Photo by Harold Navarro, Flickr CC

Immigration is a hot-button issue in American politics today. President Trump’s proposed border wall, rescinding of DACA, travel bans for multiple majority-Muslim countries, and increased detention and deportation have meant that the debate has focused almost exclusively on Hispanics and Muslims. This is the latest in a long history of misgivings towards immigrants that has obvious racial dimensions. It’s easy to forget that much anti-immigrant rhetoric is based on American attitudes about who is white, or who has the potential to become white. Social science research reminds us how certain groups who were once cast as racial outsiders eventually came to be seen as “white,” while others have been consistently denied white status and the full citizenship that comes with it.

The meaning of “white” has changed through the course of American history. From the 19th century into the early 20th century, “white” only incorporated Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans. American voters and policymakers were concerned that “non-white” immigrant groups such as the Irish, Poles, Jews, and Italians lacked the ability to assimilate into American society. Gradually, however, these immigrants became incorporated into the dominant racial category and were thus no longer considered outsiders.
This did not apply to all immigrant groups, however. Despite the historical flexibility of the category, whiteness never encompassed everybody. Courts, laws, and pseudoscience defined whiteness in ways that excluded some groups from full citizenship in America. Many immigrant communities—such as West Indians, Hispanics, and the Chinese—found themselves in racial categories that shaped their access to various socioeconomic opportunities, belonging, and citizenship.