uring his election campaign and since his inauguration, Donald Trump hammered home a consistent message: the U.S. immigration system is broken and border security is weak. He did so, in part, by pointing to unauthorized border crossings and crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants—allegations unsubstantiated by evidence. Furthermore, he used these dubious arguments to claim that immigrants threaten the everyday safety of U.S. citizens. Although the rhetoric surrounding immigrant criminalization has intensified representations of immigrants as criminals, his strategy is not entirely new. The Secure Communities Program, created under President Bush and expanded under President Obama, claimed to focus on detaining and deporting unauthorized immigrants with felony convictions. Moreover, state-level immigration laws, such as Arizona’s SB1070 and copycat laws in Alabama and elsewhere in the U.S. South, made it a crime to be in the state without proper authorization (Ehrkamp and Nagel, 2014). More recently, publishing lists of crimes allegedly committed by (unauthorized) immigrants—as the Trump administration has done through the Declined Detainer Outcome Report—falls squarely into the strategy of criminalizing immigrants and portraying them as a threat to U.S. citizens. This strategy has numerous antecedents throughout U.S. history and often led to more restrictive immigration laws, a point that I explore with regard to teaching immigration at the end of this essay.

In the current administration, scapegoating immigrants serves the nationalization of immigration enforcement strategies and makes visible the increasingly firm line between citizens and non-citizens. Criminalizing immigrants and the recent Executive Orders on immigration can be read as the early stages of a reshaping of the spaces and spatiality of immigration enforcement, with more to come. Specifically, a stronger focus on nationalizing immigration enforcement appears to be emerging. That is, state-wide legislation such as Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 that make it a crime to be in a particular state of the U.S. without proper documents may become applied to the national territory of the U.S. This could, on the one hand, suggest the reversal of what has been termed the "devolution of immigration enforcement" (Ellis, 2006; Coleman, 2012a) to local and state enforcement agencies. On the other, it is still unclear whether these ramped up national-level enforcement efforts will exacerbate the effects of anti-immigrant laws at the local and state level, or preempt them altogether.

Looking back at the past several decades of immigration law changes and welfare law changes in the U.S. further suggests that the policies of the current administration are not entirely out of line with previous ones that became increasingly punitive. For example, since the passage of the 1996 IRIIRA Act and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act during the Clinton administration, non-citizens’ civic and social rights have been increasingly eroded. Among the curtailment of social rights was legal immigrants’ access to Medicaid and to Supplemental Security Income (Singer, 2002).

What has become drawn more firmly in the current administration, then, is the border between citizens and non-citizens. That is, authorized aliens were (and still are) admitted to the territory of the U.S. in various immigrant and non-immigrant visa categories. They are not necessarily admitted to the polity (Bosniak, 2006). That border between citizens and non-citizens has been less obvious, in part because it is buried under myriad visa categories and occluded by a few of the rights still afforded non-citizens within U.S. territory. For example, the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyer vs. Doe continues to provide the right of public education to school aged children regardless of their immigration status because the Supreme Court found undocumented immigrants to qualify as ‘persons’ according to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (Bosniak, 2006: 64). Bosniak (2006: 132) calls this liberal democracy’s “soft interior” and cautions that this soft interior “cannot be entirely insulated from its exclusionary edges; rather, through alienage, that exclusion routinely penetrates the interior as well.”

The distinction between citizens and non-citizens, however, is firm and meaningful. Bosniak’s (2006: 10) careful analysis of “alienage” suggests that “there are certain characteristics that structurally shape the lives of most non-citizens, usually in disadvantaging forms.” Specifically, she argues, aliens “are always subject to the possibility of deportation from the territory” (Bosniak, 2006: 10, emphasis added). To be clear, all non-citizen aliens in the U.S. are deportable, regardless of which visa category they fall under. As a class, they lack the legal right to enter, stay, or reside in the U.S. that U.S. citizens enjoy. The recent chaos in the immediate aftermath of the current administration issuing an Executive Order to halt the admission of Syrian refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries made that distinction painfully clear. Immigrants, legal permanent residents of the U.S., holders of work visas and tourist visas alike were vulnerable to the revocation of their status, either via the formal provisions of the Executive Order or due to the discretion of officers from Customs and Border Patrol. Some of these officers asked legal permanent residents originally from Yemen, one of the countries listed in the Executive Order, upon their arrival at airports in the U.S. to sign form I-407 to voluntarily give up their lawful permanent resident visas.

While a wealth of scholarship has demonstrated that the border between legality and illegality is quite porous (see, among others, De Genova, 2004; Coleman, 2012b), the recent revocation of visas prior to and upon arrival denotes an important shift to frontloading immigration enforcement. It also significantly reduces the United States’ commitments to humanitarian admissions priorities through the refugee and asylum system. Similarly, calling for expanding ‘expedited removal’ (as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security did in this memorandum in February 2017) has the potential to further undermine the constitutional rights of unauthorized aliens to a court hearing before deportation or to an asylum hearing. Under expanded authority for Customs and Border Patrol officers beyond a zone that has been limited to within 100 miles from the U.S. border until then, the officer’s discretion—rather than a hearing in front of an immigration court—becomes the sole determining factor of removal.

The February memorandum by the DHS Secretary turns CBP agents into judge and officers of the executive branch of government, thereby undermining the separation of powers intended in the U.S. Constitution. Officers asking immigrants to ‘voluntarily’ give up their green cards by signing form I-407 similarly remove immigrants’ legal status and render them inadmissible to the territory of the U.S. Together, expanding expedited removal authority for CBP agents and CBP officers asking legal permanent residents to give up their green cards are indications of the vast (and seemingly expanded) power of individual discretion in immigration enforcement. Other proposals for Congressional review (and possible elimination) of visa categories and allocating more power to CBP officers seem to foreshadow increases in the discretion of officers and the further cementation of the hard line between non-citizens and citizens.

These developments also pose challenges for teaching immigration on politically divided college campuses where white supremacist groups seek to gain more influence on college campuses. In order to foster the political expression that is at the heart of a functioning democracy, and to simultaneously dispel the myriad myths about immigration, border security, and immigrants propagated by the Trump administration, it is imperative to place current events into a wider historical and geographical perspective. Linking the current administration’s nativism to earlier periods, among them the 19th century ‘Know Nothing’ party and anti-Catholic immigrant movements known as The Protestant Crusade highlights the repeated rhetoric of fear that complements exclusionary legislation and makes clear that the targeting of national and religious groups is part and parcel of the U.S. American history of immigration politics and policies. Other important examples that highlight how particular national groups were targeted are the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066 that led to the internment of Japanese Americans. Taking a more lighthearted approach, “Much Apu about Nothing,” an episode of the animated television series The Simpsons, may serve to introduce students to the scapegoating of immigrants and problematic nativist assumptions about ethnicity and national origins of immigrants. The episode takes on the politics of the 1994 anti-immigrant Proposition 1987 in California. Its cutting—and funny—satire lends itself to initiating class discussions on immigration politics without outright alienating those who have yet to reflect on their own nativism, and who may be disappointed to learn that despite Donald Trump’s assertions of newness there are strong historic precedents to his nationalist immigration policies and politics. 


Bosniak L (2008) The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Coleman M (2012a) The “Local” Migration State: The Site-Specific Devolution of Immigration Enforcement in the U.S. South. Law & Policy, 34: 159–190.
Coleman M (2012b) Immigrant Il-Legality: Geopolitical and Legal Borders in the US, 1882–Present.Geopolitics, 17(2): 402-422.
De Genova N (2004) The Legal Production of Mexican/Migrant "Illegality.” Latino Studies, (2): 160-185.
Ehrkamp P and Nagel C (2014) "Under the Radar”: Undocumented Immigrants, Christian Faith Communities, and the Precarious Spaces of Welcome in the U.S. South. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104(2): 319-328.
Ellis M (2006) Unsettling immigrant geographies: US immigration and the politics of scale. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 97: 49–58.
Singer A (2002) Immigrants, Welfare Reform and the Coming Reauthorization Vote. Migration Policy Institute, August 1.