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How whiteness shapes U.S. immigration policy

Yalidy Matos's new book connects American racial politics and immigration policy.

- September 20, 2023

Good Authority editor Nadia E. Brown interviewed Yalidy Matos online about her research into how immigration shapes and is shaped by U.S. racial politics. This year Matos published her new book Moral and Immoral Whiteness in Immigration Politics (Oxford University Press, 2023). 

Nadia E. Brown: What do we learn about American race relations by examining U.S. immigration policy?

Yalidy Matos: Immigration is one of the most enduring and significant forces shaping the United States. When we examine immigration as an expansive regime of social control that dates to chattel slavery and native dispossession, it is hard to miss that we learn a lot about American race relations by examining immigration policy. Immigration policy delineates belonging. It makes legible either explicitly or implicitly who belongs, who is worthy and deserving of full human, civil, and/or political rights. These policies have and continue to set the standards of the politics of belonging.

During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the nation was imagined in racial terms, institutionalized by laws, policies, and social norms. Immigration policy set the terms of belonging mainly by way of racial categories. 

For example, Alien Land Laws limited ownership of land by non-citizens. Of course, at the time, only white male citizens had the right to own land. That’s due in part to the 1790 Naturalization Act, which permitted only white persons to be naturalized. This set the stage for the contemporary disproportionate land ownership by race, where non-Hispanic white Americans own over 90 percent of the land in the United States, according to a Winter 2002 report by Rural America

From 1982 to 1943, Chinese immigrants were legally excluded through the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; it was not until the 1965 Immigration Act where Chinese immigrants were able to migrate at higher numbers. In 1917, the United States Congress passed an Immigration Act that included the Asian Barred Zone, restricting migration from countries “adjacent to the Continent of Asia.” In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the number of immigrants allowed through a national origins quota, allowing immigrants from predominantly white countries while accepting few immigrants from non-white countries. The 1924 Act based the quotas on the 1890 Census and considered the national origins of the American population including the native-born, which increased the number of visas that the British Isles and Western Europe can obtain while effectively lowering the quotas for non-white countries.

Such exclusive immigration policy set the stage for American race relations past and present. Today, immigration policy is “colorblind,” due to the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act during the civil rights movement, which removed the national origins quota. But there’s been a move towards the internal enforcement of immigration law by local police, for example, who have the authority in many states to act as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, following the Section 287b of the 1996 Immigration Act, which made it constitutional for such federal-local level collaborations to occur. The result: rampant racial profiling of phenotypically non-white Latino, Black Latinos, and Black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean.

Ultimately, immigration policy defines and redefines political membership and belonging; it has and continues to shape and mold racial formation, the process by which racial categories are given meaning, determined, and manipulated by social, economic, historical, and political forces, in the United States. As a driver of demographic changes, immigration – especially the restrictions on who can enter the U.S. – has shaped and continues to shape the national conversation on race.

How do morality and whiteness shape Americans’ views of immigration?

Matos: In the book, I argue that whiteness structures immigration policy and that morality structures whites’ immigration attitudes.

Prior to the civil rights movement and during de jure segregation and discrimination, white identity and white supremacy were intimately linked and for many were one and the same. It is easy to argue that whiteness structured immigration policymaking and attitudes prior to the 1960s, and many scholars have done so; see, for example, work by Ian Haney Lopez, Cheryl Harris, David Roediger, Matthew Frye Jacobson, and Mae Ngai. Whiteness conferred citizenship, social and moral standing, and status. Even among working-class and poor whites, whiteness conferred moral status, offering what W.E.B. DuBois called “psychological wages” rather than real material wages.

The post-civil rights era saw a disentanglement between white identity and white supremacy, which was linked to segregation and overt racist practices. Immigration law and policy became officially “colorblind,” in accordance with the civil rights movement’s presumed egalitarianism. But the 1965 Immigration Act was not actually supposed to increase diversity. It was supposed to keep the nation white. Specifically, it prioritized family reunification instead of skilled labor. That was because a nativist Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Michael Feighan of Ohio, argued that white immigrants would bring their white relatives. Hence, whiteness continued to structure immigration policy even when it resulted in dramatic demographic changes.

Ultimately, to avoid psychological and social consequences, most whites are shaped by this kind of distorted morality, what Stuart W. Mills calls “white right.” This means an understanding of what is “right” and “wrong” through a color-coded lens that reinforces whites’ racial position in the racial order by way of their conscious and unconscious understanding of the world that reconciles equality and subordination simultaneously. This distortion of a moral compass, the simultaneous commitment to equality and racial hierarchy, ultimately plays a role in non-Hispanic white Americans’ view of immigration and immigrants.

Given today’s sociopolitical climate, what can Moral and Immoral Whiteness teach us about the salience of how whites view American politics?

Matos: U.S. immigration policy today continues to be structured by whiteness. Morality is at the heart of whites’ understanding of belonging and deservingness. Whiteness affords advantages. Among those is white Americans’ moral certainty that they “belong” and will rarely be racially profiled as “illegal” or “dangerous.” Immigration, at bottom, is about the freedom to move. Movement is governed by how “moral” we think a group of people is. This is evident in the disproportionate incarceration and detention of Black and Latino individuals. Without this understanding, the racial status quo that exists within American politics will continue.

Scholars of racial and ethnic politics may contend that political science has always been and is the study of white identity politics. How does this book showcase new understandings of whiteness as a political category? Why is it still necessary to examine whiteness?

Matos: I’ll first make clear that understanding and examining whiteness is not the same as white identity politics or political science’s lack of critical race theorizing. The call in political science and other disciplines should be to examine whiteness critically, especially when contending with traditional topics such as voting, the presidency, Congress, all of which are institutions structured by whiteness. If we cannot understand or examine these institutions this way, we are just maintaining the status quo by continuing to center white samples or participants. 

This is not to suggest that our locus needs to be whites’ racial attitudes. In fact, one of the arguments I make in the book is that it is almost unnecessary to ask whites about whether their white identity matters to them. Instead, what we need to examine is their political behavior, precisely because whiteness is an ideology and white identity a political category that transcends a social or racial identity, precisely because of the advantages afforded to whites that no other group has been afforded in American history. Using this understanding, political scientists can fully capture how whiteness operates as a moral and political choice that – unless those persons perceived to be white choose to behave differently – maintains a racially based unequal system, a system of white supremacy.