The Border Is the Crisis: Reflections on the Centenary of the Immigration Act of 1924

The Border Is the Crisis: Reflections on the Centenary of the Immigration Act of 1924

Authors’ Note: The views expressed in this essay are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the contributors to the series “The Border Is the Crisis.” The series begins today, and a new piece will be posted every day this week and next.

The past has a way of repeating itself, just as the future has a way of not turning out as expected. On May 26, 1924, lawmakers tried to curb immigration—and ensure that the United States would be a white, Protestant country—by passing the Johnson-Reed Act. Also known as the Immigration Act of 1924, this legislation established a national origins quota system, which severely restricted migrants from eastern and southern Europe and almost entirely barred “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from Asia and the Middle East. Building on the Chinese Exclusion and Asiatic Barred Zone Acts, the Johnson-Reed Act was the legislative achievement of a eugenics movement that sought to racially engineer the US populace by excluding Asians, as well as “inconclusively white” Catholic and Jewish migrants.

Upon signing the bill, President Calvin Coolidge declared, “America must be kept American.” He won the approval of the Ku Klux Klan and the admiration of Adolf Hitler. Weeks later, Congress authorized the creation of the US Border Patrol to enforce the Johnson-Reed Act’s imperatives. Taken together, the creation of the quota system and the Border Patrol ushered in the most restrictive era of US immigration history: our own.

Today, the United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world, with the majority hailing from Asia (28%) and Mexico (25%). Even so, we have seen a proliferation of border walls and increasingly restrictive and draconian responses to the movement of people across the world, as neoliberal capitalism, political violence, and ecological destruction displace growing numbers of people. There is Title 42, a 1944 law restricting migration in the name of public health; there is the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which made it illegal to work without papers (and, thus, spawned a black market in forged documents); there is, more recently, the March 19, 2024, Supreme Court decision allowing Texas to arrest and deport unauthorized migrants to Mexico (irrespective of their nationality). Over the decades, the US state has continued to pathologize and criminalize the movement of people.

Policies, laws, and judicial rulings never occur in a vacuum but always in relation to social, political, economic, cultural, and, increasingly, environmental forces including pandemics; the ascension of capitalism and free trade agreements (such as the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA); the metastasis of the carceral state; rising global temperatures and sea levels; and endless, global warfare.

In the face of these convergent crises, the response of the global North—where most of the world’s wealth is concentrated and half of all historical CO2 emissions originate—seems focused on what Christian Parenti calls “the politics of the armed lifeboat.” This is a forlorn strategy of “excluding, forgetting, repressing, policing, and killing” the global poor, which will inevitably fail in its goal to “save one half of the planet from the other.” In truth, surviving our global crisis will require saving the whole world.

One hundred years have passed since the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act and the creation of the Border Patrol. But the undercurrents that mobilized both never went away and are resurging with renewed fervor. In 1925, the Border Patrol had fewer than 500 agents. Today, it has tens of thousands and an annual budget near $5 billion. A decades-long ramp up in immigration legislation targeting migrants for exclusion, detention, and deportation has fed this bulging, insatiable federal agency.

Centenaries prompt reflection about the past, present, and future. What has changed over the past one hundred years, and what has remained the same? How have things gotten better or worse and for whom? How might they have turned out differently or be improved?

The nine essays in this series grapple with these questions through wide-ranging interventions that take various forms—essays, interviews, autoethnographic analysis—and contextualize the long-term impacts of this pivotal moment in US immigration history.

They discuss how the origins of the Johnson-Reed Act and the Border Patrol precede 1924. Rather, those origins go back to the foundations of the United States and continue to shape our approaches to migrants through long-standing tactics—like deploying public health rationales to exclude the unwanted (Martinez)—as well as new innovations: like extraterritorial enforcement, mandatory detention, and blanket denials of asylum (Raoul, Kang).

Throughout US history, as Mae Ngai points out in her contribution, the escalations in exclusionary and criminalizing immigration policy coincide with large-scale structural changes in the political economy that create both opportunity and precarity. In that sense, industrialization in the 1920s generates similar anti-immigrant sentiment as the financialization and globalization of late capitalism in the 21st century.

Indeed, in the mid-1990s, NAFTA created the world’s largest free trade zone: rupturing the lives of working-class people in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and displacing thousands of Mexicans. Many of those Mexicans, along with Central Americans fleeing the aftermath of US–backed military upheaval in their homelands, would meet a new severe border regime. Employing “prevention through deterrence,” the United States sealed off high-traffic crossing areas, and increasingly criminalized the behavior of migrants (Rosas).

What is revealed by this series’ contributors is that we are facing crises that have only deepened over the past century. In 2024, we seem to be backsliding to the revanchist principles of the “Tribal Twenties,” under which the 1920s United States passed a white supremacist immigration law and authorized an antimigrant police force.

Amid the ongoing (at the time of this writing) trauma and generational grief unleashed since October 2023, the US-funded carnage in Gaza, and growing settler violence in the West Bank, we cannot ignore the connections between escalating border regimes in the United States and systemic efforts to subjugate, contain, and destroy Palestinians. For example, Israeli company Elbit Systems won a prime contract in 2014 from the US Department of Homeland Security to build surveillance towers along the US-Mexico border, because its technologies are “battle proven” in the occupied territories of Palestine: “a great laboratory,” in the words of one Israel Defense Forces general. As global inequality skyrockets and prosperous nations increasingly deploy securitized border regimes to maintain their imperial power and ill-gotten wealth, journalist Todd Miller looks to Israel-Palestine as “a metaphor for the entire world”: global apartheid.

We refuse to submit to such a macabre future. In the midst of overwhelming devastation, we also see glimmers of other directions to which we can turn. In Gaza, we bear witness to Palestinians doing what they can to survive together, despite the absolute degradation of their unlivable conditions and our complicity in creating them. They have been digging each other out of the rubble, risking assassination by snipers to save the wounded and bury the dead, providing medical care with no supplies, eating weeds in the face of famine, and sharing tents and whatever sparse resources they have. They show us the meaning of solidarity.

We see traces of alternative paths forward that emerge from the fact that we share this world; that our efforts to contain, expel, or destroy others boomerang to destroy ourselves (Chavez and Zubiate); that ordinary people build networks of care and solidarity under dire conditions, crossing artificial borders of all kinds (Reineke); that it is not only possible but necessary to create beauty and sanctuary with and for each other against the dictates of the state (Ramirez). We have no choice but to share this world. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Catherine S. Ramírez and A. Naomi Paik on the border crisis 100 years after the Immigration Act of 1924.

Featured image photograph: A CBP Border Patrol agent monitors the Canada–United States border near Sweet Grass, Montana, by (Public Domain).

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