When President Obama announced that he would provide a deportation reprieve to several million undocumented immigrants, the backlash erupted swiftly. The cries of outrage, charges that the President had acted in violation of the Constitution, that he had crowned himself “King,” all spoke to a profound sense of visceral anxiety over the idea of “amnesty.” The familiar jingoistic phobias surfaced again: somehow, the country was moving toward “open borders” and would soon be overrun with foreigners, aliens, deviants and parasites. The outcry hearkened back to earlier times of similar xenophobic panics; before cable news punditry, we had riots, or internment camps.
During the Bracero Era, the southwestern border region was enveloped with a chaotic combination of mass exploitation of Mexican migrant farmworkers, racial panics, and the government’s obsession with national security, inspired by the Cold War. This convergence of social tensions led to a dramatic militarization of the border that prefigured today’s border regime. And conservatives aired similar fears about unruly, dirty and even criminal Mexicans who posed a threat to public safety. Hundreds of thousands were rounded up, summarily expelled without due process, and forced back across the border for a while… until they inevitably tried to reenter again, to seek the grueling work that they relied on to feed their families.
And early in the 20th century, immigrants were “managed” at New York’s Ellis Island in a similar way, but at a different kind of border, where European immigrants thronged to American shores, driven by economic desperation, fear of persecution, and a yearning for an opportunity to provide a dignified life for their children. These migrants, too, were viewed by the “native-born” as invaders, threatening to taint the nation with their cultural and moral impurities. They were detained and rigorously inspected, sometimes quarantined and threatened with expulsion, if deemed to be “unfit”.
These new arrivals were some of the first subjects of the science of eugenics–a field of social engineering that centered on the creation of racial superiority through the perfection of the human breed. Poor immigrants, particularly Latinos, Asians and Blacks, were often deemed inferior and therefore a threat to the human family that constituted the nation. And it was from this scientific racism that our first modern immigration policies were developed. And even today, seeing the backlash from politicians over any change to immigration policy that smacks of opening the border, we can see how migration triggers the same underlying anxieties about “letting them in.”
Border crossers have always been met with deep suspicion. Those on the inside recoil at the thought of conquest or contamination. The agitation and terror generated by the social interface at the border is as old as the nation-state itself. What changes from generation to generation, though, is who gets to be on the inside, and how the border is defined and policed.
A new exhibit at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute, “Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office,” looks at the science of eugenics in the context of culture and social change. The project depicts the cold, antiseptic cruelty with which people were inspected, judged and ranked, but also how the tropes of racial inferiority and superiority persisted over time. The idea of mental and moral deficiencies being physically marked, and the fascination with “abnormal” bodies as vessels for vice, sexual perversion, and criminality–are all recurring concepts, though the images that define the norm and the other shift over time.
At a performance event based on the theme of the exhibit (curated by John Kuo Wei Tchen, Noah Fuller and Mark Tseng Putterman), artists and scholars (including CultureStrike’s Sonia Guinansaca) presented different variants of eugenics thinking. There was a discussion of history of sterilization, in which the state neutered women deemed immoral, feeble-minded and incapable of making their own reproductive decisions. There were also reflections on the modern legacy of eugenics in our contemporary social lives: When did Asians become the “model minority“? Loretta Ross of Sister Song examined gentrification as a form of eugenics, which does not operate through the process of reproduction, but does apply social engineering principles to control populations, to break up communities deemed dangerous to society, and to police the behavior of families and youth to make them conform to the standards imposed upon them from the outside.
The legacy of eugenics should disturb us, not because it is alien to our sense of humanity, but because it is so akin to it. Immigration and exclusion are two sides of the same set of human impulses: the desire to belong, and the desire to establish who we are in contrast to the other. That tension, and the social distance it breeds, will never be resolved, but we can learn how to live along the border, and embrace it, and overcome, without letting it define us.
Images courtesy Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU and Leonard Nadel Collection, National Museum of American History