreigners were also perceived as a threat. In June 1806, the Orleans territorial legislature forbade the entry of free men of color fifteen years or older from Hispaniola and other French islands, and in April 1807, the prohibition was extended to free persons of color from anywhere.54 The state- and territory-level exclusions in the wake of the insurrection in Saint Domingue were marshaled against both enslaved and free Black foreigners.

The fear of the revolution in Saint Domingue kept the legal international slave trade virtually suspended in all states until 1800. These exclusionary laws were implemented with various degrees of success, however, as states and territories did not have the capacity or consistent will to seal their borders to Black foreigners, particularly in the face of the ongoing profit to be made from the slave trade. Continued fear and the inadequate state exclusionary power provoked federal involvement. In 1803, residents of Wilmington, North Carolina, petitioned Congress about the arrival of free Black people from Guadeloupe, warning that the admission of such Black foreigners posed “much danger to the peace and safety of the people of the Southern States of the Union.”55 Congress concurred about the risk, and in response passed “An Act to prevent the importation of certain persons into certain states, where, by the laws whereof, their admission is prohibited” the same year. This federal legislation prohibited the importation or bringing of “any negro, mulatto, or other person of colour, not being a native, a citizen, or registered seaman of the United States” into states where their admission was prohibited. Heavy fines and ship forfeiture were the penalties for violators.56 The Annals of Congress noted that this act was intended “to guard, by the imposition of heavy penalties, &c., against the introduction into the United States of brigands from the French West India islands.”57 The Haitian Revolution had rendered foreign-born Black people, enslaved or free, a terrifying threat to the slave system, and federal action was deemed necessary to deny them admission to the United States.58 While the 1803 law only supplemented state-level restrictions, this groundbreaking federal legislation was the first to exclude undesirable foreigners, and also the first to do so based on race. The history of racialized exclusion in the United States has much deeper roots than our current historiography acknowledges.

Many critics of the 1803 law argued that it did not go far enough and advocated complete abolition of the international slave trade. In 1807, Congress passed the “Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves,” effective in 1808, the earliest year permitted by the Constitution. While southern states had generally been committed to the international slave trade at the time of the convention, the Haitian Revolution had reshaped the political landscape and made abolition of the trade feasible.59 The coalition that promoted the 1807 legislation comprised a peculiar alliance: abolitionists outraged by the brutality of the trade, Upper South slavers who expected their “investments” to become more valuable if the supply of slaves declined, and those who feared that the continued influx of African or Caribbean slaves left the United States vulnerable to a Haitian-style insurrection.60 Senator James Johnson of Georgia opined in 1805, “one of those brigands [from Saint Domingue] introduced into the Southern States was worse than an hundred importations of blacks from Africa, and more dangerous to the United States.”61 There was certainly an abolitionist element within the political coalition to eliminate the trade, but the ban on importing slaves was not itself an abolitionist act. To many, it was an act of self-preservation for a slave-dependent society, as it mitigated the risk of insurrection.62 Prohibiting the importation of enslaved foreigners, whether from Africa or the Caribbean, was an effort to exclude presumably dangerous Black people from the nation. For many of its advocates, it was an effort to strengthen, not dismantle, the slave system. The ban was the culmination of nearly a century of colonial and state-level efforts to restrict the admission of foreign-born Blacks, whether enslaved or free, efforts given renewed vitality by the Haitian Revolution. Thus, while it should be impossible to forget that enslaved people were forced migrants, not voluntary immigrants, the 1807 legislation cannot be excluded from immigration historiography, as it was the first standalone federal legislation to exclude foreigners deemed undesirable. The ban on importing foreign slaves thus formed the cornerstone of the nativist state.

The 1803 and 1807 acts to exclude foreign-born Black people marked the first crucial national intersection between anti-Black racism and the nativist state. Federal authority to regulate foreign trade blurred into federal authority to regulate the admission of foreigners in an effort to protect the slave system, prevent Black rebellion, and maintain white supremacy. Until after the Civil War, southern states often feared and challenged the implication that the federal government might control immigration policy, viewing it as a threat to state prerogatives to admit or expel people at their discretion, but the momentary consensus after the uprising in Saint Domingue regarding the particular danger posed by Black foreigners temporarily changed the calculus and enabled the first pieces of federal legislation restricting the admission of foreigners. On a national level, the nativist state emerged as an effort to exclude Black foreigners and maintain the slave system.

This prohibition on slave importation brought in its wake militarized exclusion efforts, as the Secretary of the Navy came to oversee its enforcement, and an 1819 law directed the president to suppress the slave trade through the use of armed cruisers off the coast of the United States and Africa. While enforcement was never sufficient to stop the trade, the Navy came to patrol the Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Africa, Cuba, and South America in an effort to prevent the smuggling in of foreign slaves.63 Rather than set illegally imported slaves free, the national legislation left enforcement up to the individual states, so Black foreigners brought to the country as slaves were generally unable to enter the country as free. Instead, in southern states which received the bulk of the arrivals, they were often sold as slaves to benefit the state—more evidence, if it were necessary, that the 1807 law was not truly about abolition.64

With the growth of the colonization movement, some illegally imported enslaved people received an alternate fate: they were removed from the United States entirely and sent to a US settlement in Africa, what would later become the Republic of Liberia.65 Colonization comprised a denationalization and expulsion strategy toward African Americans as well as an exclusion and deportation strategy toward Black foreigners. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was established in 1816 by leading white enslavers and their supporters. While its mission was ostensibly to establish a settlement of free Black people in Liberia “with their consent,” its work was undergirded by the belief that the presence of free Blacks in the United States posed a risk to the slave system.66 A leading ACS member, John Randolph, portrayed freedpeople as “promoters of mischief” who inspired “a feeling of discontent among slaves.”67 Their removal from the nation was key to the preservation of slavery. The first settlers arrived in 1820, and between 1820 and 1899, a total of 15,386 Black people were resettled in Liberia. As Ella Forbes has noted, this resettlement was hardly consensual, as it was undertaken “primarily as a coercive condition of emancipation.”68 Free Black people organized quickly against ACS's colonization plans, and Black abolitionists spoke out strongly.69 In David Walker's “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” he called in stirring terms for the immediate abolition of slavery, and condemned colonization. “Do they think to drive us from our country and homes, after having enriched it with our blood and tears?”70 Walker and other opponents correctly viewed colonization as a form of expulsion, a forced removal of African Americans from the nation.71

Colonization was a tool both to render Black people foreign as well as to exclude Black people who were actually foreign. The 1819 legislation that directed the enforcement of the slave-importation prohibition also directed the president to “make such regulations and arrangements as he may deem expedient for the safe keeping, support, and removal beyond the limits of the United States, of all such negroes, mulattoes, or persons of colour, as may be so delivered and brought within their jurisdiction” and to appoint an agent in Africa to receive these illegally imported persons denied admission to the United States. Under this legislation, hundreds of illegally imported Black foreigners were deported to Africa.72 Like the colonization movement more broadly, the deportation of Black foreigners to Liberia was not a humanitarian effort to allow emancipated people of African descent to return “home”; it was a form of exclusion from the United States, an effort to ensure that abolition of the slave trade did not result in the growth of a free or foreign Black population in the United States.

Restricting Black Mobility in the Antebellum Era

In spite of fantastic recent scholarship on state-level immigration laws, immigration historiography still often clings to the assertion that there was no immigration restriction before the Chinese exclusion era, no such thing as an illegal immigrant before the late nineteenth century.73 Such assertions would likely be surprising to William Forster, a Black Bahamian who attempted to move to Florida in 1833. A year earlier, Florida had passed “An Act to prevent the future migration of Free Negroes or Mulattoes to this Territory,” which prohibited the entrance of any free Black migrants, whether from within the United States or abroad.74 Forster was convicted of violating the law by local authorities and required to leave Florida. Two years later, he was on a US ship that stopped in a Florida harbor. Although it seems he had no intention to settle in Florida on this second trip, he was arrested by local authorities, convicted of a repeat violation of the Florida law, and ordered by the court to be sold into slavery for a term of five years.75

Florida's law was not unique; most states across the country restricted the migration of free Black persons in the antebellum era, often through outright exclusion. Michael Schoeppner has carefully documented that free Black people “faced closed or regulated borders” in states throughout the country, “from Florida to Oregon.”76 Many of these exclusion statutes applied equally to interstate or international migration. “Free Black migrants—both foreign-born and African Americans—encountered border restrictions in the Deep South, Upper South, Midwest, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest.”77 State border restrictions and migration bans for free Black people were so pervasive that Schoeppner urges us to consider them essentially equivalent to national legislation, even if this regime was orchestrated on a state-by-state basis.78 The lack of new federal restrictions after 1803 and 1807 should not blind us to the impact of this exclusionary architecture; in this era, the nativist state was quite literally the states. As Anna O. Law explains, “the states had virtually unilateral authority to exclude, relocate, and deport persons at will.”79 These state-level restrictions both treated African Americans as foreigners by denying their right to interstate travel and served to exclude actual Black foreigners from most of the nation.80

Enslavers and their allies feared that the presence of free Blacks, particularly from the Caribbean, would potentially inspire slaves to run away or rebel.81 Excluding and expelling free Blacks was perceived as key to maintaining the slave system and white supremacy. The penalties for violating these immigration laws illustrate their relationship with slavery.82 Legislation in Georgia in 1818, for example, penalized anyone found in violation of the law with a fine, and those who could not pay became “liable to be sold by public outcry, as a slave.”83 In Arkansas, Delaware, Maryland, and Illinois, illegal Black migrants (from within or beyond the United States) faced heavy fines, and could be bound out to labor if they could not pay them. The penalty for free Black migrants in Florida was immediate deportation, but any who returned could be sold at auction for a five-year term of servitude. Any free Black migrant who did not leave Mississippi as instructed could be sold at auction for a twelve-month term. Alabama allowed “any person to seize and make a slave for life” free Black migrants living in the state in violation of its law.84 These restrictions were not only in the South; many northern states restricted the entry of Black people as well, including Indiana, which in its 1851 Constitution declared, “No negro or mulatto shall come into, or settle in the State.” Indiana was adamant that it would not become “the Liberia of the South.”85 The state established fines for violations, the proceeds from which were to go to sending Black residents to live in actual Liberia.86 Beginning in South Carolina in 1822, southern coastal states expanded these restrictions even to free Black sailors with no intention to settle permanently. So-called Negro Seamen Acts mandated the detention of free Black sailors in southern states while their ships were at port for fear that their liberty and autonomy posed a threat of “moral contagion” to the slave system.87

The rendering foreign of Black Americans was so complete that state laws could order their expulsion from the country. Ira Berlin described a law in Delaware that “punished free Negroes guilty of horse stealing with sale to the West Indies or some other place ‘for a term not exceeding fourteen years.’”88 Maryland required newly emancipated Blacks to agree to colonization in Africa. If not, and unless they could obtain exemption from the court, they were subject to re-enslavement or forced deportation.89 State-level exclusions, restrictions, and expulsions worked to purge free Black people from the nation in an effort to preserve the slave system and white supremacy. Pervasive state-level laws targeting free Black migrants should permanently dispel the idea that immigration restriction began in the late 1800s. For Black people, there has never been an era of open borders.

Indeed, it was slave states’ insistence on their right to exclude Black people that inhibited federal legislation relating to immigration until after the Civil War; given sectional differences, Congress simply could not be trusted to keep free Black migrants out.90 The debate over whether immigration authority resided in state or federal governments played out in a series of Supreme Court decisions, and efforts to control Black mobility in support of the slave system were at the center of these debates.91 While it is, for the time being, settled law that the federal government, not the states, has the power to regulate immigration, in the antebellum era, the Supreme Court deftly evaded drawing that conclusion in order to protect states’ rights to exclude free Black people, whether US-born or foreign.

The court's commitment to maintaining states’ rights to exclude Black migrants is particularly evident in the Passenger Cases of 1849. Ostensibly about the right of northern states to regulate the immigration of paupers, the Passenger Cases were ultimately a more profound debate about whether states or the federal government had the power to regulate immigration.92 The Supreme Court was careful to articulate that states had the right to exclude undesirable migrants, even if there were limits to the tactics they could utilize. Justice Levi Woodbury noted that “the states [had] been in the constant habit of prohibiting the introduction of paupers, convicts, free blacks, and persons sick with contagious diseases, no less than slaves, and this from neighboring states as well as from abroad.”93 Arguing for the importance of these exclusions, he declared that it would be “dangerous” to view the “prohibitory power over all aliens as vested exclusively in Congress,” because if Congress could prohibit persons, it followed that “they [could] of course allow it, and hence [could] permit and demand the admission of slaves, as well as any kind of free person, convicts or paupers, into any state.”94 The federal government could not be in charge of regulating immigration, because it could not be trusted to exclude free Black people or imported slaves, groups who were understood to pose a distinct risk to the slave system. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, for example, argued against the idea that treaty obligations might trump states’ right to exclude, alluding to the presumed threat of rebellion still associated with Black Caribbean immigrants. “For if the treaty stipulation . . . has that commanding power claimed for it over the states, then the emancipated slaves of the West Indies have at this hour the absolute right to reside, hire houses, and traffic and trade throughout the Southern states, in spite of any state law to the contrary, inevitably producing the most serious discontent and ultimately leading to the most painful consequences.”95 To the chief justice, clearly “the emancipated slaves of the West Indies” did not and must not have that right, or the South would suffer “the most painful consequences,” i.e., slave rebellion. As long as the slave system remained this reliant on the nativist state, the power to control immigration could not reside in the federal government whose commitment to slavery was not reliable enough for the South. After the 1803 and 1807 exclusion laws to preserve slavery, federal immigration legislation would not re-emerge until after the Civil War and the abolition of the slave system.96

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 did, however, serve to nationalize efforts to violently constrain Black mobility, as the federal government colluded in slavery by returning those who had managed to escape the brutal system back into the hands of their captors. The fugitive slave clause in the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 had already determined that enslaved people could find no refuge from the slave system in the United States. On the contrary, restrictions on Black mobility were built into the Constitution; if enslaved people escaped into a state where slavery had been abolished, they were required to be “delivered up” to their enslavers. Interpretation of these provisions varied widely, however, and until the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, enforcement was generally left to the states.97 Daniel Kanstroom has demonstrated how the 1850 law was a key precedent for the contemporary deportation regime, in that it marshalled the federal government to discover and remove Black migrants who had successfully fled the South to seek refuge in the North.98

Beyond this panoply of restrictions on Black mobility, the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) formalized the denial of citizenship for African Americans. The early republic had quickly legislated nationality, racializing citizenship nearly from the nation's inception in the 1790 Naturalization Act by denying naturalization to Black people, to anyone other than “free white persons.”99 The Dred Scott decision formally extended Black exclusion from citizenship to US-born African Americans. As the court ruled, even free persons of African descent were “not ‘citizen[s]’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States” and thus “the special rights and immunities guaranteed to citizens [did] not apply to them.”100 The nativist state thereby rendered African Americans effectively stateless, foreigners in their own country.101 Devon Carbado has emphasized, however, that this was a peculiar type of foreignness, as African Americans were still presumed to owe allegiance to the United States. He invokes the logic of the Supreme Court's later Insular Cases, to describe African Americans after Dred Scott as “foreign in a domestic sense,” subject to the United States, but without the rights of full inclusion.102 The Dred Scott decision is a key reminder that nativism is not simply an impulse to exclude foreigners, but a strategy to produce foreigners, to construct a non-citizen Other with limited rights who can thus flexibly be expelled, exploited, or confined. As Kunal Parker has argued, it is essential to study not only the United States’ treatment of actual foreigners, those born outside the United States of non–US parentage, but also the way that the United States has rendered certain groups foreign throughout its history.103 Centering Black history here allows us to see the flexibility of the nativist state, the mechanisms of which do not operate only at the nation's borders to keep undesirables out, but also within the nation to deny access to citizenship and other rights.

Legislating Exclusion

After immigration became clearly the purview of the federal government in the late 1800s, the United States enacted new forms of legislation to exclude foreigners deemed undesirable. As is evident in Indigenous dispossession, the nativist state had other targets beyond just Black people: for example, Chinese laborers were excluded by national legislation in the 1880s; Southern and Eastern European immigrants were dramatically restricted and Asian immigrants excluded in the 1920s; ethnic Mexicans were criminalized in the 1910s and 1920s and expelled in the 1930s.104 Growing restrictions against undesirable immigrants marked the transition of the United States to what Erika Lee has aptly called a “gatekeeping nation” and formed the legal and discursive foundations for our current immigration policies and practices: numerical limits, exclusion, detention, border enforcement, and deportation.105 Roger Daniels noted, “Once applied successfully to unpopular groups, each method of restriction was then applied to all groups.”106 Anti-Black racism remained deeply interwoven with immigration restriction throughout the twentieth century, however, and efforts to exclude Black foreigners often presaged broader exclusions. The centrality of anti-Black racism to twentieth-century immigration legislation merits much closer attention.107

The early twentieth century marked a dramatic expansion of the nativist state, and Black immigrants were not exempt from the racialized xenophobic furor of this era. The 1917 Immigration Act was most notable for imposing a literacy requirement on adult immigrants and creating a “barred zone” excluding most Asian immigrants. In the years of legislative debates leading up to the law's passage, however, amendments were proposed to exclude Black immigrants as well. These amendments did not become part of the law, and some speculated that they were designed only to torpedo the larger bill by eliminating Republican support for it in northern districts with a substantial number of Black voters. But even if these amendments were never expected to pass, the Congressional debates about them show clearly the ideological overlap between nativism and anti-Blackness in this era. In 1914, for example, Senator James A. Reed (D-MO) proposed an amendment to exclude “all members of the African or black race.”108 In support of the amendment, Senator John Sharp Williams (D-MS) noted, “We are beginning to receive now some very undesirable immigration of the African race from the West Indies.” He claimed that “a great many Jamaican negroes” were coming to the United States after having completed work on the Panama Canal. “We already have negroes enough in the South,” he argued. “We do not want any more.”109 He justified Reed's amendment as a reasonable extension of the current policy of Chinese exclusion, claiming it was evident that “the Chinaman is of a very superior race to the African.”110

Lest it seem this southern Democrat was voicing a particularly extreme position, it should be noted that the Reed amendment passed in the Senate. It was rejected in the House, but not because legislators supported Black immigration. Instead, opponents to the amendment emphasized the foreign policy issues it might cause by excluding British subjects in the West Indies, the impact it might have on American missionary efforts in Africa, the currently low rates of Black immigration that rendered such exclusion “unnecessary,” and the fear that it might interfere with the rights of traveling African Americans. There was some mention of the unfair stigma in this amendment, that it would “class the negro with the criminal and undesirable,” and specifically that it would be “unjust and unreasonable” to exclude West Indians who had labored to build the Panama Canal.111 But opponents were primarily fixated on the danger that the amendment posed to the larger restrictive bill. Rep. James L. Slayden (D-TX), for example, suggested that an “overwhelming percentage” of southern Representatives agreed in principle with “preventing any further importation of an inferior race of people, as we believe them to be.” Even so, he urged his colleagues to reject the amendment so as not to jeopardize the broader restrictive legislation. “My desire to keep out negroes does not so blind me . . . that I will help to load [the bill] with amendments that would make it certain that we would have no legislation,” he explained.112 Representative John Lawson Burnett (D-AL), chair of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization and main author of the bill that became the 1917 Immigration Act, also opposed the amendment for fear it would doom the larger bill. “There is no man in this House that more devotedly loves the white race more than I do,” he proclaimed, “but I am not willing to jeopardize the bill and its provisions that I believe to be fundamentally right simply for the purpose of keeping out a few thousand of Jamaican negroes, when they are not coming to the South.”113 Even many of those who rejected the amendment openly embraced white supremacy as they did so, and agreed with the idea of excluding Black immigrants.

To many southern Democrats, it seemed logical to include people of African descent in the growing list of undesirable immigrants to be excluded from the United States. If the goal was to keep out undesirables, they argued, who was more undesirable than Black foreigners? Representative Percy Quin (D-MS) full-throatedly supported the amendment with openly racist vitriol. His speech interwove nativist discourse with classic white supremacy tropes and a shameless racial slur, “I am opposed to any race of people being allowed to come into this country who are not fit to intermarry with our people. Certainly no n***** should ever be allowed to marry a white person.” Not only did he urge the exclusion of Black immigrants, he also supported expelling African Americans: “I would favor the deporting of the black man from the United States.” Quin's speech rendered African Americans foreign, imagining them as subject to forced removal.114

African Americans protested these degrading amendments. Booker T. Washington, for example, called Reed's 1914 amendment “unjust, unreasonable and unnecessary,” and asserted that it imposed a “slight upon colored people by classing them with alien criminals.”115 After his 1914 amendment was ultimately rejected, Reed made another effort to exclude Black foreigners in late 1916, proposing an amendment to exclude “persons who are natives of Africa, except persons of the white race,” and when that failed, another amendment to exclude “all persons, except white persons, from the West Indies and the Cape Verde and Azores Islands.”116 Ultimately these deeply racist proposals were not included in the 1917 legislation, but the idea that Black immigrants were undesirable received substantial support in this era, illustrating the intersection of anti-Blackness and nativism. The congressional debates reflected a renewed interest in using immigration restriction to exclude Black foreigners, a strategy that would come to fruition in later decades.

While critics may have labeled the 1914 proposal “unnecessary,” given low rates of Black immigration at the time, there did come to be a large and active migration of West Indians to the United States in the years that followed. The foreign-born Black population (over 80 percent of whom were from the Caribbean) increased fivefold between 1900 and 1930. By 1930, nearly a quarter of Black Harlem was from the Caribbean.117 Many British Caribbean migrants in this era were highly skilled and educated, with higher literacy rates than native-born whites.118 This class status did not exempt Caribbean immigrants from growing immigration restrictions, however. The connections drawn by southern Democrats during the debates of the 1910s between excluding undesirable immigrants and maintaining white supremacy, between nativism and anti-Blackness, gained traction in the 1924 Immigration Act.

The 1924 Immigration Act is commonly known in immigration historiography for the serious limits it imposed on immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and the complete exclusion of all Asian immigrants.119 Less well known, it also had a pernicious effect on Black immigration. The law reserved large annual immigration quotas for British, German, and other northern and western European immigrants. An innovative provision in the law, however, determined that immigrants from colonies were to be charged under the quota of their metropole, and this had a major impact on Black immigration from the British Caribbean. The 1924 quotas profoundly privileged British immigrants, giving them the second highest quota (after Germany) at 34,007, and the highest quota beginning in 1929.120 With such a high quota, British Caribbean immigrants need not have been excluded based solely on numbers. But it was the US Consul in London who determined how visas would be distributed within the British empire, and Caribbean colonies were shocked to learn how small their piece of the pie would be.121 From a high of 10,630 in 1924, the number of Black immigrants from the Caribbean dropped to 308 in 1925 and remained in the three figures or low four figures for the rest of the decade.122 This dramatic restriction of Black Caribbean immigrants exposes how the exclusionary and anti-Black architecture of US immigration policies and practices is not always evident in the legislation alone, but in how those laws are executed.

Unsurprisingly, the 1924 act also profoundly discriminated against immigrants from Africa. After a temporary accounting method while the permanent numbers were ascertained, new immigration quotas were set to take effect in 1927 (later postponed to 1929). Out of a total quota of 150,000 annual immigrants, each nationality would have a set numerical limit according to the proportion of the US population that traced its ancestry to that country in the 1920 census. Nearly nine percent of people in the 1920 census were of African descent. This should have entailed a substantial allocation of the quota to Black immigrants. The law was designed to avoid this, however. The 1924 act explicitly excluded slaves and their descendants from the count, and in determining the quotas, the Quota Board simply excluded all African Americans, completely discounting voluntary Black immigrants and their descendants.123 Much of Africa had been colonized by 1924, so most potential African immigrants, like those from the British Caribbean, would have been subject to the quotas of their respective metropoles (and thus the discriminatory actions of the US consuls there), but even free African nations like Ethiopia only received the minimum annual quota of one hundred.124 With the 1924 legislation, the door was almost entirely shut for the two most substantial potential sources of Black immigration: Africa and the British West Indies.125

In debating the quotas established by the 1924 law, Representative John Tillman (D-AR) painted African Americans and immigrants as twin threats: “The alien problem and the negro question are the two serious obstacles to the construction of an ideal and lasting commonwealth.” Representative Robert Green (D-FL) argued in favor of restrictive quotas, “In my opinion we already have enough Japanese, Chinese, Negroes, and in fact, many of the other foreign extractions and strains. It is time to stop the islands, Europe, Asia, and Africa from dumping undesirables upon our beautiful American shores.”126 Southern Democrats were a key part of passing restrictive immigration legislation, and they came to see nativist concerns as dovetailing with their efforts to preserve Jim Crow.127 As it was implemented, the 1924 Immigration Act imposed extremely narrow limits on immigration from Africa and resulted in the dramatic restriction of Black Caribbean immigration.

Black immigrants already in the United States were subject to a different facet of the nativist state: deportation. Some of the most militant advocates for Black equality in the 1920s were Caribbean immigrants, and the US government did not hesitate to use the nativist state to undermine Black activism and protect white supremacy. For example, the United States deported famed Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, in 1927. In later decades, deportation remained a viable tool to expel Black dissidents, particularly during the McCarthy era. The Caribbean intellectual C. L. R. James was deported in 1953.128 Claudia Jones, the Trinidad-born leader of the Communist Party (CPUSA) and tireless advocate for Black rights, was deported in 1955.129 As Jones describes it, “I was deported from the USA because as a Negro woman Communist of West Indian descent, I was a thorn in their side in my opposition to Jim Crow racist discrimination.”130 The nativist state used its expanding deportation powers to repress and undermine Black social movements.

During World War II, the near exclusion of Black Caribbean immigrants was modified by the decision to admit Jamaican and Bahamian guestworkers to perform agricultural labor. While the guestworker program is mainly associated with Mexican braceros, Caribbean guestworkers were often brought in to labor on the East Coast. Jamaicans, particularly, were recruited into Florida's sugarcane industry, where their vulnerability as non-citizens whose presence in the country was tied to their employment made them easier to exploit than the African American cane cutters whom they quickly displaced in the fields. Indeed, the sugar industry's desire for immigrant workers had been precipitated by its failure to contain Black American mobility. At the time of the decision to import Jamaican guestworkers, Florida's largest sugar company, US Sugar, had recently been indicted for creating a system of peonage as it attempted to contain African American laborers. Cindy Hahamovitch explains that when recruited African American workers tried to leave their worksites in protest after their wages were not what they had been promised, they encountered violent efforts to restrict their mobility: “camp managers brandishing pistols and blackjacks, and sheriff's deputies patrolling the roads for runaways. Those caught were beaten.”131 By 1941, the FBI was investigating complaints from workers claiming they were being held against their will by the company, resulting in a barrage of depositions documenting the use of force at US Sugar. In 1942, the Justice Department indicted the labor camp managers for kidnapping, imprisoning, and shooting at African American workers. A technicality squashed the case, but it still sent the sugar industry searching for alternatives to uncontainable domestic labor.132 As US Sugar's chief harvest labor recruiter explained, “There was no way you could lock [workers] up or anything else; they were free people.”133 Unlike African Americans, however, guestworkers were bound to their contracts or else they were rendered deportable. The Jamaicans who largely replaced African Americans in the sugarcane could not change employers or protest their wages or conditions without risking deportation. Resisting workers would be detained until their repatriation could be arranged.134 For Black foreigners, detention and deportation were the consequences of labor advocacy.

The exploitation of Black Caribbean guestworkers illustrates once again that the nativist state does not operate only through exclusion, but also through the creation of rigid hierarchies within the nation based on citizenship and/or immigration status: in this case, the formation and provision of a distinct class of workers who lacked the full protection of the state or the relative mobility of the native-born. Indeed, for growers, this was part of the point of the guestworker program. One grower expressed his preference for Bahamian rather than Puerto Rican workers by explaining that Bahamians “can be forced to work a regular work program or be deported.”135 While not excluded, these Black immigrant guestworkers were excludable, which rendered them—to the benefit of their employers—vulnerable to distinct forms of labor exploitation. This hierarchy of relative rightlessness intersected with and reinforced anti-Black racism. In the case of Jamaican cane cutters, nativism overlapped with Jim Crow to create both horrid conditions for Jamaican guestworkers and massive labor displacement for African Americans.

Black Caribbean immigration was restricted even further with the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952. This legislation was heralded for eliminating race-based obstacles to naturalization, and gave previously excluded Asian nations small, largely symbolic, immigration quotas. These seemingly progressive steps were counterbalanced, however, with a provision that severely restricted immigration from the West Indies, setting token quotas of one hundred for colonial dependencies in the Western Hemisphere, such as Jamaica and Trinidad, in an era when independent countries in the Western Hemisphere had no quotas at all.136 The impact such legislation would have on Black immigration was obvious.137 Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-NY) noted, “Most Negro immigration to our country today comes from Jamaica, Trinidad, and other colonies of the British West Indies,” and this legislation “strikes directly at the major modern source of this population flow.” Powell compared this legislation to South African apartheid: “This bill sets up a Cape Town–Washington, D.C. axis . . . This bill makes this no longer a land of the free, but a place only for Anglo-Saxons.”138 Powell argued that excluding Black foreigners from the United States restricted Black mobility in the service of white supremacy.

Like Powell, many critics denounced these new quotas as deeply biased, and Black communities in the United States organized to challenge this provision. In a letter to President Truman urging a veto, African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph denounced the legislation: “Under a vicious and subtle quota system, it reflects a compound of virulent racist policies by forestalling immigration from colonial areas, thereby bluntly and unjustifiably insulting all colored races and peoples.” According to Randolph, this legislation was not simply an effort to restrict Black foreigners, but an insult to Black people around the world. “The affront to persons of color from the West Indies through this sinister quota device affirms a stigma of inferiority based upon race and color to Negro peoples of African descent everywhere.”139 Truman did indeed veto the legislation, although not because of his support for Black immigration, but it passed over his veto. In presidential hearings later that year, Black activists called on the government to reverse the policy. Walter White, secretary of the NAACP, warned, “when a nation blatantly erects a color bar in its immigration policy, it immediately sows the dragon's teeth of resentment.”140 Reverend Ethelred Brown, secretary of the Jamaica Progressive League, emphasized how the new policy was perceived in the Caribbean. Speaking of the essential labor of wartime Jamaican guestworkers, Brown said, “We feel kind of hard because when the war was on and you wanted help, we came and helped you. Now the war is over, and you say ‘don't come in any more.’ People remember that in Jamaica.” Brown also implied the United States was betraying a Caribbean ally: “We let you have your bases on our island. We behaved nice to you when you were there, and all of a sudden you say, ‘We don't want you here.’” Particularly disturbing was the racial animus behind this unprovoked restriction, he argued, “West Indians are ostensibly to be penalized because of their colonial status, but really it is because they are Negroes.”141

Some congressional members insisted their support for this provision in the McCarran-Walter Act was not anti-Black, because immigrants from independent Caribbean nations like Haiti and the Dominican Republic would still be able to immigrate without a quota, but other supporters were outspoken that this was indeed an effort to exclude immigrants they considered “undesirable.” During the congressional debates, an amendment was proposed to eliminate these restrictive quotas. Representative John E. Rankin (D-MS) denounced the amendment as “dangerous,” as it would potentially “wreck our immigration laws and flood this country with undesirable elements.” He dismissed opponents of the quotas, claiming they “whine about discrimination. Do you know who is being discriminated against? The white Christian people of America, the ones who created this Nation.”142 The amendment was indeed defeated, by a large measure, and the legislation passed with the new quotas for colonial possessions intact. With the 1952 act, potential Black immigrants from the British Caribbean were effectively excluded from the United States, except for a token number each year. Numerical restrictions were expanded to all Western Hemisphere nations with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, but British West Indians were the first Western Hemisphere immigrants to be directly restricted through a stringent quota system.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (aka the Hart-Celler Act) remains the major legislation delineating our current immigration policy. Often considered a liberal reform that eliminated the racist quota system and ushered in decades of global migration, the reality, as Erika Lee has amply demonstrated, is that this legislation was specifically designed to avoid substantially changing the ethnic makeup of future immigration.143 The legislation intended to set a new uniform quota for each nation, but opponents considered the proposal discriminatory against western Europeans (whose previously privileged quotas would be reduced to the uniform standard) and feared that it would result in a wave of migration from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Anti-immigrant groups argued bluntly that without the restrictive quotas, immigrants from the Global South would overwhelm the nation, including “hordes of Red Chinese, Indians, [and] Congolese cannibals.”144

Congressional debate over the 1965 legislation involved an array of arguments against any potential increase in Black immigration. Racist fears were given particular urgency by the Black uprisings occurring in US cities at the time. A senator from Arkansas worried that adding “still more minority groups from all parts of the world” would feed the “increasing racial tensions and violence we are currently witnessing on the streets of our major cities.”145 Senator Spessard Holland (D-FL) asked, “Why for the first time, are the emerging nations of Africa to be placed on the same basis as are our mother countries, Britain, Germany, . . . and the other nations from which most Americans have come?”146 This comment, like the 1924 national origins quota, completely disregarded the African origins of more than 11 percent of the population, and it highlighted how anti-African the earlier quotas had been.147 Senator Samuel J. Ervin Jr. (D-NC) compared Great Britain's current quota of sixty-five thousand with Ethiopia's minimal quota of a hundred. He claimed that giving Ethiopia and Great Britain the same quota would be discriminatory, as it would put the British “on exactly the same plane” as Ethiopians,” but “with all due respect to Ethiopia—I don't know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.”148 To Ervin, giving Black and white foreigners equal rights to immigrate constituted discrimination against white people. These types of comments willfully ignored not only the role of Black labor in building the United States and its prosperity, but also eclipsed the perennial work of Black social movements to redeem the nation and enable America to live up to its ideals. Envisioning an immigration policy premised on the “contributions” of earlier immigrants to building the nation, and restricting African immigrants based on that model, marshalled the discursive erasure of Black people from national historical narratives to justify their physical exclusion from the nation.

Ultimately, these anti-African biases did not inhibit the law's passage, but concerns about another group of Black immigrants—those from the Caribbean—profoundly restructured the legislation in a way that has shaped US immigration ever since: by creating numerical limits on Western Hemisphere immigration. Mae Ngai and Maddalena Marinari have both emphasized that the 1965 legislation's liberal reputation is particularly ill-founded, given that it imposed a numerical ceiling on Western Hemisphere immigration for the first time in the nation's history.149 The ceiling, which was not in the initial proposed legislation, is often described as unprecedented, but as recounted above, the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act actually created the precedent in its quotas for British West Indians. Indeed, even when Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago became independent in 1962, they remained subject to the colonial subquotas established in 1952, the only independent nations in the Western Hemisphere to face such restrictions.150 Beryl Henry, of New York's Jamaica Progressive League, called this disparate treatment “humiliating to Jamaicans.”151 Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago's continued exclusion from nonquota status was to be remedied by the proposed Hart-Celler legislation, but this effort to place them on equal terms with other Western Hemisphere nations provoked fears of unrestricted British Caribbean immigration.152 The specter of increased Black immigration from the Caribbean, alongside allegations of overpopulation in Latin America, played a central role in prompting the inclusion of a Western Hemisphere ceiling in the final legislation.153

An amendment to include a numerical limit on Western Hemisphere immigration was first proposed in the House by Representative Clark MacGregor (R-MN). He explained that, without such an amendment, the legislation “gives a highly preferential treatment to countries in the Caribbean” which have become independent or will become independent. He proceeded to list the colonies on the verge of independence, naming Barbados, British Honduras, and British Guiana. Once independent, these nations would send large numbers of immigrants to the United States, he warned, as they each have “a heavily oversubscribed present list of those desiring to enter the United States.”154 The threat of increased Caribbean migration lay behind the proposed House amendment and motivated some of its supporters. Representative Richard Poff (R-VA), for example, invoked demographic statistics to argue for numerical restrictions on the Western Hemisphere, highlighting dramatic population growth in Latin American. His discussion of the British Caribbean, however, was particularly hyperbolic, and he noted that recent restrictions on immigration in Great Britain had removed that outlet for potential migrants and increased population pressures. In Barbados, for instance, he warned, “if the growth continues at the rate of 1.3 percent per annum, this island of 166 square miles will, within the span of 190 years—less than six generations—attain a level of standing room only.”155 Without numerical restrictions, he warned, these population pressures would drive Caribbean and Latin American migrants to the United States.

MacGregor highlighted that the removal of restrictions in the British Caribbean would be occurring at the same moment as increased restrictions on immigration from western Europe: “we are sharply upgrading the preferred status of these [Caribbean] countries, while we are downgrading . . . the status of Western Europe and the rest of the world.”156 Without the Western Hemisphere ceiling, MacGregor insisted that the legislation would give the Caribbean “a highly preferential position,” and result in dramatically increased immigration. “Jamaica now has 100 as a ceiling. There are 14,303 registered applicants there who will be coming in, if the administration is friendly to them very shortly after the passage of this bill.”157 While the 1965 debates rarely made the racial stakes of this argument explicit, there were obvious anti-Black undertones in these repeated warnings about decreasing European immigration at the same time as increasing numbers of immigrants from British Caribbean countries, most of whom were predominantly Black due to the history of the British colonial slave system. Occasionally, those undertones emerged on the surface of the debate. Representative Frank Chelf (D-KY), for example, explicitly framed his opposition to increased Caribbean immigration in terms of anti-Black animus: “I really and truly think that we have got all the troubles that we can say grace over with our own American native-born colored people.”158

The MacGregor amendment was narrowly defeated in the House after substantial pressure from the White House and State Department who believed a Western Hemisphere ceiling would damage relations with Latin America (relations which were particularly crucial after the 1959 revolution in Cuba and particularly fraught given the US military occupation then underway in the Dominican Republic). Key members of the Senate, however, adopted this idea of a Western Hemisphere ceiling and proceeded to exert pressure on the Johnson administration to drop its opposition. One of the staunchest advocates of the ceiling was Senator Ervin, who embraced similar logic to MacGregor, expressing concern that western European immigration would be limited while Caribbean immigration would not.159 Ervin introduced into the debate a Christian Science Monitor article that echoed his concerns: “It seems a bit odd, doesn't it, that the United States should cut immigration from England by a third while it jumps immigration from Trinidad-Tobago from a limit of 100 a year to no limit at all?” The article was adamant that Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago were “delightful islands,” but cautioned that, without a Western Hemisphere ceiling, their entire “mixed populations” of more than two and a half million people would “theoretically, so far as fixed quotas go . . . be able to move en masse to New York City.”160 Warnings of unfettered Black immigration drove support for the Western Hemisphere ceiling. Ervin and his allies in the Senate made clear to the Johnson administration that the legislation would not pass without the ceiling, and the executive branch dropped its opposition. The Senate then passed legislation including the Western Hemisphere ceiling. In conference, previous supporters of the MacGregor amendment ensured that the ceiling was maintained in the final version.161 Fearmongering around Black migration was key to its inclusion.

Ultimately, the 1965 legislation constituted a congressional compromise designed to allay opponents’ racist fears as well as fears that the legislation would unleash a torrent of poor migrants. Preferences for highly skilled professionals ensured that global immigrants would be disproportionately educated and drawn from a resourced class. As Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (D-MA) assured, “the people who comprise the new immigration—the type which this bill would give preference to—are relatively well educated and well to do.”162 Most immigration visas would be allocated to family members of those already here in an effort to ensure that the new immigration reflected the current composition of the nation. Representative Emanuel Celler (D-NY), one of the sponsors of the initial legislation, explained, “since the peoples of Africa and Asia have very few relatives here, comparatively few could immigrate from those countries.” Blithely dismissing Africans and Asians as too poor to migrate, he added, “As a matter of fact, few of the people from these areas can even pay the cost of the ticket to come here.” He portrayed substantial African and Asian immigration as threatening, while at the same time assuring listeners that the 1965 legislation would not permit it. “There is no danger whatsoever of an influx from the countries of Asia and Africa.” This was evident, he assured, in the lack of opposition from the AFL-CIO, which would object if the legislation might cause dramatic increases in Asian and African immigration. But “they fear no hordes of people from such countries,” because the law was designed to avoid it.163 The preference system ratified centuries of Black immigrant exclusion by privileging the families of people that had already immigrated; there would be few avenues for immigrants from nations who did not already have a foot in the “golden door.”164 Racism, anti-Blackness, and a deep aversion to accepting poor immigrants structured the supposedly liberal law that forms the foundation of our current immigration policy today.

Haitian Migration and Militarized Mass Exclusion

In response to Haitian migration in the long 1980s, the United States radically transformed its immigration policies and practices and implemented many of the most egregious aspects of our current system of militarized mass exclusion.165 As the nation shifted in the late nineteenth century from a generally welcoming stance toward immigrants (with the exception of Black migrants as noted above) to “gatekeeping” or restricting the entrance of those deemed undesirable, the late twentieth century marked a similarly momentous transformation. Beginning in the late 1970s, the United States shifted from gatekeeping to a system of militarized mass exclusion, designed to keep out the vast majority of the world's population—particularly the world's poor—utilizing the ample power of the US military. In the same way that the late nineteenth-century transformation was spurred by a virulent racist response to Chinese immigration, even though Chinese immigrants made up a very small proportion of the foreign born, the shift to militarized mass exclusion was largely provoked by fears about Haitian “boat people,” a response that was radically out of scale with their actual numbers.166

Like the Chinese exclusion era, in which strategies developed to restrict and remove Chinese immigrants became available for the nativist state to utilize against other foreigners as well, legal and logistical innovations designed to exclude Haitian migrants were quickly applied to other immigrants, entailing a dramatic expansion of the United States’ exclusionary infrastructure. Indefinite and automatic detention of unauthorized entrants in order to deter immigration; offshore or beyond our borders immigration enforcement to prevent migrants from even arriving in the United States; systematic use of military personnel and military technology to defend US borders against unauthorized immigration;167 arbitrary denial of asylum or the right to even apply for asylum culminating in forced repatriation: these practices, developed to exclude Haitians, are now standard aspects of our immigration system.

Haitians faced other aspects of militarized mass exclusion in this era as well (although these other tactics were not specifically anti-Haitian innovations): an immigrant visa system that prioritizes those with high education, wealth, or relatives in the United States to the near exclusion of all others; a highly politicized and numerically tiny refugee visa system; a vast system of deportation that expels non-citizens from the United States; travel visa requirements that applicants must illustrate non-immigrant intent (generally by demonstrating that they already possess wealth in their home country); and carrier sanctions that prohibit anyone without a valid visa from accessing regulated transportation, compelling asylum seekers to make perilous, and often deadly, journeys on foot or at sea.168 In addition to Haitian migration, the long 1980s saw an array of other immigration and refugee “crises” in the United States: Southeast Asian refugees, Central American asylum seekers, increased Mexican immigration, the dramatic arrival of Cubans during the Mariel exodus. US politics responded to these “crises” with a spasm of nativism and increasingly draconian immigration and border policies. By the late 1990s, these policies and practices had effectively rendered the United States a fortress, nearly impregnable to the vast majority of the world's population.169 The US response to Black Haitian migrants drove a good deal of this transformation.

In the 1970s, Haitian migrants who were not eligible for a visa and/or could not afford to travel to the United States in regulated transport began to arrive illegally by boat along the Florida coast. While many upper-class and professional Haitians had already fled the Duvalier dictatorship (either legally immigrating or legally traveling to the United States and then overstaying their visas), these “boat people,” as they were labeled, provoked an extreme response from the US government.170 The vicious and oppressive state violence of the Duvalier regime should have enabled Haitians to apply for asylum, but US officials were absolutely committed to rejecting and repatriating the overwhelming majority of Haitians. Denying their right to asylum, the US government branded Haitians “economic migrants” and set about radically undermining the asylum process in order to exclude them.171

The United States responded to the increasing arrival of unauthorized Haitians in the late 1970s with mass, expedited removal in its “Haitian Program.” Triggered by a series of violent anti-Haitian raids in the Bahamas that sent many Haitians fleeing to the United States, US officials imposed a policy of automatic detention on Haitian asylum seekers and radically expedited their asylum hearings in order to implement mass removal.172 After the conclusion of brief hearings with inadequate or no translation, and during which attorneys, if allowed to be present, were barred from speaking on behalf of their clients, Haitians were presented with a pre-signed form letter denial of their asylum claim. In 1979, Haitians and their advocates sued the US government for this discriminatory denial of Haitians’ due process, and a federal judge found in their favor, concluding that the Haitian Program “was set up for the sole purpose of expediting review of Haitian asylum applications, and expelling Haitians from the United States.” Over four thousand Haitians were processed under the program and not a single one received asylum. The judge concluded that the plaintiffs had proved their claim that “they faced a transparently discriminatory program designed to deport Haitian nationals and no one else.” He noted that this treatment was a departure from that received by other nationals fleeing repressive regimes: “Over the past 17 years, Haitian claims for asylum and refuge have been systematically denied, while all others have been granted.” He particularly contrasted treatment of Haitians to that of Cubans, who were granted asylum “routinely.”173 The acceptance of Cuban refugees since the Cuban revolution in 1959 reflected the Cold War priorities of the United States, which was eager to embarrass the socialist government in Cuba by welcoming its dissidents.174 The Duvaliers, however, were staunch anti-Communists; granting asylum to Haitians would publicly acknowledge they were facing persecution and thus would risk alienating a Cold War ally. The United States’ desire to exclude Haitians dovetailed with its anti-Communist commitments.175 Yet the judge did not consider these foreign policy priorities to be the source of the US's discriminatory treatment toward Haitians. After reviewing the evidence in the case, he concluded that this anti-Haitian discrimination likely had a different origin: “The plaintiffs are part of the first substantial flight of black refugees from a repressive regime to this country. All of the plaintiffs are black.”176 The judge ordered that this discriminatory mass removal program must stop.

Although this judicial finding may have seemed like a win for Haitians and their advocates, it only provoked the United States to become more strategic in its exclusion efforts. After a brief interlude during 1980 when approximately fifteen thousand Haitians were lumped in with the 125,000 Cubans arriving during the Mariel exodus and given special entrant status, the thousands of Haitians who continued to arrive after the October 10, 1980, deadline were subject to exclusion. The admission of Cubans and Haitians in 1980 had prompted a massive backlash from the American public, and halting Haitian arrivals became a top government priority.177 Representative Robert McClory (R-IL) argued in July 1981, “We should use the military to interdict any persons who are undertaking to reach our shores and enter our country illegally. They should be interdicted, they should be deterred, they should be returned to the place whence they came.”178 This view, that the US military should be used to prevent asylum seekers from even arriving in the United States, seemed extreme at the time, but it would quickly become the new normal.

The US government was committed to the mass exclusion of Haitian migrants, but its efforts to target Haitians faced mounting protest and legal challenges. In response, the Reagan administration developed three related tactics: 1. mandatory detention to deter Haitian migration, 2. offshore detention in Puerto Rico and, later, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to remove Haitians from the protections of the US legal system, and 3. military interdiction to prevent Haitians from ever arriving in the United States to request asylum. The first two tactics involved the dramatic expansion of the carceral wing of immigration enforcement, both in the United States—mainly Krome Detention Center in Florida—and in the occupied spaces of its Caribbean empire, first Fort Allen in Puerto Rico in the early 1980s, then the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay in the early 1990s. Pushing detention of asylum seekers beyond the domestic boundaries of the United States and into the legal liminality of its imperial hinterlands removed Haitians from networks of support and advocacy, and ultimately—at Guantánamo—largely beyond the reach of US courts and constitutional protections.179 Each of these three tactics would subsequently be expanded to affect other immigrant groups.180

Immigration officials began to automatically detain Haitian asylum seekers in May 1981.181 While detention of immigrants pending determination of their admissibility had been standard in earlier eras, the United States had not engaged in widespread detention of potentially inadmissible immigrants since 1954.182 This practice was reintroduced specifically to deter Haitian migration. Since the effort to exclude Haitians via mass, expedited removal in the “Haitian Program” had been thwarted, mandatory detention was utilized to discourage Haitians from migrating and/or seeking asylum.183 Growing protest from detained Haitians and their allies challenged this incarceration.184 A new lawsuit, Louis v. Nelson (later Jean v. Nelson), alleged that this treatment was discriminatory, as a federal court had similarly ruled in response to the “Haitian Program.”185 To deflect these charges of discrimination, the United States formalized a policy of mandatory detention for all potentially inadmissible aliens in 1982.186 Rather than treat Haitians better, the United States began to treat other immigrants worse. One advocate for Haitian migrants explained, “The new detention policy is designed to mistreat all equally.”187 As the number of Central American asylum seekers grew in the 1980s, they would be subject to a system of detention and denial that had been pioneered against Haitians.188 Indeed, Carl Lindskoog has demonstrated that the United States’ current practices of immigrant detention and its massive immigrant-carceral system have their roots in the turn to automatic detention of Haitians in 1981.189 Once again, policies and practices designed to exclude and deter Black immigrants formed the foundation for an expansion of the nativist state.

Incarceration is inherently punitive, as our entire carceral system illustrates. While the conditions of detention centers varied, and were often inhumane, it should be kept in mind that incarceration—human caging—is violent and traumatic regardless of the conditions.190 Caging asylum seekers, individuals fleeing persecution, often adds trauma atop trauma. Perhaps detention might have served as a deterrent, were Haitians not genuinely fleeing terror, state violence, and a political economy of enforced impoverishment for the Haitian masses. We will never know how many Haitians consciously chose not to attempt to reach the United States, discouraged by fear of the dangerous sea journey or by the near certainty of punishment if they survived. But conditions in Haiti were bad enough that detention could not possibly deter everyone. In addition, exclusionist policies—with some local variations—marked neighboring countries as well, so Haitians continued to seek refuge from persecution and political violence in the United States.191 Horrific conditions in Haiti combined with punitive conditions in US detention led to a wildly unstable system. Suicides, attempted suicides, mass threats of suicide, hunger strikes, legal challenges, organized protests, and outright rebellions marked Haitian detention throughout the long 1980s.192

The inherent violence of these detention practices led to a public-relations nightmare for the United States and an exhausting array of legal challenges. The United States created an alternative solution in interdiction. As detention involved the dramatic expansion of the carceral state in immigration enforcement, interdiction involved the massive expansion of the role of the US military. President Ronald Reagan established the US–Haitian interdiction program in September 1981 to target unauthorized Haitian migrants while still at sea. The interdiction program was a bilateral agreement between the United States and the Haitian dictatorship to allow the US Coast Guard (a branch of the US military) to intercept and board Haitian and unflagged vessels in international waters to ascertain if passengers were unauthorized migrants bound for the United States, and if so to return them to their country of origin. The Reagan administration acknowledged it could find no precedent for such a program.193

The Coast Guard policed and patrolled the waters between the United States and Haiti to effectively create a militarized sea cordon between the two countries. Coast Guard cutters patrolled the Windward Passage and off the coast of Miami with the aid of surveillance helicopters and aircraft.194 By its own estimation, the Coast Guard had achieved a hundred percent coverage in the Windward Passage—the main route between Haiti and Florida—with its interdiction patrols by February 1982. Within a few years, all Coast Guard cutters off the coast of south Florida were part of the interdiction program, and the INS estimated they were 95 percent effective at intercepting Haitian boats.195 To comply with international law, the Coast Guard was required to ensure that it was not returning to Haiti anyone with a legitimate fear of being persecuted there, but in practice, this was not honored. A fact-finding delegation from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights found that interviews of Haitian asylum seekers intercepted at sea were woefully inadequate. Of the 21,461 Haitians interdicted at the time of the 1990 report, only six had been brought into the United States to even apply for asylum. The rest had their claims of asylum summarily rejected and were forcibly returned to Haiti. Their ships and all their possessions were usually destroyed, ostensibly as hazards to public safety, but more profoundly to discourage future migrants.196

In 1991, a coup overthrew the highly popular, democratically elected Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The coup created a sudden skyrocketing of the number of Haitians attempting to reach the United States by boat, as his supporters were hunted down, terrorized, and murdered. In the seven months after the coup, more than 34,000 Haitians were picked up by the Coast Guard, substantially more than in the entire decade before Aristide's overthrow. The United States began to detain Haitians at the US military base in Guantánamo, Cuba, while screening them for asylum, and the number of migrants quickly overwhelmed the facilities. In response, on May 23, 1992, US President George H. W. Bush issued an executive order authorizing the immediate forced return of Haitian migrants picked up at sea without any screening process to determine potential refugee status. Disregarding international law, the Bush administration argued that prohibitions against returning refugees did not have extra-territorial application, i.e., persons picked up outside the United States were not protected from forced return. While this policy faced an array of legal challenges, the Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the Bush administration that the United States had essentially no legal responsibility to asylum seekers before/unless they entered the country, and thus the United States could continue to operate in international waters to forcibly prevent Haitians’ arrival, in spite of the documented political violence that existed in Haiti.197 The court maintained that the law granted the president “ample power to establish a naval blockade that would simply deny illegal Haitian migrants the ability to disembark on our shores.”198 This principle—that US responsibility to migrants ends at its borders—has shaped American immigration policies and practices ever since. This effort to exclude Black migrants eradicated the United States’ commitment to fundamental principles in the United Nations’ Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and was essential to the broader architecture of migrant exclusion.199

Although as a candidate for president, Bill Clinton had opposed the policy of automatic repatriation, he dropped his opposition shortly before taking office in January 1993. Instead, the incoming Clinton administration coordinated with the Bush administration to initiate Operation Able Manner on January 15, 1993, the largest single peacetime operation the Coast Guard had ever undertaken, involving virtually every Coast Guard unit along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as Navy ships.200 These US ships and aircraft encircled Haiti in order to prevent refugees from reaching the United States, in what the Los Angeles Times called “an unprecedented naval barricade.”201 For Haitians fleeing violence and persecution, this US military operation made escape from Haiti by sea virtually impossible. Not only was the US sea border militarized in response to Haitian asylum seekers, but that border was reimagined to exist as surrounding, not the United States, but Haiti itself. Rather than using military force to prevent Haitians from coming in, military force was used to prevent Haitians from getting out. Exiled President Aristide compared Haiti in the years after the coup to a “house on fire,” noting, “when those inside somehow find a way to escape, the U.S. Coast Guard throws them back into the burning house.”202 Although the Cold War had ended, the United States was still expanding its efforts to exclude Haitians, lending credence to claims that anti-Black racism had driven these discriminatory practices far more than foreign policy priorities.

Even after the political crisis in Haiti concluded with a US invasion to restore Aristide in 1994, the United States continued and expanded the practice of interdiction on the high seas. Indeed, the United States created similar agreements with other countries in the Caribbean, particularly the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic.203 From 1981 to 2001, the US Coast Guard interdicted more than 180,000 migrants trying to reach the United States by boat. More than half of those interdicted were Haitian, but Dominicans, Cubans, Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Chinese and other migrants were also picked up.204 Policies and practices initially designed to forcefully exclude Haitians were elaborated into a flexible, militarized sea border pervading the Caribbean region. We see in this action the way in which the nativist state and anti-Black racism reinforced each other. On the one hand, the nativist state served to exclude and contain Black migrants, and on the other, the effort to exclude and contain Black migrants strengthened the nativist state, innovating policies that were then expanded to exclude immigrants more broadly.

Into the Twenty-First Century

Exclusionary treatment of Haitian migrants, unprecedented at the time, has since become the norm for most would-be immigrants. As I write, long incarceration periods for asylum seekers (detention as deterrence) are standard practice. Asylum seekers, particularly from Central America, are routinely dismissed as “economic” migrants, and increasing efforts are being made to prevent them from reaching the US border to apply for asylum. In 1993, President Clinton authorized the extension of some of the Coast Guard's interdiction practices into the Pacific as well, ordering that migrants should be interdicted “as far as possible from the US border.”205 Interdiction-style migrant exclusion is common in the Mediterranean to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.206 As Jeffrey Kahn describes, the Haitian interdiction program in 1981 was an “innovation that signaled the birth of what has since become a global regime of externalized maritime borders.”207 The United States has externalized its land borders as well; under US pressure and with the support of US funding, Mexico instituted Programa Frontera Sur in 2014, to increase migration control along Mexico's southern border.208 President Donald Trump's administration initiated “safe-third-country” agreements, which effectively mimicked Reagan, Bush, and Clinton's interdiction policies, simply on land instead of the high seas.209

To this day, the nativist state relies on and perpetuates anti-Black racism. The Trump administration's ban on Nigerian immigration, combined with his alleged comments that, if allowed into the United States, they would never go back to their “huts,” his dismissal of Haiti and several African nations as “shithole” countries, his accusation that Haitian migrants have AIDS, his administration's efforts to roll back Temporary Protected Status for Haitian and other immigrants, all demonstrated the role of anti-Black racism in fortifying an exclusionist immigration system.210 Further, there is tremendous overlap between the nativist state and the carceral state. Non-citizens, even legal permanent residents, face deportation for an array of low-level nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting or drug possession. The mass criminalization of Black people, including extreme over-policing in many Black neighborhoods, has devastating and profoundly unequal effects on Black immigrants.

As Kelly Lytle Hernández has shown, the architecture of incarceration and immigrant exclusion have long been interwoven,211 and both systems expanded and became increasingly inter-reliant in the long 1980s. Key pieces of legislation in 1996 brought the nativist state and the carceral state into a deep synergy.212 In this legislation, the United States dramatically expanded the definition of “aggravated felony”—crimes for which non-citizens could be deported—to include minor nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting, and applied the penalty retroactively to offenses long in the past.213 In the decade after this shift, nearly 900,000 non-citizens were deported due to criminal convictions, 72 percent of them for nonviolent offenses.214 Many of the convictions resulting in deportations were drug offenses. From 2007 to 2012, the United States deported more than 260,000 people for drug convictions; of those, nearly 40 percent were for possession. Since the 1996 legislation, even legal permanent residents can be deported for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses, no matter how long ago they occurred, and undocumented immigrants can be permanently barred from legal status if they have any type of drug conviction, even simple marijuana possession, and even if they have US citizen family members.215 Beyond incarceration, there is another entire punitive tier for non-citizens swept up in the criminalization of communities of color.

Black immigrants are, unsurprisingly, disproportionately impacted by this intersection of the nativist and carceral systems. In a 2014 speech, President Obama committed to targeting immigrants with criminal records for deportation, prioritizing “felons, not families” (as if felons did not also have families). But as a 2016 report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) explained, “The government's increasing focus on immigrants with criminal records disproportionately impacts Black immigrants, who are more likely than immigrants from other regions to have criminal convictions, or at least to be identified through interactions with local law enforcement, because of rampant racial profiling.”216 Black people are arrested at 2.5 times the rate of white people, even when crime rates are the same. Deportations resulting from criminal convictions and cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration authorities result in seriously disparate immigration consequences for Black non-citizens. Only 7 percent of the immigrant population in the United States is Black, yet Black people make up 20 percent of those in removal (deportation) proceedings due to criminal convictions. In fiscal year 2013, more than three quarters of Black deportees (76 percent) were removed on criminal grounds, while less than half (45 percent) of the overall deportee population was removed on criminal grounds.217 Within the nativist state, the immigration system has become a mechanism to further punish Black people swept up into a viciously unjust carceral nightmare, while a deeply racist criminal legal system works to forcefully purge the nation of criminalized Black foreigners.

Although the United States has never been as pro-immigrant as it likes to imagine itself, there have indeed been historical moments of relative openness for certain groups, time periods in which the value and contributions of (almost always white) immigrants have been acknowledged, or when the American responsibility to be a haven to those fleeing persecution has been respected. Time and again, however, these moments of openness have been overtaken by racialized exclusionary movements in which anti-Blackness has rarely been far from the center. Racism is the shoals against which US immigration idealism crashes again and again. While immigration historians generally trace the history of those who have arrived, US immigration policies and practices are increasingly designed to keep the vast majority of the world's population out, particularly the world's poor. That history, too, must be narrated, and Black migrants belong at the center of this story. The hashtag from the UndocuBlack Network that opens this piece asserts that immigration is a Black issue. The corollary is also true: anti-Black racism is an immigration issue. Anti-Blackness has served repeatedly as the impetus behind nativist policies and practices that were subsequently expanded to exclude or exploit other immigrant groups.218 Anti-Black racism was and remains a mainstay of the nativist state. These oppressive systems rely on and reinforce each other, and efforts to dismantle either of them must therefore reckon with this intersectionality.


Research for this article was partially supported by a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society and a Marshall T. Meyer Research Grant from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. Chanté Hope contributed essential interlibrary loan support. The manuscript benefitted from the generous feedback of Jermaine Archer, Rahwa Haile, Davarian Baldwin, and participants in the Justice Seminar at SUNY College at Old Westbury. I am grateful, as well, for useful suggestions from the anonymous reviewers at the Journal of American Ethnic History. Thank you to Hidetaka Hirota and Michael Schoeppner for answering my questions about the nineteenth century, and to Andrew Sandoval-Strausz for suggesting sources on the 1965 legislation. Conversations with Omar Wilson were tremendously helpful in refining these ideas. All errors, of course, are my own.


In certain parts of the country, 20 to 30 percent of Black residents are immigrants: for example, New York state (nearly 30 percent) and Florida (over 20 percent). The overwhelming majority of Black immigrants hail from the Caribbean (49 percent) or Africa (39 percent). Jamaicans are the largest nationality for Black immigrants, followed by Haitians. Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, “The State of Black Immigrants,” 2016. Note that I am using the term Black to refer to all people of African descent throughout this history, even though this socially constructed category (and the terms used to describe it) has varied significantly over time and space.


This observation is not meant to simplify non-Black people of color's complicated relationships to Blackness or anti-Black racism, the scholarship on which is vast and growing. See, for example, Tanya Katerí Hernández, Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality (Boston: Beacon Press, 2022). Many scholars are also carefully documenting and theorizing the experiences of Afro-Latines: Paul Joseph López Oro, “Refashioning Afro-Latinidad: Garifuna New Yorkers in Diaspora,” in Critical Diálogos in Latina and Latino Studies, ed. Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas and Mérida M. Rúa (New York: New York University Press, 2021); Omaris Z. Zamora, “Before Bodak Yellow and Beyond the Post-Soul,” The Black Scholar 52, no. 1 (March 2022): 53–63; Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vásquez, Decolonizing Diasporas: Radical Mappings of Afro-Atlantic Literature (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2020); Vanessa K. Valdés, Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017).


Nick Miroff and Felicia Sonmez, “Homeland Security Officials Will Investigate after Images Show Agents on Horseback Grabbing Migrants, Mayorkas Says,” Washington Post, September 20, 2021.


For a discussion of nativism as a psychological phenomenon, see Aristide Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006), 6–11.


Following legal scholar Kunal M. Parker, Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600–2000 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).


As is likely obvious, my use of the term “nativist state” is influenced by studies of the “carceral state” that situate incarceration within an array of government policies and agencies designed to discipline, surveil, punish, and control. See Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). Desmond King and Inés Valdez offer an overview of the expansion of the migrant exclusion architecture of the long 1980s and since, with a focus on its role in state building: “From Workers to Enemies: National Security, State Building, and America's War on Illegal Immigrants,” in Narrating Peoplehood Amidst Diversity: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 2011), 145–82.


There has been strong recent work on the history of immigration restriction and deportation. See, for example, David Hernández, “Carceral Shadows: Entangled Lineages and Merging Technologies of Immigrant Detention,” in Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance, ed. Robert T. Chase (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 57–92, and Adam Goodman, The Deportation Machine: America's Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), as well as other works cited below.


Patrisia Macías-Rojas, From Deportation to Prison: The Politics of Immigration Enforcement in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: New York University Press, 2016).


Even if they are not directly excluded, immigrants can be penalized for accessing social services, deterring those who might otherwise be eligible. It is also important to note that the welfare state is most certainly a nativist state, as entitlement systems have always been premised on exclusion, either from the entitlements or from the nation itself. The New Deal notoriously excluded domestic and agricultural workers—positions held by the majority of African American laborers—and the famed economist Milton Friedman is endlessly cited by restrictionists for his admonition that welfare and open immigration are incompatible. See Milton Friedman, “What is America?” 1978.


Tram Nguyen, We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant Communities after 9/11 (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008). We might include, too, in our conception of the nativist state the fact that xenophobia has been a cornerstone of most conservative political platforms since at least the 1980s and that anti-immigrant fearmongering often wins elections.


Parker, Making Foreigners.


One might also include English-language requirements and inadequate legal protection for language rights, or continued efforts to undermine Indigenous sovereignty, particularly when such sovereignty conflicts with resource extraction. Or one could consider whitewashed mandated school curricula that ignore or minimize Latine, Asian American, Muslim, Black, and Indigenous historical experiences and contemporary perspectives.


To give just a few examples from a broad and vibrant field: Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Kendra T. Field, “‘No Such Thing as Stand Still’: Migration and Geopolitics in African American History,” Journal of American History 102, no. 3 (December 2015): 693–718; Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (New York: Vintage Books, 2010); Ira Berlin, The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations (New York: Viking, 2010). One might even argue, as does the Africana Cultures and Policy Studies Institute, “Since Blacks have historically been considered foreign within America, their movements into, outside and within the borders can and should be discussed as an act of immigration.” The Africana Cultures and Policy Studies Institute: Zachery Williams, Robert Samuel Smith, Seneca Vaught, and Babacar M'Baye, “A History of Black Immigration into the United States through the Lens of the African American Civil and Human Rights Struggle,” Immigrant Rights in the Shadows of Citizenship, ed. Rachel Ida Buff (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 162.


Violet Showers Johnson, “The Black Presence in US Immigration History,” A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered: US Society in an Age of Restriction, 1924–1965, eds. Maddalena Marinari, Madeline Y. Hsu, and Maria Cristina Garcia (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019), 273, 275. Notable histories of Black immigrants include: Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America (New York: Verso, 1998); Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900–1930 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996); Violet Showers Johnson, The Other Black Bostonians: West Indians in Boston, 1900–1950 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); Marilyn Halter, Between Race and Ethnicity: Cape Verdean American Immigrants, 1860–1965 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Marilyn Halter and Violet Showers Johnson, African & American: West Africans in Post–Civil Rights America (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Lara Putnam, Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Marilynn Johnson, The New Bostonians: How Immigrants Have Transformed the Metro Area since the 1960s (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015); Julio Capó, Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Cindy Hahamovitch, No Man's Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); Carl Lindskoog, Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World's Largest Immigration Detention System (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018); Nancy Raquel Mirabal, Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823–1957 (New York: New York University Press, 2017); Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, Racial Migrations: New York City and the Revolutionary Politics of the Spanish Caribbean (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019); Kaysha Corinealdi, Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean World Making in the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022); Raymond Mohl, “Black Immigrants: Bahamians in Early Twentieth-Century Miami,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 65, no. 3 (January 1987): 271–97; Monika Gosin, The Racial Politics of Division: Interethnic Struggles for Legitimacy in Multicultural Miami (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019); Berlin, The Making of African America. This forthcoming book also seems likely to help fill this lacuna: Joshua Guild, In the Shadows of the Metropolis: Cultural Politics and Black Communities in Postwar New York and London (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).


In line with the 1619 Project's endeavor to reframe American history through the lens of Black experiences. Nikole Hannah-Jones, “America Wasn't a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One,” New York Times, August 14, 2019.


My use of the term “gatekeeping” here follows the groundbreaking and essential work of Erika Lee, At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).


Guerline M. Jozef, presentation on the panel “Towards the Promise of Equal Protection: Reimagining Immigrant Racial Justice,” at the New York University Law School and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund conference, “Immigration, Equal Protection, and the Promise of Racial Justice: The Legacy of Jean v. Nelson,” October 22–23, 2020.


The military has played a frequent role in the history of the US/Mexico border since the mid-1800s, generally in efforts to brutally repress transnational resistance to Anglo/US dominance in the region. See Monica Muñoz Martinez's excellent account of the militarization of the border during the Mexican Revolution in The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018). The Border Patrol has had a paramilitary cast since its inception in 1924, and Kelly Lytle Hernández has documented its reliance on military equipment and strategies. Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). Hernández also documents, however, the barriers to formal military involvement in immigration enforcement along the US/Mexico border due to the 1878 Posse Comitatus statute that prevented military participation in domestic law enforcement. During the War on Drugs in the 1980s, a series of changes to the Posse Comitatus statute eased the restriction on military collaboration with law enforcement. These changes opened up an era of increasing military participation in drug and immigration enforcement and enabled the militarization of the border. In his groundbreaking study of this process, Timothy Dunn notes that the “first instance of major military involvement in drug-interdiction efforts was the South Florida Task Force on Organized Crime” in 1982. The US Coast Guard was among the participating agencies, but it was simultaneously carrying out its interdiction program against Haitian migrants, so there was an “overlap of immigration and anti-drug efforts” which was “later repeated on the U.S.-Mexico border.” The South Florida Task Force model was extended to the US/Mexico borderlands in 1983. Timothy J. Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S.–Mexico Border, 1978–1992: Low-Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home (Austin, TX: Center for Mexican American Studies, 1996), 103–45 (quote: 108, 109).


For more on the Duvalier dictatorships, see Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti: State Against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990). For more on Haitian migration in this era, see Edwidge Danticat, ed., The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States (New York: Soho Press, 2001). See also citations in notes 170–204 below.


Along with its sibling, the carceral state.


Erika Lee, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 62, 63. Lee utilizes Philip Deloria's seminal exploration of US American performances of imagined Native identities in Playing Indian (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).


For example, Alden Vaughan describes how, after 1622, the vast majority of Indigenous people faced “permanent exclusion from the areas controlled by the intruders” in Virginia, and how “separation” characterized early New England colonies as well, as Native people were prohibited from “entering English settlements without permission.” Alden T. Vaughan, Roots of American Racism: Essays on the Colonial Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 105–27. More generally, see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015); Edmund Sear Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 2005); Allan Greer, “Commons and Enclosure in the Colonization of North America,” The American Historical Review 17, no. 2 (April 2021): 365–86.


I am using the term Black “foreigners” here, rather than “immigrants,” to acknowledge the fact that foreign-born enslaved people were certainly not “immigrants” in any meaningful sense of the term. Yet, I recognize that the term “foreigner” can also be confusing, given the efforts to exclude African Americans from citizenship and, in a sense, render them foreign. In some ways, all Black people, particularly after the Dred Scott decision, could be depicted or treated as foreigners, so the term does not capture the specificity of those born abroad. The interweaving of nativism and anti-Blackness makes clear terminology here impossible.


For more on state-level exclusions, see note 73 below.


The classic study of these exclusion efforts is The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, by W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois forcefully argued that efforts to limit or abolish the international slave trade were motivated by fears of insurrection: “Again and again the dangers of planters being ‘cut off by their own negroes’ is mentioned. . . . This condition of vague dread and unrest . . . was the prime motive back of all the earlier efforts to check the further importation of slaves.” W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 48.


The scant attention given to this legislation in immigration historiography rests, presumably, on the conviction that immigration is voluntary and thus enslaved people must not be considered immigrants. But the legal architecture of excluding foreigners is indeed germane to immigration historiography, and the 1803 law targeted free Black people as well. The Africana Cultures and Policy Studies Institute argues, “The host of early American policy that sought to restrict the movement and importation of Blacks was essentially immigration policy.” Africana Cultures and Policy Studies Institute, “A History of Black Immigration into the United States,” 161, emphasis added.


The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, “U.S. Constitution and Acts,” The Abolition of the Slave Trade, http://abolition.nypl.org/essays/us_constitution; Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 52, 53. This latter ban may well have been influenced by Tacky's Rebellion in Jamaica in 1760, the most shocking slave rebellion in decades, and one in which African-born Coromantee slaves played an outside role. In the mid-eighteenth century, between half and three-quarters of Jamaican slaves had been born in Africa, and many had been taken as prisoners of war from the Gold Coast and were thus experienced soldiers. Tacky's Rebellion resonated throughout the British imperial system and confirmed in the minds of many slaveowners the danger of importing Africans. Vincent Brown, Tacky's Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020).


Schomburg Center, “U.S. Constitution and Acts”: Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 52, 53.


Ibid., 63. Jill Lepore notes that, as in Tacky's Rebellion in Jamaica (see note 28), many of the participants in the 1712 rebellion were Coromantees. Jill Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (New York: Vintage, 2007), 85. For more on the revolt of 1712, see Thelma Wills Foote, Black and White Manhattan: The History of Racial Formation in Colonial New York City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 132–39; Walter Rucker, “Conjure, Magic, and Power: The Influence of Afro-Atlantic Religious Practices on Slave Resistance and Rebellion,” Journal of Black Studies 32, no. 1 (September 2001): 84–103.


Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 55.


Ibid., 56.


Ibid., 79.


North Carolina had laid a prohibitive duty in 1786, and South Carolina had temporarily banned the trade in March, 1787, ibid., 256, 257; Schomburg Center, “U.S. Constitution and Acts.”


Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 98.


Du Bois considers the Haitian Revolution directly responsible for the end of the legal importation of slaves in the United States. “The terrible upheaval in the West Indies, beginning in 1791, furnished [the anti-slavery] movement with an irresistible argument. A wave of horror and fear swept over the South, which even the powerful slave-traders of Georgia did not dare withstand,” ibid., 107.


The classic study of the Haitian Revolution is C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1989). See also Alex Dupuy, Rethinking the Haitian Revolution: Slavery, Independence, and the Struggle for Recognition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), and Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).


See Ashli White, Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).


White, Encountering Revolution, 142.


Ibid., 143.


Ibid., 146.


Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 108.


White, Encountering Revolution, 149.


Ibid., 149.


Michael A. Schoeppner, “Black Migrants and Border Regulation in the Early United States,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 11, no. 3 (September 2021): 323.


North Carolina had repealed its prohibitory duty in 1790. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 108.


Schoeppner, “Black Migrants and Border Regulation,” 323.


White, Encountering Revolution, 149.


Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 107.


Ibid., 108, 271.


“An Act for an amicable settlement of limits with the state of Georgia, and authorizing the establishment of a government in the Mississippi territory” (1798), https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/5th-congress/session-2/c5s2ch28.pdf; Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 125; Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 19–29.


Quoted in Rothman, Slave Country, 28.


Quoted in Rothman, Slave Country, 30.


Paul F. Lachance, “The 1809 Immigration of Saint-Domingue Refugees to New Orleans: Reception, Integration and Impact,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 29, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 124.


Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 121.


Seamen who were “natives of countries beyond the Cape of Good Hope” were exempt from the prohibition, and the act was careful to clarify that it did not “prohibit the admission of Indians.” “An Act to prevent the importation of certain persons into certain states, where, by the laws whereof, their admission is prohibited” (1803), https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/7th-congress/session-2/c7s2ch10.pdf.


Annals of Congress of the United States, House of Representatives, 7th Congress, 2nd Session, 459. Although there was debate over the bill, “All allowed the propriety of the General Government exerting every legitimate authority it possessed to enforce the State laws, and to avert the evil apprehended from the introduction of brigands from the West India islands,” ibid., 472.


As Michael Schoeppner explains, “In the end, the first federal immigration bill in American history sought to protect Southern States from Black abolitionists from the Caribbean, with free African Americans narrowly escaping its reach.” Schoeppner, “Black Migrants and Border Regulation,” 323.


Historian Ashli White argues, “The Haitian Revolution made . . . the abolition of the foreign slave trade possible.” White summarizes the fear of the era that “the arrival of new slaves, unaccustomed to their status and disaffected, could excite discontent among resident bondsmen and encourage them to rebel.” While this fear pertained mainly to African, free-born slaves, Caribbean slaves were viewed as no less dangerous, particularly those from Saint Domingue who “were seen as tainted by their experiences during the Haitian Revolution and likely to bring insurrection to the United States.” White, Encountering Revolution, 168.


Randy J. Sparks, “Forum: Blind Justice: The United States's Failure to Curb the Illegal Slave Trade,” Law and History Review 35, no. 53 (February 2017): 53–79.


Annals of Congress of the United States, Senate, 9th Congress, 1st Session, 31.


White concludes, “In the eyes of many white southerners, abolishing the foreign slave trade was critical to safeguarding American slavery.” White, Encountering Revolution, 177.


Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 142–86. Du Bois emphasizes that the federal government's “apathy” undermined effort to suppress the continued importation of enslaved people, as the pursuit of profit ensured an ongoing clandestine trade. “Undoubtedly, the Act of 1807 came very near being a dead letter,” ibid., 143.


Ibid., 143.


Ibid., 153.


Ella Forbes, “African-American Resistance to Colonization,” Journal of Black Studies 21, no. 2 (December 1990): 217.


Quoted in Forbes, “African-American Resistance to Colonization,” 218.


Forbes, “African-American Resistance to Colonization,” 219.


Ira Berlin calls free Black opposition to colonization “universal.” Ira Berlin, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: The New Press, 2007), 206. Martha S. Jones offers a nuanced portrait of the debate over colonization and emigration among free Black people in Baltimore. Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018).


David Walker, “Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America,” September 28, 1829, Documents of the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/walker.html.


Zolberg, A Nation by Design, 120–24.


Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 153.


For studies of state-level restrictions, see Gerald Neuman, “The Lost Century of American Immigration Law (1776–1875),” Columbia Law Review 93, no. 8 (December 1993): 1833–1901; Hidetaka Hirota, Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Michael Schoeppner, Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019); Schoeppner, “Black Migrants and Border Regulation in the Early United States,” 317–39; Anna O. Law, “Lunatics, Idiots, Paupers, and Negro Seamen—Immigration Federalism and the Early American State,” Studies in American Political Development 28 (October 2014): 107–28.


Acts of the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida (1832), 143–45.


Schoeppner, Moral Contagion, 92.


Schoeppner, “Black Migrants and Border Regulation,” 317.


Schoeppner notes that some of these laws explicitly used the term “immigration,” even when referring to interstate travel, ibid., 319, 321.


Schoeppner exempts New England from this characterization, ibid., 318.


Law, “Lunatics, Idiots, Paupers, and Negro Seamen,” 113. As Hidetaka Hirota has brilliantly demonstrated in Expelling the Poor, New York and Massachusetts restricted the immigration of Irish paupers, but Schoeppner notes that such state laws to restrict European immigration were rare. “No other group faced as many legally closed or regulated borders in the antebellum United States as Black people.” Schoeppner, “Black Migrants and Border Regulation,” 318, 319.


Kunal Parker concludes, “The panoply of restrictions on free blacks’ residence and movement in both North and South makes clear that, from the perspective of many, there was to be no place for blacks in the United States once they were not slaves. At the point of freedom, blacks became aliens of a sort, excludable and removable.” Parker, Making Foreigners, 97. Michael Hanchard has argued, “Movement restrictions upon US African American slaves and freedpersons made US African Americans native-born ‘foreigners.’” Michael G. Hanchard, The Spectre of Race: How Discrimination Haunts Western Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 160. Alina Das asserts, “it was the states’ desire to control Black people, free and enslaved, that legitimated the concept of borders and the regulation of undesirable presence in the United States in the first place.” Alina Das, No Justice in the Shadows: How America Criminalizes Immigrants (New York: Bold Type Books, 2020), 39.


Berlin, Slaves without Masters, 92. Not only free Black people were excluded. The federal law prohibiting the importation of slaves remained in effect, and enslaved people's mobility remained profoundly controlled. As the abolition movement grew in northern states in the antebellum era, fear of the contagion of antislavery ideas inspired southern states to further restrict Black mobility. South Carolina, for example, prohibited the entrance into the state of any enslaved person who had been north of the Potomac River or to Washington, DC, or to Mexico or the West Indies, out of fear that they had been exposed to abolitionist ideas. Local and state governments elsewhere in the South passed similar legislation, Camp, Closer to Freedom, 105. And long before the United States tried to keep people out along the US-Mexico border, the Texas Rangers worked to keep enslaved people in, preventing their efforts to flee to freedom across the Rio Grande. Monica Muñoz Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 11.


Schoeppner notes that many of these restrictions were enforced inconsistently, but sporadic enforcement and the threat of enforcement still had real impacts on people's lives. Schoeppner, “Black Migrants and Border Regulation,” 328. Richard Tansey notes that the demand for labor in Louisiana discouraged enforcement. In New Orleans, “the police department adopted a lenient posture towards free blacks, because the city's expanding economy in the late 1850s depended upon a large pool of reliable free black workers, especially skilled construction laborers and steamboat hands.” Indeed, Tansey argues that free Black workers were sometimes preferred by employers because as “illegal aliens” they could not lodge suits. Richard Tansey, “Out-of-State Free Blacks in Late Antebellum New Orleans,” Louisiana History 22, no. 4 (Autumn 1981): 370, 371. These circumstances echo the status of contemporary undocumented immigrants: enforcement of federal immigration law is incomplete and inconsistent, and the demand specifically for undocumented labor has contributed to that incompleteness. Even so, illegality has a massive impact on undocumented lives; it exacerbates precarity and creates a looming threat. We would not dismiss the significance of contemporary federal immigration law due to the presence of millions of undocumented immigrants, nor can we dismiss these state laws based on their inconsistent enforcement.


Quoted in Parker, Making Foreigners, 77.


Schoeppner, “Black Migrants and Border Regulation,” 330.


Parker, Making Foreigners, 96.


Indiana Historical Bureau, “Being Black in Indiana,” https://www.in.gov/history/2548.htm.


Schoeppner argues that the South Carolina legislation, which was passed in response to the Denmark Vesey rebellion, was a response to beliefs that Vesey had been inspired by time in Saint Domingue and correspondence with Haitians and Africans. Schoeppner also emphasizes that abolition in the British empire in 1833 exacerbated these fears of “moral contagion.” Schoeppner, Moral Contagion, 22, 23, 92–125.


Berlin, Slaves without Masters, 96.


Ibid., 203.


Parker writes, “any recognition of federal authority to regulate the influx of persons was viewed by pro-slavery apologists as a potential threat to the slave states’ authority to regulate the influx and residence of free blacks.” Parker, Making Foreigners, 84.


Ibid., 108.


For an in-depth discussion of the Passenger Cases, see Tony Allen Freyer, The Passenger Cases and the Commerce Clause: Immigrants, Blacks, and States’ Rights in Antebellum America (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2014).


Justice Levi Woodbury, Passenger Cases, 48 U.S. 283 (1849), https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/48/283/, emphasis added.


Justice Levi Woodbury, Passenger Cases, 48 U.S. 283 (1849), https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/48/283/.


Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, Passenger Cases, 48 U.S. 283 (1849), https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/48/283/.


Parker, Making Foreigners, 84–108; Katherine Carper and Kevin Kenny, “Introduction: Immigration in the Civil War Era,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 11, no. 3 (September 2021): 311–16.


The Constitution had determined that “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall . . . be discharged from such Service or Labour,” requiring such escapees to be returned to their enslavers. In 1793, Congress passed an “Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters,” commonly known as the Fugitive Slave Law. Interpretation of this provision and law was generally left to the states until the Supreme Court's decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842 ruled it a federal prerogative. This ruling was the foundation for the 1850 legislation, H. Robert Baker, “The Fugitive Slave Clause and the Antebellum Constitution,” Law and History Review 30, no. 4 (November 2012): 1133–74.


Daniel Kanstroom, Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). The Fugitive Slave Act utilized the power and force of the state to contain southern Black people within the slave system, a system that still generated immense profits for the North. In this effort, we see the power of the nativist state not only to exclude, but also to construct an exploitable class. Constraints on Black mobility were often key to that process. After the abolition of slavery in the United States, control over Black mobility was reinstituted through the criminalization of vagrancy. Black people who refused to stay put and continue to provide labor to white plantation owners or to a white supremacist state could be compelled to do so as convicts, through the convict lease and chain gang systems. The nineteenth century nativist state played a role both in keeping Black foreigners out of the nation, and keeping free and enslaved Black people in place as exploited labor in the southern plantation economy. Elizabeth Hinton and DeAnza Cook, “The Mass Criminalization of Black Americans: A Historical Overview,” Annual Review of Criminology 4, no. 1 (January 2021): 261–86, and Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor Books, 2009).


For more on whiteness and citizenship, see Ian Haney López, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996).


Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/llst.022/?sp=1&st=text. For more on the Dred Scott decision, see Amanda Frost, You Are Not an American: Citizenship Stripping from Dred Scott to the Dreamers (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021), 1–29. For a fuller discussion of the decision with regard to Black views on immigration, see Niambi Michelle Carter, American While Black: African Americans, Immigration, and the Limits of Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).


Linda K. Kerber, “Toward a History of Statelessness in America,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 2005): 727–49.


Devon W. Carbado, “Racial Naturalization,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 2005): 633–58. I appreciate Vanessa Rosa's graceful invocation of Carbado's work in “Colonial Projects: Public Housing and the Management of Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1945–1970,” Critical Dialogues in Latinx Studies: A Reader, eds. Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas and Mérida M. Rúa (New York: New York University Press, 2021), 186–96. For a detailed analysis of how different states interpreted Black citizenship rights after Dred Scott, and particularly how free Black Baltimoreans envisioned and fought to carve out citizenship rights, see Jones, Birthright Citizens.


Parker, Making Foreigners, 5.


The literature on these topics is too ample to do it justice here, but a few suggested readings would be Lee, At America's Gates; Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Katherine Benton-Cohen, Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Maddalena Marinari, Unwanted: Italian and Jewish Mobilization against Restrictive Immigration Laws, 1882–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017) and Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).


Lee, At America's Gates.


Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 (New York: Hill & Wang, 2004), 62.


In the wake of the Civil War, as the federal government solidified its authority over immigration policy, anti-Blackness seems not to have been at the center of this transformation. On the contrary, Kevin Kenny argues that antislavery efforts shaped immigration laws during and after the Civil War. Katherine Benton-Cohen has documented that southern business leaders and landowners were generally in favor of immigration, and opposed to restriction, from Reconstruction until at least 1907, viewing European immigrants as a preferable replacement for African Americans. As the nativist state elaborated its exclusionary architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, other racialized groups were its main targets. Anti-Blackness would re-converge with the nativist state in the 1910s and 1920s as West Indian immigration provoked renewed questions about the desirability of Black foreigners. Kevin Kenny, “The Antislavery Origins of US Immigration Policy,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 11, no. 3 (September 2021): 361–81. Katherine Benton-Cohen, Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 200–204.


Congressional Record, December 31, 1914, 805.




Beyond a scheme to exclude Black immigrants, Williams longed for a way to expatriate African Americans, “I, for one, would be very glad if there were some scheme whereby, without injuring them in any degree, without doing them injustice in any degree, they could go somewhere else, of their own free accord, and to that extent solve this great problem.” These nativist debates not only targeted Black foreigners, they also discursively rendered African Americans as foreign, subject to removal from the United States. Congressional Record, December 31, 1914, 805, 806.


Congressional Record, January 7, 1915, 1134–36.


Ibid., 1137.


Ibid., 1138.


Quin's tirade asserted, “Of all the barnacles that the civilization of the United States has fasted to it, of all the leper spots, of all the sores, of all the misfortunes that the civilization of this Republic has fastened to the bodily politic, it is the African race, which stands as the worst. I say, gentlemen, that of all the evils that the American Republic is confronted with to-day it is this black race, this black death, this parasite of race destruction that is fastened upon the Anglo-Saxon people and upon the civilization of the United States.” To Quin, excluding Black immigrants was a key aspect of maintaining white supremacy, “You had just as well to begin to understand that the white people are going to rule this country.” Quin concluded with a masculinist appeal to racial purity, “Why not be real men and stand up for the purity of the white race all over our country?” by voting to exclude Black foreigners, ibid., 1134.


Washington also noted that the proposed legislation to exclude West Indians was profoundly insulting to the workers who had constructed the Panama Canal. Washington Bee, “Letter Regarding the Amendment,” January 16, 1915.


Congressional Record, December 11, 1916, 207–10. Neither amendment was accepted by the Senate, but the interweaving of nativism and anti-Blackness in the congressional debates continued. Reed argued, for example, “The great body of the African race has never developed a civilization of any kind . . . The native of Africa has sat under a tree content to live off of its fruit, content to occasionally go upon marauding expeditions, content to set up here and there a sort of barbarous scheme of government, tribal in its nature, content to hunt heads, and in some cases to feed upon human flesh.” Congressional Record, December 11, 1916, 158–62.


James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, 12.


Ibid., 78.


Filipinos, however, were considered US nationals and not subject to immigration quotas until 1934, because the United States had violently colonized the Philippines in 1898. See Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), for excellent analysis of the distinct treatment of the Philippines.


US Census, “Immigration Quotas Allotted and Quota Aliens Admitted, by Country of Birth: Years Ended June 30, 1925 to 1938,” FRASER Digital Library, https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/files/docs/publications/stat_abstract/pages/52753_1935-1939.pdf.


Putnam, Radical Moves, 88–94.


James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, 355.


Mae M. Ngai, “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924,” The Journal of American History 86, no. 1 (June 1999): 67–92.


Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 26. Independent nations in the Western Hemisphere were exempt from the quotas of the 1924 law. The decision to leave them free from quotas was the result of intense lobbying by agricultural leaders reliant on Mexican agricultural labor. Continued paths for Mexican immigration coupled with sudden restrictions on Jamaican and Bahamian immigration reinforced implicit assumptions about the desirability of Black migrants. Occasionally, this comparison was made explicit, as in this statement by the director of the Agricultural Bureau of the Los Angeles chamber of commerce, “Which do you choose, Mexico's deportable birds of passage or Puerto Rican Negroes who, as citizens, would leave the edge of U.S. empire to settle within the final frontier of Anglo-America?” Mexican labor was preferable both because Mexicans were not considered “Negroes” and because their non-citizen status made them deportable, presumably sheltering “Anglo-America” from their permanent inclusion in the nation. George P. Clements, quoted in Hernández, City of Inmates, 136.


Black immigration from independent nations in the Caribbean and in Central and South America remained numerically unrestricted.


Congressional Record, March 29, 1928, 5578–81.


Desmond S. King and Rogers M. Smith, “Racial Orders in American Political Development,” The American Political Science Review 99, no. 1 (February 2005): 75–92.


James wrote searingly of his incarceration on Ellis Island in advance of his deportation, “I was an alien. I had no human rights.” C. L. R. James, Mariners, Renegades & Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001), 141.


Jones had attempted to become a US citizen in 1940 but was denied. Denise Lynn, “Deporting Black Radicalism: Claudia Jones’ Deportation and Policing Blackness in the Cold War,” Twentieth Century Communism 18 (Spring 2020): 39–63.


Claudia Jones quoted in Carole Boyce Davies, “Deportable Subjects: U.S. Immigration Laws and the Criminalizing of Communism,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 100, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 949–66.


Hahamovitch, No Man's Land, 29.


Ibid., 29–32.


Earl Morrison, quoted in Hahamovitch, No Man's Land, 68.


Guestworkers “were stuck,” Hahamovitch concludes. “Their only choice was to demand repatriation, and even that took some time because ships were scarce. Those who tried to switch employers or who protested wages or conditions would be ordered deported by the INS, isolated from other guestworkers in a federal holding facility, and shipped home on a US vessel,” ibid., 76.


Luther L. Chandler, quoted in Erin Conlin, “‘Work . . . or be deported’: Florida Growers and the Emergence of a Non-Citizen Agricultural Workforce,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 96, no. 4 (Spring 2018): 435–67. Chandler also argued that Puerto Ricans were less suitable than British West Indians because, even though Puerto Rico was “negroid in its racial structure very largely,” it “treats itself and insists on being recognized as white.” Conlin fleshes out this argument: “Chandler claimed that it would be impossible to house such workers because they did not see themselves as black, yet white Americans would not accept them as white,” ibid., 449.


Desmond S. King, Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 236–39. As Roger Daniels explained, “Almost all of these colonies were in the circum-Caribbean and the universe of potential immigrants was almost totally black.” Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 119.


Representative Louis B. Heller (D-NY) noted, “this bill establishes a new form of racial discrimination—against Negroes from Jamaica, Trinidad, and the other British West Indies.” Congressional Record, April 23, 1952, 4311.


Congressional Record, April 25, 1952, 4435–39.


Letter from A. Philip Randolph to President Harry S. Truman, May 29, 1952, Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, National Archives, digital collection on “Immigration Policy: President Truman's Veto of the McCarran-Walter Act,” https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/research-files/letter-form-philip-randolph-president-harry-s-truman?documentid=NA&pagenumber=1.


Hearings before the President's Commission on Immigration and Naturalization, 1952, 43–46.


Ibid., 246–49. Walter White also emphasized the potential foreign policy ramifications of the new policy: “in one fell swoop the hope of many Jamaicans and others from British, French, and Dutch West Indian possessions of escape from economic bondage has been destroyed. That hope has been replaced by justified resentment that the exclusion is based primarily on skin color.” Ibid., 43–46.


Congressional Record, April 23, 1952, 4320.


Lee, America for Americans, 221–50.


Quoted in Jethro Koller Lieberman, Are Americans Extinct? (New York: Walker, 1968), 158.


Senator John McClellan, quoted in Lee, America for Americans, 236, 237.


Congressional Record, September 22, 1965, 24776.


United States Census, “General Population Characteristics,” 1960.


Lieberman, Are Americans Extinct?, 149.


Ngai, Impossible Subjects; Maddalena Marinari, “‘Americans Must Show Justice in Immigration Policies Too’: The Passage of the 1965 Immigration Act,” Journal of Policy History 26, no. 2 (2014): 219–45.


Lieberman, Are Americans Extinct?, 134


Statement of Beryl Henry, representing the Jamaica Progressive League, Inc., of New York, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 89th Congress, Part 2, 1965, 905–7.


Lieberman writes that the difference in treatment between Eastern and Western hemispheres “would have had small effect had it not been highlighted by the fact that proponents of abolition sought a change in the status of two countries—Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago—which had recently achieved independent status. These islands were excluded from an existing law which provided nonquota status for Western Hemisphere countries which became independent. In asking that the two members of the British Commonwealth be granted nonquota status, the sponsors of S. 500 raised anew the entire question of the Western Hemisphere's general exemption.” Lieberman, Are Americans Extinct?, 155.


Marinari, “‘Americans Must Show Justice in Immigration Policies Too,’” 221; A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 145.


Congressional Record, August 24, 1965, 21572, 21573. MacGregor included editorials from a number of prominent newspapers, including the New York Times, supporting restrictions on Western Hemisphere immigration. An excerpt he included from the Christian Science Monitor claimed, “The flood of Puerto Ricans which has poured into New York, and the wave of Jamaicans which has flowed into Britain during the last 15 years are but tokens of the vast numbers who might someday wish to leave underdeveloped homelands.” Congressional Record, August 24, 1965, 21573.


Congressional Record, August 24, 1965, 21577.


Congressional Record, August 25, 1965, 21808. MacGregor argued, “I think it is a mistake to further open the door in the Caribbean at the same time that we partially close the door in western Europe. We will, if this bill is passed in its present form, be partially closing the door to the free flow of people to this country from some of our historic allies in western Europe, and will be opening the door to countries not known to be historically friendly or close to us in the Caribbean area.” Congressional Record, August 24, 1965, 21591.


Congressional Record, August 24, 1965, 21591. While the imposition of numerical restrictions on most Western Hemisphere nations would be a radical and unprecedented move, MacGregor insisted that allowing unrestricted immigration from the Caribbean would be equally radical and unprecedented. “We are not simply continuing the free flow of immigration from the Western Hemisphere that has been enjoyed by these countries in the past . . . We are making a marked change in the status of the Caribbean countries which have recently acquired their independence or who will subsequently acquire their independence.” Congressional Record, August 25, 1965, 21808.


Marinari, “‘Americans Must Show Justice in Immigration Policies Too,’” 229.


Ervin argued, “I submit that there is no relationship which is closer or more special than that which our country bears to England. . . . Yet, under the pending bill, those who disagree with me express no shock that Britain, in the future, can send us 10,000 fewer immigrants than she has sent on an annual average in the past. They are only shocked that British Guiana cannot send us every single citizen of that country who wishes to come.” Congressional Record, September 17, 1965, 24233.


Congressional Record, September 17, 1965, 24235.


See Marinari, “‘Americans Must Show Justice in Immigration Policies Too’” for an excellent analysis of this process.


Congressional Record, September 17, 1965, 24228.


Congressional Record, August 25, 1965, 21758.


The term “golden door” refers to US immigration opportunity. Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door.


Adam Goodman has documented that the mid-1970s began an era of “mass expulsion,” as deportations (including the misleadingly named “voluntary departures”) averaged nearly 925,000 a year. As he notes, deportations were often designed to be punitive, in order to discourage remigration, and to relocate deportees in ways that would make their remigration particularly difficult. In addition, formal deportations generally included a temporary or permanent ban on readmission. I would argue that expulsion thus formed part of a larger architecture of mass exclusion. Expulsion served to remove those immigrants who slipped through the cracks of exclusion, and to do so in a way that discouraged subsequent migration efforts, including criminalizing reentry. Goodman, The Deportation Machine, 107.


Carl Lindskoog notes that Haitians constituted only two percent of illegal entrants at the time the United States began to transform its policies to exclude them. Detain and Punish, 67.


See note 19.


These descriptions still define our contemporary era. On carrier sanctions, see Tilman Rodenhäuser, “Another Brick in the Wall: Carrier Sanctions and the Privatization of Immigration Control,” International Journal of Refugee Law 26, no. 2 (June 2014): 223–47.


The attacks of 9/11 then added an entire additional layer of exclusionary policies and practices, while mobilizing the nativist state to disregard the due process rights of foreigners in the United States during the “War on Terror.” Nguyen, We Are All Suspects Now.


Norman L. Zucker and Naomi Flink Zucker, Desperate Crossings: Seeking Refuge in America (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996), 35.


The asylum process was in many ways being dismantled as it was being created. As Carl Lindskoog notes, there were very few asylum applications before 1972, no clear procedure before 1975, and the legislative grounds for it were not created until the Refugee Act of 1980. Lindskoog, Detain and Punish, 55. For more on the exclusion of Haitians, see Jeffrey S. Kahn, Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019); Zucker and Zucker, Desperate Crossings; Brandt Goldstein, Storming the Court: How a Band of Law Students Fought the President—and Won (New York: Scribner, 2005); A. Naomi Paik, Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps Since World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); María Cristina García, The Refugee Challenge in Post–Cold War America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 15–65; Jonathan M. Hansen, Guantánamo: An American History (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011), 265–302.


On the anti-Haitian raids in the Bahamas in 1978, see “Haiti, Beleaguered Nation of the Caribbean: Who Can Deny its People Assistance?” a report prepared at the instance of the Caribbean Human Rights Network, Bridgetown Barbados, July 1993 (Revised), Bahamas National Archives, Nassau, Bahamas. On the impact on US policy, see Lindskoog, Detain and Punish, 26.


Haitian Refugee Center v. Civiletti, 503 F. Supp. 442 (S.D. Fla. 1980), July 2, 1980, https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/503/442/1467096/


Although many Cubans are also of African descent, those immigrating in the years following the 1959 revolution were rarely Afro-Cuban. This changed with the Mariel exodus in 1980. For more on Afro-Cuban immigrants, see Gosin, The Racial Politics of Division.


Zucker and Zucker, Desperate Crossings. For more on the Duvalier dictatorships, see Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti, State against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990); Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Picador / Metropolitan Books, 2013).


Haitian Refugee Center v. Civiletti, emphasis in the original.


While Cuban migrants retained a privileged position relative to Haitians in many ways, the Mariel migration crisis shifted US attitudes to Cuban migration as well, given that many 1980 arrivals were Black or had criminal convictions or mental health issues. The Mariel exodus concluded, however, while Haitian migration continued. For more on Cuban immigration and the Mariel migration, see María Cristina García, “Exiles, Immigrants, and Transnationals: The Cuban Communities of the United States,” in The Columbia History of Latinos in the United States since 1960, ed. David Gutiérrez (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006) or Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959–1994 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Gosin, The Racial Politics of Division.


Quoted in Lindskoog, Detain and Punish, 53.


Jana K. Lipman, “‘The Fish Trusts the Water, and It Is in the Water that It Is Cooked’: The Caribbean Origins of the Krome Detention Center,” Radical History Review 115 (Winter 2013): 115–41; Paik, Rightlessness; Hansen, Guantánamo; Jenna M. Loyd and Alison Mountz, Boats, Borders, and Bases: Race, the Cold War, and the Rise of Migration Detention in the United States (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018).


In the case of Guantánamo, the maintenance of detainees beyond the legal protections of the United States would also impact prisoners from the “War on Terror.” Hansen, Guantánamo, 303–48.


Lindskoog, Detain and Punish, 62, 63. Even though Cuban and Haitian migration had spurred the backlash, the Mariel exodus had concluded by late 1980, so Haitians were the focus of the new detention practices in 1981.


Lindskoog notes that the policy of detention before 1954 was unevenly applied. After 1954, immigrants were generally paroled unless they posed a flight or public health risk, ibid., 2.


This turn to automatically detaining potentially “excludable aliens” during the asylum process was theoretically applicable to all nationalities, but it was almost solely applied to Haitians. High-ranking immigration officials later testified that they had not intended for their subordinates to detain Haitians exclusively or uniformly, but in practice, INS employees proceeded as if all Haitians were subject to mandatory detention. Jeffrey C. Gilbert and Steven Kass, “Jean v. Nelson: A Stark Pattern of Discrimination,” University of Miami Law Review 36 (September 1982): 1024; Report by the US General Accounting Office (GAO), “Detention Policies Affecting Haitian Nationals,” June 16, 1983, https://www.gao.gov/assets/ggd-83-68.pdf, 5.


Lindskoog, Detain and Punish, 62, 63.


The lawsuit also emphasized that the practice of mandatory detention had been introduced in 1981 without following the proper procedures to introduce a new policy, Gilbert and Kass, “Jean v. Nelson”; Louis v. Nelson, 544 F. Supp. 973 (S.D. Fla. 1982), June 18, 1982, https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/544/973/1686455/


Lindskoog, Detain and Punish, 63–67, 76. The US government was “committed to a strict detention policy for aliens involved in or awaiting exclusion proceedings” in spite of the lengthy detentions this would certainly entail. GAO, “Detention Policies Affecting Haitian Nationals,” 5.


Arthur Helton from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, quoted in Lindskoog, Detain and Punish, 94.


Norman L. Zucker and Naomi Flink Zucker argued, “The Haitians occupy a unique place in American refugee history. They were the first nationality to seek asylum (rather than the refugee status or parole that were not available to them) in significant numbers . . . They were also the first group about whom the government made a policy decision, not only to deny asylum, but also to discourage and deter those who would apply for it. The Haitians were the first, but they would not be the last. The US government would later apply the methods used against the Haitians to other unwanted groups of asylum seekers, such as the Central Americans.” Zucker and Zucker also note that “other refugee-receiving countries would use those same methods against their unwanted asylum seekers, citing as precedent the United States’ treatment of the Haitians. When, for example, Hong Kong began the forcible return of Vietnamese boat people, its defense was that it was applying the same policy that the United States had applied to the Haitians.” Zucker and Zucker, Desperate Crossings, 69.


Lindskoog, Detain and Punish, 1.


“Human caging” to describe incarceration is a reference to Hernández, City of Inmates. For an analysis of the inherent violence of the United States’ immigration system, and particularly the role of “humanitarian” reforms in legitimating that violence, see Inés Valdez, “Reconceiving Immigration Politics: Walter Benjamin, Violence, and Labor,” American Political Science Review 114, no. 1 (2020): 95–108.


My larger project focuses on militarized Haitian exclusion in the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, but I have seen evidence that Cuba, Jamaica, and many other nations were rejecting and/or repatriating Haitians in this era as well. While I do not use the metaphor of incarceration lightly, multi-lateral militarized migrant exclusion effectively locked the vast majority of Haitians into their country.


To offer just a few of the countless examples of the structural violence that characterized detention, a study of the Haitian refugees detained on the US military base at Fort Allen in Puerto Rico begins with a dedication to Prophète Talleyrand, who hanged himself in August 1982 after nearly a year of detention there. The dedication includes a photograph of his dead, hanging body, in a gruesome demand that the reader bear witness to the brutality of caging traumatized people seeking refuge. Several months earlier, in November, 1981, an open letter from the detained Haitians at Fort Allen had been published in the New York Times. In it, the incarcerated asylum seekers bemoaned their treatment: “Our situation is pitiful. We have been locked up behind barbed wire from Miami to Puerto Rico.” After several months in detention, they were fed up and demanded change: “Now we cannot stand it any more. It is too much. If we have not been freed by the end of November, a good number of us are going to commit suicide. Because we have sworn to die in the United States.” In 1995, a fifteen-year old detained at Guantánamo explained in an affidavit that he was afraid to be returned to Haiti, but he was also afraid of the base personnel, whom he described as “menacing and abusive.” After refusing an order to clean up the camp, the teenage Haitian recounted being roughly treated by camp personnel, including being handcuffed and told to kneel on a mound of ants. Orders were being screamed at him in English and there was no interpreter present. “I was confused, disoriented and afraid. When I didn't comply with their order, [name unknown] grabbed my handcuffed hands and flipped me over. I could not protect myself from the fall, so I fell on my face. Blood was pouring from my nose and my upper lip.” Eventually the teenaged Haitian refugee kneeled and was required to stay in that position for four hours. Recounting this and other punishments at Guantánamo, he concluded, “I have never been so depressed or so humiliated. I felt very low, I wanted to kill myself.” He told a sergeant that “if this is the way they were going to treat me they might as well pull out their gun and shoot me. Sergeant [name unknown] said my request for death was ‘bull shit.’ He then called me a ‘fucking Haitian.’” Caged and miserable, thwarted Haitian asylum seekers sought to leverage some control over their fates through organized and individual acts of resistance. Raymond Lafontant Gerdes, Fuerte Allen: La diáspora haitiana (Río Piedras, PR: Editorial Plaza Mayor, 1996); “Haitians: We'll Kill Ourselves,” New York Times, November 29, 1981; Affidavit, name blacked out, Jan 19, 1995, Box 99, Folder “Statements of Unaccompanied Minors at Guantanamo, January 17–20, 1995,” National Coalition for Haitian Rights Records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.


Lindskoog, Detain and Punish, 58. For an excellent study of interdiction, see Kahn, Islands of Sovereignty.


Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, “Refugee Refoulement: The Forced Return of Haitians under the U.S.–Haitian Interdiction Agreement,” March 1990.


Kahn, Islands of Sovereignty, 85.


Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, “Refugee Refoulement.”


Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, Inc., 509 U.S. 155 (1993), https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/509/155/. For more analysis of this and other relevant court decisions, see Philip Kretsedemas, Black Interdictions: Haitian Refugees and Antiblack Racism on the High Seas (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022).


Justice John Paul Stevens, decision of the court in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, Inc. For a detailed exploration of the Coast Guard's interdiction of Haitians, see Kahn, Islands of Sovereignty.


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees,” https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/protection/basic/3b66c2aa10/convention-protocol-relating-status-refugees.html.


Gary W. Palmer, “Guarding the Coast: Alien Migrant Interdiction Operations at Sea,” International Law Studies (1998), available online from the Naval War College Digital Commons, digital-commons.usnwc.edu (note this article mistakenly dates the initiation of Operation Able Manner to June, rather than January, 1993); “U.S. Sets Up Sea Barricade to Halt Haiti Refugees,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1993; “U.S. Ships Encircle Haiti to Bar Exodus of Refugees,” Toronto Star, January 16, 1993.


“U.S. Sets Up Sea Barricade,” Los Angeles Times.


“Haiti's Aristide Urges New U.S. Policies on Refugees, Blockade,” Stanford University News Service Release, April 19, 1994, https://news.stanford.edu/pr/94/940419Arc4323.html


Niels Frenzen, “US Migrant Interdiction Practices in International and Territorial Waters,” Extraterritorial Immigration Control: Legal Challenges, eds. Bernard Ryan and Valsamis Mitsilegas (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 389.


Lindskoog, Detain and Punish, 59, 60.


Frenzen, “US Migrant Interdiction Practices,” 387.


Jeffrey Kahn, “The Caribbean Roots of European Maritime Interdiction,” Society for Cultural Anthropology Fieldsights, June 28, 2016, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/the-caribbean-roots-of-european-maritime-interdiction.


Kahn, Islands of Sovereignty, 44.


Alejandra Castillo, “Programa Frontera Sur: The Mexican Government's Faulty Immigration Policy,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, October 26, 2016, https://www.coha.org/programa-frontera-sur-the-mexican-governments-faulty-immigration-policy/.


Jonathan Blitzer, “Does Asylum Have a Future at the Southern Border?,” New Yorker, October 3, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/does-asylum-have-a-future-at-the-southern-border.


Ruth Maclean and Abdi Latif Dahir, “New US Travel Ban Shuts Door on Africa's Biggest Economy, Nigeria,” New York Times, February 2, 2020; Julie Hirschfield Davis, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and Thomas Kaplan, “Trump Alarms Lawmakers with Disparaging Words for Haiti and Africa,” New York Times, January 11, 2018; D'Vera Cohn, Jeffrey S. Passel, and Kristin Bialik, “Many Immigrants with Temporary Protected Status Face Uncertain Future in the United States,” Pew Research Center: FactTank, November 27, 2019.


Hernández, City of Inmates.


For an excellent study of crime-based deportation, see Alina Das, No Justice in the Shadows: How America Criminalizes Immigrants (New York: Bold Type Books, 2020) and “Inclusive Immigrant Justice: Racial Animus and the Origins of Crime-Based Deportation,” UC Davis Law Review 52 (2018): 171–95.


The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. See Christina Gerken, Model Immigrants and Undesirable Aliens: The Cost of Immigration Reform in the 1990s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).


Human Rights Watch, “A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses,” June 16, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/06/16/price-too-high/us-families-torn-apart-deportations-drug-offenses.




BAJI and NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic, “The State of Black Immigrants.”


Ibid. While in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, Black immigrants are six times more likely to be held in solitary confinement. Nana Gyamfi, “Anti-Blackness and the Criminalization of Immigrants—Part One,” The Other Side of the Water podcast transcript, https://www.jeanvnelson35.org/anti-blackness-and-the-criminalization-of-immigrants-part-one.


A recent sociological study in California by G. Cristina Mora and Tianna S. Paschel found a strong correlation between anti-Black bias and anti-immigrant resentment, even when controlling for a wide array of factors. The history described here would suggest structural underpinnings for that correlation. Mora and Paschel, “Antiblackness as a Logic for Anti-Immigrant Resentment: Evidence From California,” Sociological Forum 35, S1 (September 2020): 918–40.