A Brief History of Xenophobia In America ‹ Storyva – True Crime Story

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One of the oldest myths in American history is the notion that racism and discrimination toward newcomers is hypocritical in a country “founded on immigration.” In the United States, paranoia-fueled anti-immigrant violence is rooted in the country’s establishment as a predominantly white Protestant nation, a process made possible only through the genocide of Indigenous people and the mass enslavement of Africans kidnapped from their homelands and their descendants. Fears of demographic change are imbued by racism, and those fears are embedded in the country’s DNA.

Even before the establishment of the United States, colonial settlers, including those who later founded the nation, expressed fear over the immigration of non-Protestants from Europe. The founding father and inventor Benjamin Franklin described German newcomers as “the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation.” Although Franklin did not advocate a ban on immigration, he pushed for tighter restrictions. Fearing that too many Catholic immigrants threatened the white Protestant demographic majority, he added: “The Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted.”

In 1790, only thirteen years after the country’s independence, the US Congress passed the first naturalization act, restricting naturalization to “free white persons” who had been in the country at least two years and were of “good moral character.” In 1795, the bar was again raised higher: applicants needed to have been in the country for at least five years. Another three years later, yet another naturalization act introduced a fourteen-year residency requirement for naturalization applicants.

Throughout the 1800s, anti-immigrant hysteria reared its head time and again—from the Know-Nothing Party to measures designed to bar Chinese immigration to the United States.

Throughout the 1800s, anti-immigrant hysteria reared its head time and again—from the Know-Nothing Party to measures designed to bar Chinese immigration to the United States. In San Francisco, California, a so-called vigilance committee formed in 1851 amid growing tension over crime. Along with much of the southwest, California had only become part of the United States three years prior, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and transferred more than half a million square miles of territory to the United States. The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance was formed in response to criminal activities by the Sydney Ducks, a gang of immigrants from Australia. Nearly half of the Sydney Ducks had been born in Ireland, left for Australia when their home country was struck with the Great Famine of 1845–1849, and then resettled yet again in Northern California, where a gold rush had attracted hundreds of thousands of newcomers. News of gold brought so many to San Francisco that the nine-hundred-person town grew to more than twenty thousand between 1848 and 1851.

Only a day after forming, the first vigilante committee hanged John Jenkins, an Australian immigrant accused of theft and burglary. During the three months following its formation, the vigilantes hanged to death three more. In addition to extrajudicial executions, the mob carried out vigilante patrols, detained and interrogated individuals suspected of crimes, and forcibly deported immigrants. The first committee dissolved during elections in September of the same year, only three months after popping up.

In 1856, another vigilante committee took shape in San Francisco. Like the first vigilance committee, the second manifestation focused largely on criminality and “cleaning up” the city. Anti-immigrant sentiment continued to animate the committee’s activities, though, and the group continued to mete out racist violence—particularly against Chinese immigrants—after its formal dissolution three months onward.


Owing to a deadly crop failure in southern China in 1852, Chinese immigration to the United States skyrocketed. Most of the new arrivals were males seeking work in manual labor, especially in the mines. In 1852, more than twenty thousand Chinese nationals entered the United States through the San Francisco customs house, compared to the 2,714 who had passed through a year earlier. The spike was so dramatic that Chinese immigrants made up one in five residents of the four counties that constituted California’s southern mines. With anger mounting, local authorities sought to appease the white population by clamping down on Chinese workers. In May, the state introduced the Foreign Miners’ Tax, a move that imposed a three-dollar monthly fee on foreign nationals working in the mining industry. Rather than pacify the increasingly angry white miners, the introduction of the tax led to violence.

One such instance of violence had a monumental impact on American law. In 1853, George Hall and two other white men attempted to rob a Chinese miner near Bear River, in California’s Nevada County. Ling Sing, another miner, tried to intervene, but Hall shot him dead on the spot. Police arrested Hall and charged him with murder, and a jury found him guilty. Sentenced to death by hanging, Hall appealed the conviction, climbing up the legal ladders until eventually reaching the California Supreme Court. He argued that he could not be convicted on the testimony of Chinese immigrants, citing a California law that barred testimony from a “Black, or Mulatto person, or Indian.” The law did not mention Chinese or Asian individuals, but Chief Justice Hugh C. Murray, a member of the Know-Nothing party and a vicious opponent of immigration, delivered the majority opinion in favor of Hall. “His zeal for protecting white Americans from the potential harmful influences of inferior races is clear in the language of the majority opinion,” the historian Wendy Rouse has written. In 1854, a Know-Nothing chapter was established in California, and its primary function was to oppose Chinese immigration.

The justice system continued its assault on Chinese immigrants, and in 1858, California legally prohibited the immigration of Chinese or “Mongolian” individuals, although they comprised a meager 0.0011 percent of the country’s population of thirty-one million. Facing barriers to working in California’s mines, many Chinese immigrants sought work on the railroads being built to connect the eastern states to the Western frontier, and immigration continued to grow despite the hurdles.

In 1870, the US Congress approved the Naturalization Act, effectively banning Chinese from being granted citizenship and blocking the legal immigration of Chinese women whose spouses worked in the United States. The following year, anti-Chinese violence hit a fever pitch in Los Angeles. On October 24, 1871, tensions between white settlers and Latinos on the one hand, and Chinese immigrants on the other, boiled over. Disputes over prostitution networks in the city had partially fueled the anger behind the scenes. That night, the mobs hunted down Chinese immigrants in the city, mainly in the Chinese quarter, and gun battles erupted between police officers and Chinese immigrants. By the time the violence dissipated, at least eighteen Chinese immigrants had been tortured and killed, many of them hanged in front of crowds that were applauding the slaughter. When the killings went to trial, the court heard no testimony from Chinese eyewitnesses, whom the law still barred from testifying against white men.

In the 1850s, some of the first armed vigilantes to patrol the porous borderlands were on the search for escaped slaves seeking passage into Mexico. While the famed Underground Railroad helped runaway slaves reach freedom in the Northern states or in Canada, another route led them to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished in 1829.

In the 1850s, some of the first armed vigilantes to patrol the porous borderlands were on the search for escaped slaves seeking passage into Mexico.

In 1857, Nathaniel Jackson left his home state of Alabama and resettled in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, traveling with several families and formerly enslaved people. Along with his wife, Matilda, who was an emancipated African American, Jackson had hoped to escape the racism and intolerance of the American Deep South. He planned on moving to Mexico. In the end he stopped in San Juan, then a small community just north of the frontier, and established a ranch. In case of danger, he and Matilda knew they could escape across the Rio Grande River and into Mexican territory. Jackson and his family in fact risked a great deal of danger turning their ranch into a safe haven for formerly enslaved people and helping them escape across the country’s southern border.

Armed patrols gallivanted along the border, searching for emancipated African Americans and often illegally crossing the border into Mexico. After the abolition of slavery and the triumph of the Union during the Civil War, however, anger over Chinese immigrant workers led to the creation of a new type of border militia. The Mounted Guards, numbering around seventy-five people, operated out of El Paso, Texas, and their primary purpose was to prevent Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Riding on horseback up and down the border from Texas to California, the Mounted Guards patrolled the borderlands for Chinese crossers. They often collaborated with the Texas Rangers and with US soldiers stationed on the frontier.

Anti-Chinese xenophobia and bigotry had been mounting for decades, and the Mounted Guards’ foundation came more than two decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act, markedly racist legislation that forbade Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States.

In the late 1800s, American politicians increasingly took aim at immigrants and immigration. As waves of immigrants sailed to the country between 1865 and 1890, most of them from northern Europe, Congress sought to introduce new laws restricting who could and who couldn’t come to the United States. In 1875, a new law prohibited anarchists, criminals, sex workers, and polygamists, among others, from entering the country. In the two decades that followed, more laws sought to ban entry to those with certain mental health problems (“the insane”), individuals who had certain contagious diseases, and those whom authorities worried would become dependent on government financial aid to survive in the country. Labor laws banned employers from advertising jobs overseas, and immigrants weren’t admitted if they had made work contracts before they set foot in the country.

Between the late 1800s and 1915, another surge of immigrants mostly came from eastern and southern European countries, Russia, and Ukraine, among others. Around the time World War I started in 1914, anti-immigrant sentiment was mounting fast. A new string of anti-immigrant laws were introduced. One such law, passed in 1917, required immigrants to be literate, to meet certain physical prerequisites, and to meet a particular economic standard. It also put in place on ban on immigrants from many Asian and Pacific Island countries. Later, in 1921, the United States introduced a quota system that put a cap on the number of immigrants from any individual country. In a single year, the number of immigrants from a particular country could only reach as high as 3percent of the total number of people from that country who had been living in the United States in 1910. That bar was later lowered to 2 percent.


At around 6 a.m. on December 21, 1919, it was still dark when the USAT Buford nodded out of New York Harbor. The ship had recently made several trips to and from Europe, hauling American troops home as World War I came to an end. Now the vessel had a new purpose: to ship 249 immigrants believed to be communists and anarchists to the newly founded Soviet Union. Nearly two hundred of those aboard the ship—dubbed the Soviet Ark by the press—had been swept up on November 7 as part of the Palmer Raids, a series of raids that led to the arrests of thousands of suspected left-wing immigrants—mostly Italians and Eastern European Jews. Hundreds of those detained were eventually deported. “Slowly the big city receded, wrapped in a milky veil,” Alexander Berkman, an anarchist writer who was on the Buford, later wrote of the departure. “The tall skyscrapers, their outlines dimmed, looked like fairy castles lit by winking stars and then all was swallowed in the distance.”

Emma Goldman, a Lithuanian-born Jew, was also aboard the ship. She had immigrated to the United States at sixteen years old in 1885, but she landed on the list of deportees for her prominence as a free speech advocate, labor organizer, and critic of the American government. “Ludicrously secretive were the authorities about our deportation. To the very last moment we were kept in ignorance as to the time,” Goldman later wrote of the trip. “For twenty-eight days we were prisoners,” she recounted. “Sentries at our cabin doors day and night, sentries on deck during the hour we were daily permitted to breathe the fresh air. Our men comrades were cooped up in dark, damp quarters, wretchedly fed, all of us in complete ignorance of the direction we were to take.”

By the time the Palmer Raids ended, the authorities had arrested nearly 3,000 people and deported 549 of them. The raids marked the climax of the First Red Scare (1917–1920), a period during which the US government leveraged the feverish patriotism of World War I to sharpen widespread fears of a supposedly impending communist or anarchist revolution. American authorities clamped down on communists, anarchists, immigrants, striking workers, and Black Americans, among others.

It was against that backdrop of increasing anti-immigrant sentiment that a prominent conservationist emerged as a leading eugenicist in the early twentieth century. In 1916, the conservationist Madison Grant, born in New York City to a wealthy family tracing its lineage to early colonists, published a book that received little attention at first. Unlike his writings on the moose, the Rocky Mountain goat, or other North American mammals, Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race examined the supposedly harmful impacts of non-Nordic immigration to the United States.

Grant had gained notoriety as a conservationist and zoologist, but his 1916 ravings on Nordic superiority went on to form an important foundation of anti-immigrant hysteria that gripped the country, in ebbs and flows, ever since. Americans with roots tracing back to Scandinavia, Grant argued, risked extinction at the hands of immigrants supposedly diluting the racial purity of Americans. Unlike the religious and sectarian bents of the Know-Nothing Party’s ideology, Grant’s theory took aim at those immigrating to the United States from southern European and eastern European countries. Where the Know-Nothings targeted Catholic Germans, Grant found a favorable audience in Germany: after his book was translated into German, the future Nazi leader Adolf Hitler lifted large passages from The Passing of the Great Race and republished them in his autobiographical screed, Mein Kampf. His passion for conservation was far from being unrelated to his desire for racial purity; rather, natural resources, Grant argued, must be reserved for the Nordic race.

Hit hard by the Great Depression in the 1930s, the United States saw unemployment skyrocket. Even as new arrivals briefly slumped, the government ramped up attempts to decrease the number of immigrants living in the country. Some Mexicans were offered “free” train rides back to their home country, and more than a million US citizens were deported to Mexico during the economic catastrophe.

But between 1933 and 1945, as Nazi Germany carried out the Holocaust and invaded and occupied much of Europe, between 180,000 and 220,000 refugees fled to the United States. Mostly Jews fleeing genocide, they were often dubbed “spies” seeking to infiltrate the country on behalf of the very Nazis who were systematically exterminating their people. The United States put quotas in place that kept the number of Germans and Austrians allowed to enter the country at 27,000, a number that didn’t take into account whether they were Jewish or not. That didn’t matter—American politicians defended the policy in the name of national security, a theme that runs through the country’s entire history. “Not all of them are voluntary spies,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said at one point. “It is rather a horrible story, but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”

American politicians defended the policy in the name of national security, a theme that runs through the country’s entire history.

Anti-immigrant movements cropped up from time to time, some more militant than others, but throughout the second half of the twentieth century, suspicion and fear toward newcomers and outsiders endured as a constant theme of American political life. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as Black Americans, other people of color, and anti-racists of all stripes waged a struggle for civil rights, a new crop of far-right groups fought to prevent equity. Inevitably, many far-right militants later trained their sights on immigrants and refugees.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Klansmen across the country started patrolling the US-Mexico borders. Louis Beam, a longtime white nationalist, Klan leader, and ideologue behind the so-called lone-wolf terror tactic, was one of several who led efforts to police the border and hunt down immigrants. Although some of the patrols mostly functioned as “publicity stunts,” according to the historian Kathleen Belew, they also offered the Klansmen “a way to inculcate real anti-immigrant hostility and encourage acts of violence.” Later, David Duke—who decades on became a state lawmaker in Louisiana—and his acolytes drove up and down the border in Southern California with banners that read klan border watch draped from their cars. Beam, like others, defended the border patrols by arguing that his men were enforcing the very laws of the US government, which, he claimed, was not enforcing immigration restriction and securing the southern frontier.

In 1981, Beam unleashed his followers on Vietnamese fishermen who had come to the country  as  refugees after the US devastation of their homeland. As tensions between Vietnamese shrimpers and white shrimpers boiled over in Galveston Bay, Texas, Beam delivered a “fiery speech” while a boat with the words uss vietcong painted on its side was set ablaze. After his followers were riled up, Klansmen burned crosses in yards of Vietnamese homes in town, a pair of Vietnamese-owned boats went up in flames, and Klansmen “rode a shrimp boat around the bay, displaying a hanging human effigy and firing blanks from a cannon.”

In the years that followed, Beam continued to train his followers in paramilitarism. All the later militancy of anti-immigrant militias on the border was embodied in Beam during those formative years of his movement: border vigilantism, anti-immigrant hysteria, and hostility to the federal government, as well as armed activities. It was no surprise that, in 1983, he dedicated his book Essays of a Klansman to “those yet unknown patriots, who are even now preparing to strike at the enemies of God, our race and our nation.”

Throughout the rest of that decade and the one that followed, border militias cropped up and continued to operate up and down the southern frontier with Mexico, growing in size and strength. Some openly embraced the kind of white nationalism espoused by figures like Beam and Duke, while others fashioned themselves as simple patriots loyal only to the US Constitution.

In the 1990s, Roger Barnett founded Ranch Rescue, a group that he later claimed detained more than twelve thousand migrants over the course of a decade. Barnett had previously served as a deputy sheriff in Cochise County, Arizona, and his armed followers often wore garb similar to that of US Border Patrol.

Later on, Chris Simcox and his Minuteman movement represented a novel kind of border vigilantism that publicly distanced itself from white nationalism and racism while also policing the border for migrants and others who had crossed into the country. It’s no surprise that proud white nationalists still found their way into the ranks of Minuteman outfits, which altogether boasted of hundreds of members, according to Simcox’s own estimate. With the subsequent rise of self-described constitutional-patriot militia groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, the Brookings Institute observed, “anti-migrant and other border patrol activities [became] not only a purpose in of itself, but also a training exercise for a much wider agenda, including challenging the existing U.S. constitutional order.”

By the time the first militiamen stepped foot in Arivaca and other nearby communities, the tradition had a long history to boast of. Of course, these militiamen had no legal authority to detain anyone, so many of the groups—take Tim Foley’s Arizona Border Recon, for instance—began to claim that their primary focus was “observing” what was happening in the borderlands and passing the information onto the proper authorities. As you might expect, what actually happens in the desert carries the possibility of being far more nefarious than mere observation and intelligence gathering.


From THE MARAUDERS: STANDING UP TO VIGILANTES IN THE AMERICAN BORDERLANDS, by Patrick Strickland. Copyright ©2022 by Patrick Strickland. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Melville House Press. All rights reserved.

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