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America Runs on Xenophobia

The United States has a long history of immigration, and many Americans celebrate their immigrant origins and the idea of the United States as “a nation of immigrants.” Immigration statistics also tell a story of America welcoming the stranger. From the beginning of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, the United States admitted three-fifths of all the world’s immigrants, or more than 80 million in the last 200 years alone. In addition, the United States has historically led the world in resettling refugees, welcoming 3 million since 1980. These trends have continued. During the 20th century, the United States remained the world’s largest immigrant-receiving country; into the early 21st century, it admitted more immigrants than any other country, over 1 million per year.

However, the United States is also a nation of xenophobia, a story that is also told through immigration statistics. Since 1892, the United States has deported more immigrants (over 57 million) than any other nation. Our history, politics, and laws have also revealed that an irrational hostility towards immigrants has been a constant and enduring force in the United States. Germans were seen as a threat in colonial America. In the 19th century, anxiety directed at Irish Catholics fueled an anti-immigrant political movement. In the 20th century, Asians were barred, and Mexicans were deported. In the 21st, Muslims have been banned and Central Americans denied asylum.

Xenophobia is a global phenomenon. But there are also distinct national, and even regional and local, differences. Xenophobia in the United States has been built upon the nation’s history of white settler colonialism and slavery. It has become part of the systemic racism and other forms of bigotry and discrimination that have defined American society. It has adapted to and shaped successive migrations and settlement of peoples from around the world. It has defined American nationalism and nativism, and it has endured because it has helped some of the country’s most important institutions to function and thrive: American capitalism, American democracy, and American global leadership.

To understand why xenophobia has been such an important and enduring aspect shaping the United States, it is necessary to explore what purpose it serves. What work does xenophobia do? Why does the United States continue to manufacture xenophobia and for what purpose?

Here, I draw from political theorist Bonnie Honig’s similarly framed question. Rather than ask, “How should we solve the problem of foreignness?” or “What should ‘we’ do about ‘them?’” Honig reverses the question: “What problems does foreignness solve for us? Why do nations or democracies rely on the agency of foreignness at their vulnerable moments of (re)founding, at what cost, and for what purpose?” I argue that xenophobia has been so important in the United States not only because it worked in concert with settler colonialism and slavery, but also because it has helped some of the country’s most important institutions function and thrive: American capitalism, American democracy, and American global leadership.

Read entire article at Public Books