Historians Reckon with Borders and Migration in the Age of Trump
The article A Shadow on the Past: Teaching and Studying Migration and Borders in the Age of Trump by Hasia Diner, Sonia Hernández, Benjamin H. Johnson, Julian Lim, Maddalena Marinari and Elliott Young was published in The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progessive Era.
It is a truism that the conditions of the present condition the way we study and teach the past. As Frederick Jackson Turner put it in 1891, “Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.”
The ascension of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States on an avowedly nativist platform is surely one of the “conditions uppermost” in the minds of present historians. As a scholar of borders and Mexican American history – not to say as a person committed to multiracial democracy – I find myself struggling with the meaning of Trump’s presidency for the study of border and migration. These fields are in remarkable states of flourishing, and so they ought to be able to help us make sense of the present. And how might current developments be shaping the way scholars study borders and migration? What, in short, are the promises and perils of studying and teaching migration and borders in the age of Trump?
Since I am also one of the editors of The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, I was able to enlist some help from distinguished scholars in this field. Although these issues obviously transcend the temporal confines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is also the case that fundamental aspects of immigration policy and border policing were put into place in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. One might think of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 Immigration Act as bookending the period: the former marked the advent of a “gatekeeping” nation and thus of the first “illegal immigrants,” while the latter (now a model for some of Trump’s leading policy advisors) signaled the triumph of nativist sentiment and the explicit codification into law of a comprehensive ethnoracial hierarchy with a system that endured for generations.
The discussion resembled most “state of the field” conversations in its consideration of recent developments, influential works and concepts, and areas in need of greater study. Yet participants also spoke extensively of their own experience of living through this age and how powerfully it resonates with this history: Sonia Hernández (Texas A & M University) recalls growing up “with the same fears that my undocumented parents felt,” and Elliott Young (Lewis and Clark) and Hasia Diner (New York University) invoke their family’s histories with the Holocaust. And our students are experiencing their own version of this, evoking great fear, but also, as Julian Lim (Arizona State University) observes, the recognition that “current debates about immigration and the border” are “part of a longer history about how Americans and the government have decided who to include and to exclude, and why.”
Panelists agreed that the emphasis on exclusion and race in recent work positions us well to understand such policies as a ban on immigrants from middle eastern nations, the proposed border wall, and the general rhetoric about Mexico and other migrant-sending nations. Yet we also considered the prospect that the current moment makes it more difficult to see beyond histories of exclusion and racism. As Hasia Diner argued, “Some of the books that have placed so much emphasis on state action have stripped ordinary people of their abilities to negotiate for themselves and they have de-emphasized the importance of communal organizations.” Other participants suggested that a focus on state policy need not eclipse the social history of migrant communities, and there seemed to be a consensus about some research and public history projects that could move these fields forward in a way that engages contemporary politics. Yet this is not a simple matter. As Lim observed, there are “some tensions between our roles as historians and as political actors. As a historian, I understand and accept complexities and contradictions. But in our current political climate, there is no space for complexities and contradictions.”