Immigration Nation : Code Switch Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, and the prospect of mass deportation is in the news. But as much as this seems like a unique moment in history, in many ways, it's history repeating itself.

Immigration Nation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And this week, we're talking immigration.


DEMBY: It's been a dizzying couple of weeks at the U.S. border. The Trump administration's aim to prosecute in criminal court every person who crosses the border illegally resulted in children being sent to shelters without their parents.

MERAJI: But after widespread bipartisan outrage over the separations of families at the border, President Trump reversed course.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to keep the families together. I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.

DEMBY: The zero-tolerance policy seems to be on hold for now, but that doesn't really help the families who are already split up with no clear plan for family reunification on the horizon.

MERAJI: And that wasn't the only recent major immigration headline. The Supreme Court ruled for the government in Trump v. Hawaii, a ruling that upholds the administration's travel ban. It's the third iteration of what people used to call the Muslim ban.

DEMBY: In the middle of all of this, President Trump took to Twitter, saying, quote, "we cannot allow all of these people to invade our country," unquote. He suggested that people who come into the country illegally see no judge or jury before returning home. He also used the word infest to describe those people who entered the country illegally.

MERAJI: We'll talk about how the history of referring to human beings as something less than human using terms like infest, invade, animals, how they shape the way we think about each other and what effect this rhetoric has and what can be done about it.

DEMBY: And then, we look at how we got here. Our immigration laws have changed a lot over the last 150 years and so has the way we enforce them. We're going to talk about ICE. Where did the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency come from, and do we need it?


TRUMP: We have people coming into the country or trying to come in. We're stopping a lot of them. But we're taking people out of the country. You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals.


TRUMP: Can you imagine these people - these animals over in the Middle East that chop off heads - sitting around talking and seeing that we're having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding. And we should go tougher...


TRUMP: And this is why we call the bloodthirsty MS-13 gang members exactly the name that I used last week. What was the name?


TRUMP: Animals.

MERAJI: Over the past week, I've talked with a lot of people about the word animal. The experts included a sociolinguist, a neuroscientist, a philosophy professor and historian Ibram X. Kendi.

As a historian, what goes through your head when you hear President Trump using terms like animal to refer to people?

IBRAM X KENDI: Well, what goes through my head is that those are indicative of racist ideas. And throughout the history of racist ideas, certain races have been characterized - or I should say dehumanized as in some ways animal-like.

MERAJI: Dr. Kendi won the National Book Award two years ago for his book "Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History Of Racist Ideas In America." And he says in order to establish human hierarchy, humans have been calling other humans animals for a long time. Two-thousand years ago, Aristotle was doing this. There were the Greeks and then the non-Greeks. Greeks were human. Non-Greeks were barbarians, animals who needed civilizing. But this idea of racial hierarchy, Dr. Kendi says, that really started taking shape around the 1400s with the transatlantic slave trade and dehumanizing language penned by a Portuguese biographer.

KENDI: Gomes Zurara. Gomes Zurara ended up being commissioned to write a biography of Prince Henry the Navigator. Prince Henry the Navigator really pioneered the transatlantic, sort of, African slave trade. So he sort of financed the Portuguese to sort of go around the Muslim middleman through the Sahara and use the Atlantic to then go and enslave people and bring them back to Europe and eventually started bringing them to the Americas. And so when the king asked Gomes Zurara to write a biography of the king's uncle, which was Prince Henry, he of course had to write a glowing biography. And in writing a glowing biography, he ended up describing the reason why Prince Henry was enslaving these people was not to make money but was to civilize them because they were beasts.

And so I write about this and show this in my book from the original pioneering Portuguese slave traders to the French, to the British. These travelers and thinkers were typically describing the black people they were enslaving as beasts to justify their expeditions, to justify their mass murdering and kidnapping of these people.

MERAJI: After the abolition of slavery in the U.S. in 1865. Free black men were depicted as ferocious animals out to rape and devour white women. Thousands of people were lynched. Native Americans were referred to as savages, wolves, lice to be exterminated. The justification for ripping Native American families apart and forcing children into boarding schools came from Captain Richard H. Pratt's speech "Kill The Indian And Save The Man" delivered in 1892.

The Chinese were also considered uncivilized and referred to as filthy yellow hordes ahead of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. And we're going to get to more on that in a bit. And the Japanese were referred to as devils ahead of their internment during World War II. In the 1950s, signs could be found in the windows of businesses across the American Southwest reading no dogs, no Negroes, no Mexicans. The list is long and it's hideous, and it's still being added to.

Sociolinguist Otto Santa Ana, a professor in the Chicano, Chicana Studies department at UCLA, analyzed the language about Mexican immigrants used by the Los Angeles Times between June of 1992 and December of 1994.

OTTO SANTA ANA: And what I found was that the metaphors used to characterize immigrants were systematically negative. The major one was immigrants as animals. They were - they were pack animals. They were Coyotes. They were Pollos. They were any number of animals. The Border Patrol were hunting those animals. They were tracking them down. They were caging them. They were eliminating them.

MERAJI: Professor Santa Ana told me the LA Times journalists were not only quoting people using this type of language, they were using the metaphors themselves. And during that time, on November 8, 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187. People who backed the legislation, like California Republican Governor Pete Wilson, called it the Save Our State initiative. Opponents called it racist and anti-immigrant. It stopped all unauthorized immigrants in California from accessing non-emergency health care, public education and other social services. And the law required folks who worked at agencies that provided these services to report people they thought might be undocumented to the INS, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Now, Prop 187 was declared unconstitutional. But professor Santa Ana says the U.S. in 2018 feels eerily similar to California in 1994. And President Trump's rhetoric is giving him deja vu.

SANTA ANA: By allowing and by utilizing the term illegal alien and criminal alien - which is his favored term - he, again, legitimizes the discourse in the public sphere that demeans and dehumanizes immigrants.

MERAJI: Professor Santa Ana says illegal alien, criminal alien, animal, they're all bad. They're all describing a group of people as not human.

SANTA ANA: Animals. When he characterizes them as animals, that reflects a concept that was used by the Nazis when they characterized Jews in 1930s. That led, of course, to the Holocaust. When you dehumanize a person entirely, then you are able to eradicate them without concern. That's why good family-oriented people are willing to rip children out of the arms of those animals because those Latinos are not people in the way that good Americans are.

MERAJI: Now, there are people who think that comparing President Trump's language to the language of Nazis is hyperbolic. It's offensive and it's useless. One of those people is The Hill's media reporter, Joe Concha. Concha says that so much of the news media has taken Trump's animal reference way out of context. He says that the president was referring to MS-13 gang members, not all Latino immigrants. I caught up with him on his cellphone while he was making his way back home to New Jersey from D.C.

JOE CONCHA: When President Trump compares MS-13 to animals, they are - they really are. They decapitate people. They rape people. They're a horrible, horrible existence on this planet. And if anybody but Trump says it, no one even blinks twice when that is said. Didn't Hillary Clinton once call gang members - oh, boy...

MERAJI: Super predators.

CONCHA: ....I don't even remember - yeah, yeah exactly.


HILLARY CLINTON: They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called super predators - no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel. And the president has asked the FBI to launch a very concerted effort against gangs everywhere.

MERAJI: Historian Ibram Kendi, who you heard from earlier, says dehumanizing people is totally bipartisan. In fact, everyone is susceptible to using this type of language.

KENDI: There's a long history of abolitionists using this language, civil rights activists using this language, liberals using this language. I mean, to give an example, during the enslavement era, one of the more popular theories that abolitionists put forth was that slavery was literally making black people into brutes. So it wasn't just dehumanizing. It literally had dehumanized them and made them into brutes. And so that's why slavery is so bad. We need to eliminate it. It's made these people into animals.

And the same idea has been made about segregation, about poverty. People who uttered the idea that young black urban teenagers were super predators weren't saying that this was sort of by nature. They were saying that's the result of poverty. It's the result of discrimination. So we need to, you know, eliminate those problems so we can sort of heal them and civilize them back to humanity.

MERAJI: And, it turns out, everyone is susceptible to believing other people are subhuman. I spoke with Emile Bruneau, a neuroscientist and director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab, and he helped conduct a study to test this. First, he showed people the Ascent of Man diagram - that's the one that supposedly shows how human beings evolved. It goes from apes to advanced humans. You've seen it. And what he did was he let people rate certain groups of people, rate their humanity from 0 to 100 on that diagram - zero being the least human, the ape, and 100 being the most human. And when he gave that study to Americans, Muslims and what Bruneau refers to as Muslim-related groups like Iranians and Palestinians, they scored 10 to 15 points below white Americans. So they were considered less human. And it was Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds who scored Muslims this way.

EMILE BRUNEAU: If the media and the norms of a society are all biased against one group, then all groups in the society learn that, including the group that's at the losing end.

MERAJI: Bruneau found that the people who rated Muslims lowest on that scale, they were more likely to say they were against the Iran nuclear accord and for the torture of terror suspects. As for differentiating between an MS-13 gang member and a Central American immigrant, it's actually harder than you think. Bruneau says human beings' brains are kind of prewired to attribute negative things to other groups. That's our brains on autopilot.

So he says if you're not a part of that racial ethnic or religious group, the automatic response in your brain will conflate the gang member who was just called an animal with all the other members of that group or the Muslim terrorists being hunted down with all Muslims.

BRUNEAU: And one simple example, I've been looking at the tendency to collectively blame groups for the actions of individual extremists from those groups. And Americans - if you ask them how responsible are Muslims in general for an attack by a Muslim extremist, they will say about 35 to 40 points on a 100-point scale. If you ask white Americans how responsible are white Americans for the action of a white extremist, like Dylann Roof, they'll only answer about 10 on the scale. So there's an extreme difference in how much they apply the actions of extreme group members to the group as a whole.

MERAJI: Bruneau is conducting studies right now to figure out the best ways to jolt the human brain out of these automatic responses and into deliberate cognition. He says based on what scientists know about how the brain works, he's pretty sure shaming someone for their beliefs and making them feel bad is not the way to do it. I spoke with David Livingstone Smith more about this. He's a professor of philosophy at the University of New England. And he's author of "Less Than Human," the psychology of cruelty. He thinks one way to wake Americans up to the evils of dehumanization is to teach us our history, an unsanitized version of it.

DAVID LIVINGSTONE SMITH: Americans tend to have a rather deformed picture of their own history. And so we're not so acquainted like the Germans are with the atrocities that, you know, white America has committed. If you're aware of those things, then it might give you pause. I teach a course. It's called Race, Racism and Beyond. And without exception, my students have never heard how bad things were. The loss of flattering illusions is a very painful process. It is for all of us. You know, I have compassion with that. But it would be very beneficial because it might actually result in some dramatic improvement in the nightmare of race relations in this country.

DEMBY: When we come back, should ICE be abolished?

MERAJI: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. So in February of this year, the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, the agency that processes visa petitions and citizenship applications, removed a passage from its mission statement that called the U.S. a, quote, "nation of immigrants." That served as evidence for a lot of people of the Trump administration's animus towards immigrants. More evidence of that animus? The way ICE conducts its immigration raids, including the massive one we saw the agency carry out in Ohio earlier this month. So is this always how immigration has worked in the U.S.? We called in an expert.

MERAJI: Erika Lee is the director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.

ERIKA LEE: The common understanding of xenophobia is that it rises and falls. It rises when we're in a crisis mode, and then it falls when we gain confidence. And I'm really seeing much more of a steady undercurrent that kind of is at the foundation of much of what we do.

MERAJI: So let's talk about that foundation - the Naturalization Act of 1790, which is the first immigration law. It specified that any alien, being a free white person, could apply for citizenship so long as he or she lived in the United States for at least two years and in the state where the application was filed for at least a year.

DEMBY: But for much of the country's early history, there wasn't really a federal agency dedicated to immigration oversight. That is, until the late 1800s, when waves of people began arriving in the U.S. from all over the world and when individual states started passing their own immigration laws to stem that tide.

MERAJI: And while immigrants from Europe faced hostility, they were still flavors of white. On the West Coast, an influx of laborers from China was met with mob violence. And the rhetoric in the press and on the streets will sound familiar to y'all. These people are coming into our country threatening our jobs and not speaking the language.

DEMBY: Chinese restaurants were considered dens of vice. There were concerns that the Chinese will get virtuous white women addicted to opium. In 1877, white folks rioted and burned down the homes of Chinese immigrants in the city.

MERAJI: And Erika Lee says it's around that time that officials decided to crack down on Chinese immigration.

LEE: The U.S. government realized that we already have a core of U.S. Customs officials. These are the guys who are already at our nation's ports who are receiving ships from overseas. And they're counting how many bales of cotton and how much of this and how much of that. And so the first immigration officials are actually U.S. Customs officials in the Department of Treasury. They are tasked with adding one more thing, i.e. human bodies, to their list of things to count.

DEMBY: In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law which, with few exceptions, banned all Chinese migration to the United States.

LEE: For the purpose of public safety or public good of the United States, it is necessary to exclude Chinese laborers for a period of 10 years. So it's meant to be a temporary measure, which relates to us says we're thinking about the discussions over the Muslim ban today about how it was supposed to be a temporary measure. But, in fact, the Exclusion Act lasted for 61 years.

DEMBY: The Chinese Exclusion Act was notable in that it restricted migration not by nationality but explicitly by race. You could not immigrate to the U.S. if you were, say, Chinese-Canadian.

MERAJI: By 1910, the government built Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, which is often compared to Ellis Island in New York Harbor. But that's not exactly right. Immigrants passed through Ellis Island pretty quickly. But Angel Island was effectively America's first major immigration detention center.

LEE: Chinese immigrants absolutely refer to Angel Island as a prison.

DEMBY: This was the larval stage of America's federal immigration bureaucracy. Over the next few decades, the country's immigration enforcement apparatus would grow from a few dozen Customs inspectors into agencies with enough clout to organize mass deportations.

MERAJI: In the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, local governments rounded up Mexicans living in California and the Southwest, put them on trains and sent them across the border by the thousands. Most of them were American citizens. It was the first of several waves of massive expulsions of Mexicans from the United States, including the infamous Operation Wetback.

LEE: Operation Wetback is a massive deportation operation that happens in 1954 that removes around 1 million Mexicans from the United States and lays the foundation for some of the large-scale deportations that we continue to see throughout the late 20th century.

MERAJI: Because of these policies, by the mid-1900s, more than half of all immigrants to the U.S. came from Europe. Enter President Lyndon Johnson's administration.

LEE: The 1965 Immigration Act is considered the civil rights law of immigration.

DEMBY: President Johnson's act sought to end discrimination in the U.S.'s immigration policy. And at the time it passed, it wasn't considered that big a deal. But it would basically reshape American society. According to Pew, 59 million immigrants would come into the U.S. in the 50 years after the act was passed. And the act also changed the complexion of American immigration.

MERAJI: More melanin.


DEMBY: Since the act passed, more than half of the people who've immigrated to the U.S. have been from Latin America, and about a quarter have been from Asia. President Ronald Reagan, that hero of modern conservatism, famously signed an amnesty bill in 1986 for nearly 3 million undocumented people living in the U.S. But the immigration enforcement apparatus was still growing as all this was happening. As part of its so-called amnesty law, Reagan also funded more security personnel and new surveillance technology for the U.S.-Mexico border and tried to punish businesses that hired undocumented workers.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Breaking into Susan's report to give you breaking news from New York City, where planes - two planes - have hit both towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. The...

MERAJI: September 11, 2001, changed everything.


GEORGE W. BUSH: Today, I signed an executive order creating a new Homeland Security office charged with strengthening America's protections against terrorism.

DEMBY: That was President George W. Bush about a month after the attacks announcing the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security. All of the attackers on 9/11 entered the country legally - legally. Nonetheless, the brand new Department of Homeland Security aimed to, quote, "remove all removable aliens from the U.S." and requested the resources to do so. And it meant that an ever-expanding list of offenses and civil violations - DUIs, peeing on the sidewalk, shoplifting - became possible grounds for deportation. Here's Erika Lee again.

LEE: This newly-created Department of Homeland Security has reframed our whole conception and our whole national understanding of immigration as a threat.

MERAJI: With immigration as a national security priority, government spending on immigration enforcement ballooned. By 2013, Washington allocated more to cracking down on immigration than it did on all the other federal law enforcement agencies combined. That includes the FBI, the DEA, the U.S. Marshals, the Secret Service. You get it. Since the 1930's, immigration enforcement was handled by the Immigration and Naturalization Service - the INS. But after 9/11, the INS spun off into three brand new agencies.

DEMBY: Let's break it down. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services - the USCIS - we talked about before. They process paperwork like naturalization documents. Then you have Customs and Border Protection. CBP is the agency that enforces immigration law within a hundred miles of the U.S. border. And the third new agency was Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

MERAJI: Aha (ph).

DEMBY: Yes. ICE works in the interior of the country and has broad powers to surveil, to arrest, to detain people suspected of immigration violations. And ICE has about 20,000 employees. But in reality, its reach is way larger because it works with local police departments and sheriff's departments. And ICE spends about $2 billion a year to contract a network of private prisons to detain all of the people it rounds up.

MERAJI: And ICE has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years because it plays by a different set of rules than other law enforcement agencies.

DEMBY: Time for another expert.

DEBORAH KANG: So my name is Deborah Kang. I'm an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos. And I'm also a visiting scholar at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California San Diego. I'm the author of a recent book called "The INS On The Line: Making Immigration Law On The U.S.-Mexico Border."

DEMBY: That is a lot. OK (laughter).

KANG: I can make it shorter.

DEMBY: No, no, no, no, no. Brag on yourself. Brag on yourself. As we all know, holding law enforcement agencies accountable is really hard. And Kang says ICE presents its own particular set of challenges on that front.

KANG: So one of the important things to understand about the nation's immigration laws is that these are civil laws. Deportation is a civil procedure rather than a criminal procedure. So because of that, the nation's immigration agencies past and present have by no means been held to the same standards as a local law enforcement agency - you know, a sheriff's office, a city police department or the FBI - they have far fewer constraints. And this is why you'll often see, especially here in San Diego, you'll see in the local media, you know, news stories about excessive use of force. Several years ago in the San Diego papers, there were many stories about how CBP officers were shooting their guns through the border fence at immigrants across the line.


KANG: You had, between 2013 and 2016, five investigations into abuses committed by CBP. And all five investigations came to the same conclusion - that CBP relied on an excessive use of force and recommended that they adhere to a more restrained approach to border policing.

DEMBY: So they have this recommendation. Were there - was anyone fired or...


DEMBY: ...Was there any consequences?


DEMBY: Has there been any...

KANG: No. No. What typically happens with both ICE and CBP is when, you know, complaints are filed by these children or these adults, there may be cursory investigations. And if those investigations are conducted, they're conducted in a very, very small minority if there's those complaints. And nothing happens. And you'll usually find months later that CBP and ICE, when they have to conduct their own internal reviews for their higher-ups and for Congress, will often engage in this kind of self-congratulatory language about how they're doing such a great job.

DEMBY: We reached out to ICE and to CBP for a response. We did not hear back from CBP, but we did hear from ICE. And here's what they said. Based on multi-layered rigorous inspections and oversight programs, ICE is confident in the conditions and high standards of care at its detention facilities.

KANG: So history tragically repeats itself when it comes to CBP and ICE. It's now, as I write in my book, a theme in modern American history that these two agencies have committed so many abuses and have conducted their immigration enforcement operations with tremendous violence for almost the entirety of their existence. And we're approaching a hundred years now for the Border Patrol.

DEMBY: Because of what immigration looks like in the United States today, it seems like the people who are going to be coming into contact with ICE agents in the world are almost always going to be people of color. How is the discussion of race and the way that race plays out in ICE's policing and arrests and detainment - how is that played out in the discourse around ICE's policing?

KANG: I think, right now, legitimate concerns about the racialized approach to immigration law enforcement that's occurring not only with respect to ICE but also with respect to CBP - I think these concerns have informed the recent Abolish ICE movement. And so I very much think that they are legitimate. And, you know, when you see the images on TV or read the stories in the media, you know, you aren't reading about ICE pursuing Norwegian immigrants.

DEMBY: Right.

KANG: They're typically pursuing immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

DEMBY: So, as you just pointed out, there's been a call for the abolition of ICE from activists. What would the abolition of ICE look like in practice?

KANG: I think for the initiators of this movement, it's not clear what would replace ICE. I know having written the history of the INS and the Border Patrol that if you get rid of ICE, you're not going to solve the problem because you're still going to have CBP, Customs and Border Protection. And CBP - its track record with respect to abuses inflicted against immigrants both adults and children is just as bad as ICE. And I also think that if you get rid of ICE, you know, Congress will just turn around and give CBP the resources to conduct the interior enforcement that ICE had been doing. Or it'll create another agency to conduct interior enforcement.

I think what needs to happen with respect to the nation's immigration agencies is that there needs to be greater oversight. There needs to be some kind of body and, especially Congress, that does routine checkups. You know, there are now multiple investigations that have been completed with respect to the abuses that have been committed by both agencies with respect to both adults and children.

The ACLU, for example, published a report on the CBP treatment of children. And the results of that report, which are based on documents from CBP itself, is on its website. So this is something that I think - especially given the situation now, the crisis that we're having with these children - I think the public really needs to be informed and really ask themselves, is this how we want to be treating children in this country? And I don't think we should be asking this question of, is this how we should be treating immigrants? I think we should just be asking, is this how we want to treat children in this country? We should see them as children first.

DEMBY: Deborah Kang is the author of "The INS On The Line: Making Immigration Law In The U.S.-Mexico Border." Thank you, Deborah.

KANG: Thank you.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is You can always send us your burning questions about race with the subject line ask CODE SWITCH. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. And sign up for our newsletter. It's

MERAJI: You have a lot of things to do.

DEMBY: Yes. These are marching orders.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez and Sami Yenigun. It was edited by Sami and Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: You always say their names so good.

MERAJI: And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Kat Chow, Adrian Florido, Leah Donnella, Karen Grigsby Bates and Walter Ray Watson. Our intern is Angelo Bautista.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all. Take of yourselves.

MERAJI: Peace.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.