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The U.S.-Mexico Border as a Crisis of Social Reproduction


Daniel I. Morales (@LawProfMorales) is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center.

Despite what you may have heard on Fox News or read in the New York Times, the crisis at the U.S. border with Mexico is neither about the border, nor migrants’ impact on the country. There’s plenty of room in the United States to accommodate the people who want to come in the medium to long run, and immigration is extraordinarily economically and socially beneficial. Full stop. Any short-run difficulties accommodating migrants could be addressed with a fraction of the billions that the US deploys to deter peaceful people from exercising their right to move. 

What we have, then, is the staging of a crisis by Republican politicians, with Democrats either actively assisting them in this endeavor or sitting in the audience, suspending disbelief. To understand this performance, we need to view it as part of the GOP’s pursuit of a suite of violent hierarchy-enforcing projects, including recent assaults on the LGBTQ+ community, women, K-12 education, affirmative action, and universities. These various projects all seek to address the increasing difficulty of reproducing in the next generation the settler colonial mindset, which, in various forms, has pervaded American society since colonization.

This fact is usually pitched as a crisis of “whiteness” or demographic eclipse (“replacement”), but what is actually at stake in MAGA and other right-wing formations is not phenotypic whiteness (blue-eyed, blond babies will continue to exist), but rather the continued social and political dominance (or viability) of an identity that revels in hierarchies of race, gender and wealth; that is comfortable with, or takes pleasure in, the exercise of violence to enforce such hierarchies; and that views US territory as the exclusive and inviolable, God-given birthright of European colonists and their descendants.

Historically, such a mindset has been “multiracial,” incorporating over time despised “white ethnic” groups. But the social context in which immigrants are moving to the United States today is not as conducive to their adoption of that mindset, or critical parts of it, as it was in the past. Without a social method to reliably turn migrants, or native-born citizens, into settler colonists, migrants and especially their children are likely to join the broader American public in rejecting core aspects of these traditional American beliefs. This is the crisis that the production at the border seeks to stanch. It is also a right-wing advertisement and recruiting tool. Come for the lashing of undeserving brown noncitizen bodies, stay for “taking back” our public schools and universities for traditional—settler colonial—values.     

From Immigrants to Settler Colonists

As a child of immigrants to the US, I have to confess to not having fully understood the settler colonial mentality until recently and as a result of an embarrassing source: Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone prequel, “1883.” What I took from the show’s depiction of hapless European settler colonists shooting, trudging, drowning, and starving their way to a promised “utopia” in Oregon—a place where wooden stakes (backed by official and settler violence) would transform them from peasants to petty gentry—was the enduring affective and formative power of that trial. After watching, I imagined how stories of familial trials and the “lessons” learned and the culture forged from them trickled down through the generations of the progeny of white settlers. And I understood at an emotional level how the very difficulty and danger inherent in the project of “taming” an already very inhabited continent produced a perverse feeling of deservingness and possessiveness in those that had undertaken that project, fortifying the settlers’ sense that God had ordained their rule and dominance. 

Of course, these settler colonial muscles and reflexes also gained strength and endurance in the US from the cruel and violent practices and ideologies of slavery and its afterlives. The muscles, reflexes, and affects produced through the domination of Black people were not limited to the South: segregation, policing, and vigilante violence reproduced the settler colonial mindset in the North as well. White immigrants were assimilated into this mentality, even after the continent was conquered. In the US West, European immigrants became settlers by enacting pogroms against Chinese immigrants. Mexicans too became fodder for the production of the settler colonial mindset. Vigilante racial violence by white settlers in former Mexican territories, like Texas, was rampant and largely condoned until quite recently.

What I want to emphasize in this brief survey of white settler social formation is the need for vulnerable, “less than” people, over which would-be settlers could practice dominance, and the tacit or explicit sanction of the state to do so. The way of being in the world that says I am superior, you are inferior, this land and its bounty are mine and no one else’s, and that I have the God-given right to enforce these beliefs with my gun, has to be enacted—one person at a time—to be sustained.

The Civil Rights Revolution

The federal government began to withdraw its support for settler colonial reproduction during the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, at the same time that the law changed the face of immigration from white, to brown and yellow. The machinery for assimilating migrants into the settler colonial mindset—which had relied critically on the elasticity of whiteness, anti-blackness, and violent, continent-spanning homogenizing projects to bring European ethnics under its umbrella—suddenly began to sputter.

This is not, however, to say its influence entirely disappeared. Consider as evidence my own coming of age in 1990s Fairfax County, Virginia. This period was perhaps the height of multiculturalism and the neoliberal consensus. I was taught in public schools to revere the Constitution and its promise of “universal” liberty, the tripartite American form of government, and the Founders. I never encountered ethnic studies, or bottom-up history, or any other knowledge that troubled this understanding of what the country was. Capitalism, and the particular form of it unleashed during the Reagan revolution, was natural and unproblematic, as was the meritocracy. With the help of affirmative action, I was winning the meritocracy, attending an elite high school, an elite college, and an even more elite law school. None of these institutions troubled my understanding of the foundations of the country or my place in it. Instead, these institutions socialized me to exercise power and to rule over others—to dominate; my success in the meritocratic gauntlet only proved my desert and the “justice” of my place in society.

Looking back on this formation, I can see in it echoes of the settler colonial mentality, particularly the way that the meritocratic trial substituted for the trial of settlement in anchoring a feeling of deservingness and exclusivity, and even the right to rule. Antiblackness was, of course, a force, but the presence of a critical mass of talented black students in all these institutions, and the negative racialization of Latinos, seemed to me to point to us having more in common than not. Crucially, however, this elitist, meritocratic education did not teach the following lessons: that admitting more Americans like me somehow threatened the country, that I was entitled to rule through violence, or that I “owned” the United States, like I own a house.

I became a first-generation American Latino, not a settler colonist, and therein lies the trouble for the Right; a trouble still more potent in 2024, as accurate histories of the United States—none of which I was exposed to in my youth—have made their way into public consciousness and curricula. 

Where Migration Fits In

Reflecting on this past, the Right’s focus on “the border” makes more sense: the violent dehumanizing parable of the migrant/citizen divide that it has staged is auditioning to replace the role in the reproduction of the settler colonial mindset once played by the Homestead Act and institutionalized chattel slavery. Ultimately, however, the dehumanizing muscles, reflexes, and feelings of threat that this drama produces in its audience will not be restricted to the distinction between native-born Americans and dehumanized, otherized migrants. Rather, they will be directed at women, racial minorities, LGBTQ+ people, non-Christians, and any others thought to be “less-than” white Christian men.  

What Democratic politicians need to understand is that by pouring money into border militarization, and continuing to pretend that asylees and economic migrants are threats, they are feeding these reflexes and putting in place new machinery to manufacture settler colonists. The Democratic party’s continued embrace of the Right’s framing of the border, and its failure to appreciate how legal hierarchies of membership train citizens and residents to revel in hierarchies of all sorts, threatens many mainstream liberal equality projects along with the Left’s ambitious emancipatory visions.