White Borders by Reece Jones — Reviewed by Rose Bewick

In his new book, White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall (Beacon Press, $25.95), Reece Jones argues that immigration laws are, and have always been, about racial exclusion. 

White Borders is a compelling and readable account of how and why US immigration laws have evolved. The writing is refreshingly accessible, with the author bringing to life historical events in an engaging way, without overstepping the mark into awkward historical fiction. This approach lends itself to the book’s focus on how influential certain little-known characters have been, and continue to be, in US immigration reform. Although this means, at times, the narrative is close to conspiracy-theory territory.

Exploring how US immigration laws have developed over the years, this history is cleverly book-ended by the notion of a double interpretation around the intentions of the US founding fathers. Does that line in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” preclude the possibility that the laws of the US could, even now, be based on racism and white supremacy? Or might the life of the author of those lines, Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, reveal their real meaning: that only white men are created equal?

The book opens with a physical representation of this dilemma: the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, August 2017, when those protesting the removal of a statue of a Confederate Army commander met with counter protestors at the Jefferson statue. Both groups were fundamentally opposed, but rallying around the same symbol. At the end of the book, Jones concludes by considering what the future might be for immigration to the US, asking “which version of the United States will emerge in the twenty-first century[?]” (197). One version reads the US as “a white country that was founded by white men and is meant for the white progeny of those original settlers from England and Northern Europe” (197). This is the America of the Charlottesville protestors, and the America that Trump sought to “make great again”. The other focuses on the words, rather than the deeds, of the founding fathers. The version whereby all men are equal is evident, argues Jones, in the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the recent uprisings against police brutality, and the election of Barack Obama and Kamala Harris. For Jones, the history of US immigration reform is the story of the struggle between the country’s two distinct ways of understanding itself.

This approach, though, leaves no room for restrictions on immigration to be explained by anything but racism. For example, John Tanton, who appears as the protagonist of the US anti-immigration story in the later half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, is initially described as an environmental conservationist, concerned that overpopulation will result in environmental degradation. For Tanton, population control in the US came down to immigration control. This focus, Jones admits, made sense at the time. Population growth in the US had stabilized in the 1970s, while globally it was soaring, along with immigration to the US (103). Yes, Tanton went on to conspire with white supremacists groups, but he had sought support for his anti-immigration mission from within environmentalist groups before he turned to white supremacists, though the language he used to discuss overpopulation was, arguably, always racialised. Readers of this book may be left wondering: can opposition to immigration ever be anything but racist? Jones leaves this question ignored. While making a strong argument that immigration restrictions have historically been based on racism, Jones never wonders what other explanations there might be for anti-immigration sentiment today, or whether restrictions on immigration could ever be anything but racist. Instead, he concludes that “because immigration restrictions are a tool of white supremacy, then free movement must be the position of anyone opposed to it” (198).

This book offers an essential insight into how immigration laws have developed in the US, and a convincing argument around the essential roles that racism and nativism have historically played in the discussion around them. However, the idea that it must always be so requires further justification, not least because it is such an antagonistic and alienating position to take.

About the Author:

Rose Bewick holds an MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration from the University of London. She is currently working in asylum support and and has previously worked on the Syrian Resettlement Programme.