IN TODAY’S UNITED STATES, white citizens no longer enjoy the pleasure of having access to a state, and state institutions, explicitly committed to whiteness as standing through statute and even constitutional sanction.1 Yet today, white advantage operates as a form of social power, as a system of tacit racial privileges reproduced through economic inequality, the racial wealth gap, and everyday practices that presume white advantage.2 Moreover, as philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff has observed, whether acknowledged or not, whiteness is “a prominent feature of one’s way of being in the world,” affecting “how one navigates the world, and of how one is navigated around by others.”3
Today, for citizens who remain invested in whiteness as “a badge of status,” there are fewer and fewer legally sanctioned outlets for publicly engaging in Herrenvolk practices. And it’s my contention that this is a key reason that public proclamations regarding the policing and punishing of migrants have emerged as such an affectively charged practice for nativists. Anti-migrant rhetoric alongside acts of noncitizen violence offers nativists democratic pleasures that are increasingly difficult to access in the post-Herrenvolk era. Providing an outlet and legally sanctioned target for their rage and fear, anti-migrant violence represents a kind of Herrenvolk loophole, granting white citizens access to one of the few racialized populations that can still be made legally subject to the violent rhetoric and practices of white democracy. Today, the legacy of anti-Mexican violence, the dehumanizing rhetoric, and migrants’ ongoing criminalization—alongside their status as noncitizens—are what make the “Mexican illegal” such a potent subject for the white nativist imaginary. Classified as both illegal and criminal, unauthorized migrants are particularly vulnerable to both state-sanctioned and extralegal practices of violence, enforcement, terror, exclusion, and removal.
Beyond watching television and consuming print media, for those thinking about going beyond being spectators to anti-migrant violence, there is also a significant anti-immigrant public sphere. Created through social media, participating in an alternative public sphere includes posting on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook as well as reading and posting to online message board on sites such as 8kun.4 For those more inclined to get their hands dirty, participating in immigration enforcement gives both regular citizens and agents of the state the right to invoke the rule of law to exert domination over the movement and placement of nonwhite bodies. Moreover, because migrants are often depicted as choosing to move and enter the country illegally, enforcement and sanctions are authorized through the discursive terrain of liberalism and the rule of law. Unlike other Herrenvolk practices that are now legally prohibited, aggressive immigration enforcement can be witnessed and enacted by a liberal polity whose citizens and policing apparatus can legitimately claim that its actions have been democratically approved as lawful, necessary, and authorized.
With the U.S.-Mexican border continuing to serve as “a hive for policing,” nativists have a variety of opportunities to engage in both paid and unpaid practices of migrant violence. For those in search of meaning and community, right-wing paramilitary groups operating along the U.S.–Mexican border offer nativists the opportunity to reenact particular forms of frontier freedom—engaging in vigilante violence and policing migrants as way to wield, protect, and exceed the law, saving the region from “invasion” and misrule. Moreover, as Harel Shapira observes in his ethnography of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, many militia members are older male veterans, divorced and anxious about their own status. Nostalgic for the past and afraid of a future in which they don’t clearly see themselves, members of the militia movement are engaged in what Shapira calls “a project of the self.”5 For these (mostly) men, participating in a militia represents a democratic, embodied, and participatory space where members get to use equipment, carry guns, sleep in tents, patrol the border, and stand guard. Turning to the militia to “extend their tour of duty” by policing the U.S.–Mexican border, militia members have an opportunity to revisit and reenact their military past.6
According to Shapira, militia men often use the border as “a resource for restoring conditions of life that they have struggled to maintain: soldiering, securing the nation, protecting family members, and establishing masculine camaraderie.”7 Yet, in seeking to understand his subjects, Shapira seeks to redeem them, defending them as “civic-minded actors” in search of meaning and encouraging his readers to avoid “tired accounts of racism.”8 But in creating this binary between actors who are racist and those who are civic-minded, Shapira’s analysis exposes why so many liberal thinkers struggle to theorize whiteness in relation to our understanding of democracy, freedom, and citizenship. Because categories such as democracy, citizenship, and freedom are self-evidently good, racism must be separate from what makes the Minutemen a civic organization. Yet, seen through the prism of Herrenvolk democracy, anti-migrant violence appears not as the antithesis of these civic values and practices but merely as one troubling form of their enactment.
Militia groups exemplify how members’ right to patrol the border, arresting and detaining migrants, serves as a kind of proxy for liberation, a return to a form of frontier freedom premised on a belief that freedom is the ability to move freely across the landscape, engaging in practices of terror and removal that are both legal and extrajudicial. Here the “regenerative power of the frontier” is briefly resuscitated when groups participate with their fellow militia members in pursuing, policing, threatening, and/or apprehending Mexicans. In this instance, movement emerges as a “technology of citizenship,” where the movement of certain subjects is deemed free and desirable, while the movement of others is considered excessive and subject to punishment and regulation.9 A recent example of this dynamic happened in April 2019, when the United Constitutional Patriots detained three hundred Central Americans seeking asylum, including children.10 An armed civilian militia comprising veterans and former police officers who patrol the border to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States,” the United Constitutional Patriots have posted online dozens of videos of their group patrolling and detaining migrants they found in the desert.11 In the case of the three hundred asylum seekers, the group livestreamed the arrest on Facebook, showing the detained migrants alongside the presence of the Border Patrol (who were called to the scene and who took the migrant families into custody) and a voice-over repeatedly intoning, “This is an invasion—and it is never, never ending.”12 Like the images of civilians and U.S. soldiers posing with Texas Rangers in photos of Mexicans lined up prior to (and following) execution, the Facebook videos of militia members with detained migrants and Border Patrol agents parallel the long history of local authorities and deputized citizens coming together in conspicuous acts of violence against Mexicans. And like the earlier use of photographs, today’s social media posts help sustain the profoundly public character of such violence against migrants.
La Migra: Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol
Beyond volunteerism, citizens revisit practices of whiteness and racialized standing through their participation in the activities of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The enforcement mandate involved in working for ICE or CBP authorizes the apprehending, processing, detaining, and deporting of “illegal and criminal aliens.”13 Agents are responsible for detecting, preventing, and apprehending migrants—a process that includes conducting raids, surveilling, tracking migrants, and utilizing various forms of technology and military equipment to engage in enforcement both at the border and in the nation’s interior.
And while many agency employees are surely not nativists or driven by racist inclinations, the very enforcement mandates of both federal agencies are shaped by policing logics that include violent and racially discriminatory origin stories regarding the culture of policing in the United States.14 For example, as Kelly Lytle Hernández has written in her history of the Border Patrol, at its inception in 1924, the agency absorbed a substantial number of former Texas Rangers who brought their anti-Mexican racism and violence to the federal level. As Hernández notes, the majority of this first generation of border agents were working-class Anglo men who had grown up witnessing violence against Mexicans. These men saw law enforcement “as a strategy of economic survival and social uplift in the agricultural-based societies of the borderlands.”15 Empowered by the state to enforce the law, here we can see how Border Patrol agents were given the “wages of whiteness.”16 Agents sought to gain their own dignity and status through enacting violence against Mexicans: by claiming “whiteness, manhood, and respect,” agents were rewarded with “public, psychological, and material” resources.17
Given the Border Patrol’s origins, it’s no surprise that Latinos were initially a tiny minority of its force. But the agency has long actively recruited Spanish-speaking employees. By 1989, Latinos made up more than one-third of the agency; today, more than 50 percent of Border Patrol agents and 24 percent of ICE agents are Latinx.18 With high unemployment in rural border areas, the Border Patrol is often a top local employer, promising government jobs with good benefits and job security. In a neoliberal economy characterized by austerity and a shrinking social welfare base, homeland security has emerged as a growing site of state-subsidized employment.19 As Todd Miller has written, the border is both a region and a growth industry with a “border–industrial complex” characterized by jobs, industries, and revenue.20 Moreover, the Border Patrol represents one of the remaining well-paid jobs that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree.21 With some agents starting at $49,000 plus benefits, CBP promises officers entry into the middle class.22 As one Latino agent in Texas observed, “here in Imperial Valley,” with an agent’s salary, “you’ll be upper middle-class.”23 In his interviews with Latinos working in immigration enforcement, political scientist David Cortez found that while some Latinx agents felt bad about working immigration and expressed misgivings about the job, they also expressed a willingness to do whatever they had to do to protect and provide for their families. In expressing ambivalence about engaging in actions they would prefer not to undertake, Cortez remarks, “It is tough to ignore the parallels between statements like these and those of migrants willing to risk their lives and flout immigration laws in the hopes of providing a better life for their families here in the United States.”24 Here we see how limited opportunity and economic precarity are coercive forces pushing both Latinx agents and migrants toward undesirable labor and practices of survival that are sometimes judged by others as unacceptable and criminal.
Latinx agents both complicate and reinforce the politics of whiteness and Herrenvolk democracy. As noted earlier, because Latinos “have no simple positioning in the U.S. racial order,” their proximity to whiteness alongside their racial indeterminacy makes assaults on migrants and Latinx populations both more feasible and defensible.25 Together, both Latinx and non-Latinx CBP and ICE agents are free to partake in racist and dehumanizing speech and acts against “illegals,” shielded by a color-blind discourse defined in terms of criminality, sovereignty, legality, and fairness. Latinos’ simultaneous presence as both police and population legitimates Herrenvolk violence, justifying and obscuring the supremacist logics at play.
Despite being part of a multiracial organization, Border Patrol agents have been criticized for abusing and mistreating migrant men, women, and children in custody and while apprehending them. In The Line Becomes a River, Francisco Cantú, a former agent who is Mexican American, describes the pervasive culture of casual racism and destruction in which officers participate, including destroying water and food caches out in the field, ripping up and scattering the clothes found in migrants’ backpacks, and laughing while urinating on migrants’ ransacked belongings.26 Noting that many agents are former cops, ex-soldiers, and folks tired of low-wage jobs and limited opportunities, Cantú describes agents as being trained to see the border as a war zone of cartels and narcotraffickers—when in fact what agents mostly encounter are human beings fleeing poverty and violence. Cantú notes that agents often refer to such migrants as POWs, short for “plain old wets.”27
In 2019, ProPublica exposed a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents, a forum for some ninety-five hundred members who shared sexist memes, made xenophobic comments, and poked fun at migrant deaths. The group, called “I’m 10–15” (CBP code for “aliens in custody”), described itself as a forum for both “funny” and “serious” discussion about Border Patrol work, stating in its introduction, “Remember you are never alone in this family.”28 Discussing an upcoming visit to two Texas stations by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and their Democratic colleagues, members of the Facebook group encouraged agents to hurl a “burrito at these bitches” and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant.”29 Another, apparently a patrol supervisor, wrote, “Fuck the hoes.”30
Commenting on a photo of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his twenty-three-month-old daughter Valeria’s lifeless bodies lying face down in the Rio Grande,31 a poster called them “floaters” and wondered if their bodies were photoshopped by “liberals,” because they look “too clean.”32 The photo, and the conspiratorial description, echoes Monica Muñoz Martinez’s earlier discussion of how postcards of Mexican corpses in the early twentieth century were circulated as “a bonding mechanism for those who shared the images,” serving as “a continued method of racial intimidation.”33
The “I’m 10–15” Facebook group also highlights the misogyny that has long plagued the agency. As the Southern Border Communities Coalition has noted, the Border Patrol has the lowest percentage of female agents or officers in any federal law enforcement agency. Such displays of racism and sexism within the agency are also a reminder that Herrenvolk logics are always informed by questions of gender and sexuality. Perhaps agents manage racial difference within the Border Patrol through their shared desire to celebrate acts of misogyny and heteronormative violence, creating community through a culture of cruelty aimed at migrants, sexual minorities, and women.
While there is no breakdown of the racial makeup of the “I’m 10–15” Facebook page, the ongoing Herrenvolk logics of the Border Patrol remind us that whiteness is “a political color,” one that distinguishes “the free from the unfree, the equal from the inferior, the citizen from the slave.”34 I would supplement this claim to explore how the political color of whiteness also distinguishes citizen from noncitizen. For while an earlier form of Herrenvolk democracy allowed white citizens to rule themselves democratically “while imposing tyranny over a nonwhite majority,” today nativists use the category citizen to create a new version of whiteness as standing.35 Moreover, with white citizens more ideologically divided over their own relationship to whiteness, today it is migrants—noncitizens—who provide “the glass floor below which the white citizen could see but never fall.” Paraphrasing Olson, today’s version of whiteness as standing insists that “no matter how poor, mean, or ignorant one might have been, or whatever discrimination on the basis of gender, class, religion, or ethnicity one may have been subjected to, one could always derive social esteem (and often draw on public resources) by asserting, ‘At least I’m not undocumented.’”36 Like African Americans in the Herrenvolk era, migrants are not simply noncitizens but anticitizens. Not merely excluded from the social compact, migrants are “the Other that simultaneously threatened and consolidated it.”37
In recent years, the Border Patrol has expanded dramatically, with dangerous results. When the agency added eight thousand officers between 2006 and 2009, for example, the number of employees arrested for misconduct (civil rights violations or off-duty crimes, such as domestic violence) increased by 44 percent during the three-year span.38 More recently, in an effort by the Trump administration to hire fifteen thousand new Border Patrol and ICE agents, the Department of Homeland Security in 2017 moved to ease training and enrollment requirements for Border Patrol agents, removing things such as “language proficiency tests” and some of the physical fitness tests in order to speed up hiring.39 Such hiring practices will only increase the chances that undertrained ICE and Border Patrol agents will impose tyrannical rule over nonwhite majorities, discovering and creating innumerable opportunities to both wield and exceed the law. Moreover, a lack of education and training will make it easier to produce agents comfortable moving between the legal and extralegal—violating human rights law and making them complicit in practices long deemed inhumane.
ICE leaders are increasingly ordering agents to conduct mass raids with the goal of indiscriminately rounding up, detaining, and deporting migrants, a practice that terrorizes communities while tearing apart families.40 ICE agents are obeying orders to separate children from their parents, confine children to cages, force adults into overcrowded pens, and deny migrants adequate food and water, or even soap, showers, and toothbrushes.41 Military officers have tasked soldiers with putting up lethal concertina wire on fencing near border towns, creating a permanent potential for harm to any human or animal who goes near the wire.42 In a recent example of state agents both wielding and exceeding the law, Border Patrol officers—who do not have the authority to evaluate the validity of asylum claims—have falsified documents and lied to migrants seeking asylum so that they would return (or be returned) to their home countries.43
Like soldiers during the Mexican-American War, ICE and Border Patrol agents acting with minimal training and supervision inside a massive and decentralized homeland security state can easily come to see the violence they commit as a form of liberty, for both the nation and themselves.44 Indeed, when it comes to the politics of immigration, the “rule of law” has a very specific meaning—it refers to using state and citizen power in the service of domination. Law is police (Border and ICE agents), not judges. In the logic of Herrenvolk democracy, law, not the courts, sanctions force. Indeed, this is why Trump and his nativist supporters can continually extol the rule of law while disparaging judges and opposing the hiring of immigration judges to process asylum claims. Nativists don’t want judges and courts to create more efficient rules to manage movement—instead, they want to enhance punishment. This is why, for nativists, an independent and bipartisan judiciary is seen as thwarting the rule of law, paradoxical as that may sound.45 For example, when a federal judge in Seattle blocked a Trump administration order allowing for the indefinite detention of some asylum seekers, the White House claimed that the ruling was “at war with the rule of law.”46 This is why when judges (even those appointed by Republicans) refuse to grant the right to exclude or sanction racially infused acts of suffering or violence, Trump characterizes them as “biased,” “horrible,” or “a disgrace.”47 When nativists say “we are losing our country” and “if we don’t have laws, we don’t have a country,” the loss being articulated is that if the government doesn’t allow white citizens some capacity to inflict racialized violence with relative impunity, the United States will no longer be a white democracy. For Trump and his nativist supporters, the law is supposed to be Herrenvolk law, helping to explain why Trump blames “Obama judges” for unfavorable decisions, while rarely if ever referring to justices as “Carter” or “Clinton” judges; the racism is implicit but undeniable. This also explains why nativists can so easily label as “biased” nonwhite judges, such as Gonzalo Curiel, who presided over the Trump University case.48 For nativists, an investment in white democracy is the precondition for legitimacy.
For citizens who long to revisit the politics of whiteness as standing, the practices of ICE and CBP offer the right to use the law to police other populations, to impose tyranny while participating in forms of violence that feel like freedom—economic freedom, the freedom to enforce the law, and the frontier freedom of engaging in practices of settler sovereignty characterized by forced removal and transfer. For those enamored of whiteness as standing, power also lies in spectacles of racialized violence and cruelty. Granted, today a majority of Americans are appalled by pictures of children in cages, migrants falling sick with coronavirus at detention centers, families running from tear gas at the border, parents and children crying at being separated, ICE agents arresting migrants at their homes and workplaces, and newspaper and TV accounts of the filth and stench experienced by migrants in overcrowded holding pens. But these accounts—including quotes from horrified pro-immigrant advocates—offer nativists a particular form of pleasure, a “vicarious spectacle” of violence that satisfies their longing to see the United States defending its sovereignty. Such depictions of migrant violence assure nativists that those in charge are finally “defending our borders” and “doing something” about the scourge of illegal immigration.49
Beyond visual spectacles of cruelty, in the case of immigration, the Trump administration has filled key offices with aggressively nativist staffers bent on implementing changes in immigration policy that would sharply restrict not only illegal immigration but legal immigration, particularly from Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. Individuals like Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, and John Kelly have all been part of a large and sustained effort not only to characterize the current migrant population as a racialized threat—invasive, dishonest, destructive, dependent, and criminal—but to transform rhetoric into major changes in immigration policy.50
The Trump Rally
Beyond spectacles of violence and changes in policy, nativists in the Trump era have access to the democratic and participatory experience of the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) rally. Along with anti-Muslim screeds and attacks on Black-run cities, MAGA rallies offer participants the opportunity to revisit a colonial and frontier imaginary defined by anti-Mexican and anti-Indian violence—conjuring an anti-Latinx dystopia populated by invasive caravans from Central America, MS-13 gang members, rapists, and criminals. Trump rallies often feature him telling stories of undocumented migrants arrested locally and bringing onstage the relatives of people killed by undocumented immigrants (a group he calls “angel families”) to highlight their suffering and justify his restrictive immigration proposals.51 Like nineteenth-century newspaper accounts that sought to satisfy white readers with the “excruciating details” of lynchings, Trump’s rally speeches conjure images of “deadly sanctuary cities” where “dangerous, violent, criminal aliens” are continually “hacking and raping and bludgeoning” American citizens.52 As with earlier visions of los indios bárbaros, migrants are depicted as both lawless and monstrous, subjects who “roam,” “raid,” and kill without mercy—a population who must be “excised not simply from the geographical borders of nation, but from the very boundaries of humanity.”53
In the face of such looming depravity, rallygoers can take solace in their shared fear and outrage regarding what they see as an existential threat facing the United States. At the same time, beyond their anger and fear, attendees can also take pleasure in the wild freedom and impunity of Trump’s violent rhetoric. Witnessing each other cheering for a world of racialized violence and removal, rallygoers are encouraged to imagine a society in which migrants can be treated with impunity—rounded up, arrested, punished, and deported at will. Galvanized by the president’s Twitter feed and the amplification of his messages on Fox News, Trump rallies offer nativists access to a collective space of community—one in which supporters can gather together in public, delight in the crowd, and share in the scandalous thrill of Trump’s outrageous and racially inflammatory speech. Wearing hats and T-shirts bearing violent, misogynistic, and/or racist phrases, slogan-chanting supporters get a chance to experience elements of white mob violence by publicly indulging their desire for freedom from restraint.54 Like spectators at a lynching, Trump rallies bring the attendees together in a shared act of witnessing.55 Gathering to behold an American president using extreme and often racist language to enact “a drama of retribution against sin and criminality,” rallygoers join together in a vicarious spectacle of violence, chanting phrases like “build the wall,” “lock her up,” and “send them back,” while booing press photographers and reporters. Experiencing the “push of the crowd” while being “physically near the scene of the action and among a crowd of like-minded people,” spectators at a Trump rally are united through a shared sensorium and in the belief that they are witness to something “important or extraordinary.”56 Through rituals of participation and performance, MAGA rally attendees get to revisit elements of white democracy to which citizens had access in the Herrenvolk era.57
At the same time, as our earlier discussion of Latinx border agents has shown (and as scholars of race have long noted), “the form of white supremacy peculiar to the United States is oriented not simply toward a commitment to racial purity” but toward a multiracial vision of a nation premised on “racial hierarchy and white domination.”58 From performances of blackface minstrelsy to Mexican-themed attractions, to acts of exoticization and demonization of the Chinese and other Asian populations, to practices of “playing Indian” that mythologized Indigenous people while also supporting practices of settler colonialism—in the United States, a relationship of “love and theft” alongside a logic of multiculturalism serves to reproduce white nationalism.59 African American conservatives such as Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson (better known as the duo Diamond and Silk) are just one vivid example of such right-wing multiculturalism. Deploying their racial and gender identities in the service of anti-migrant violence and race-conscious xenophobic nationalism, Diamond and Silk speak as Black women against the way African Americans have been unfairly criminalized. Contrasting these unfair anti-Black attitudes to the “real criminality” of the undocumented, Diamond and Silk declare that “if Bill Clinton can do mass incarceration . . . we can do mass deportation.”60
Even more meaningful for our purposes, Trump rallies are also made more diverse by the presence of Latino Trump supporters, a group that appears to many an inexplicable segment of the Republican Party’s electorate. In The Hispanic Republican, historian Geraldo Cadava confronts this riddle head-on, asking, “Why have Hispanics continued to support the Republican Party, even Trump’s Republican Party?” Noting that Trump received almost 30 percent of the Latino vote in 2016, Cadava asks, “How has the Republican Party built a Hispanic base to withstand attacks by leaders who devalue them?”61 To answer these questions, Cadava embarks on a history of Hispanic Republican elites and their participation in the GOP over the past half-century. While Trump has been a polarizing figure “for Hispanic Republicans . . . he hasn’t turned many of them away.”62 Writing before the global COVID-19 pandemic devastated the U.S. economy, Cadava describes Trump’s Hispanic supporters as pleased with the president’s tax cuts, America’s low unemployment rate, the fact that financial regulations have been slashed, and efforts to protect the United States from the threat of Venezuela-style socialism.63 Pointing to the millions of dollars the Republican National Committee has spent on grassroots Hispanic outreach, Cadava quotes a Hispanic Republican asserting that “whatever Trump said about immigrants and border walls,” Hispanics were convinced that “the Republican Party would put them to work and help them buy homes.” Noting that “most of Trump’s Hispanic supporters don’t believe that Trump is racist,” Cadava concludes his analysis by arguing that while “Hispanic Republicans would, of course, prefer that their party be more inclusive,” there are multiple reasons “why Republican candidates still win a significant share of Hispanic votes, even if Hispanic voters disagree with a particular candidate’s positions or style.”64
Cadava’s account of Hispanic Republicans is enormously helpful in showing readers the history of Hispanic GOP elites and how they organized to make a space for themselves in the Republican Party. But this analysis conflates these elites, often from older generations, with rank-and-file Latino voters currently supporting Trump and the GOP. However, what Cadava’s analysis fails to consider, what he averts his eyes from, is the possibility that many Latinx supporters of Trump may actually approve of and take pleasure in Trump’s MAGA rallies and in his most undemocratic, outrageous, or violent assertions—even when that violence targets migrants and other people of color. This segment of the electorate may be animated by anti-Black racism. They may feel little or no connection to recent immigrants, particularly the undocumented.65 They may view migrants as racially Other, as welfare cheats or dangerous lawbreakers. Perhaps they don’t share Trump’s hostility toward migrants—but they do share his hatred of Obama and suspicion of the “deep state.” Perhaps they delight in Trump’s misogyny, his Islamophobia, his celebrations of police power, or his attacks on science and media.
As noted earlier, because Latinos “have no simple positioning in the U.S. racial order,” they too are capable of becoming “agents in the reproduction of racial subordination” even as they are victims of it. Embracing the politics of white democracy in an effort to secure their own rights and privileges, Latino Trump supporters may not only tolerate the party’s embrace of Herrenvolk democracy—they may welcome it.