A US immigration history of white supremacy and ableism

Ableism and white supremacy form the foundational framework of US immigration policy.

Immigration protest Reuters " no human being is illegal"
People protest a pending deportation with a banner that reads "no human being is illegal", outside the federal building in San Diego, California, US [Mike Blake/Reuters]

“[They] all have AIDS” – US President Donald Trump grumbled in June 2017.  According to a report by the New York Times, this is how  the president reacted when he learned that around 15,000 Haitians received visas to enter the United States in 2017.

After this remark, and President Trump’s more recent “shithole” comments about immigration from African and black-majority nations, there has been a great deal of commentary about the US’ racist and white supremacist immigration history. 

Glaringly absent from these analyses, however, has been a robust understanding of the co-foundational framework for immigration exclusion in the US – ableism. Namely, discourses and structures that have created a process and system by which people have been banned based on real and perceived mental and physical disabilities, as well as for prevailing notions of inferiority, deviancy, threat and unproductivity. 

Immigration policy in the US currently consists of Muslim bans, a DACA rescission , severe restrictions on refugee resettlement, calls for “extreme” or “enhanced” vetting, and ongoing threats to Temporary Protected Statuses, the Diversity Visa programme, and family-based immigration.  

In the not-so-distant past, let us remember, US immigration policy included the “war on terror” screening programme National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (2002 – 2016), HIV+ and AIDS travel and immigration bans (1987 – 2009), the “Asiatic Barred Zone” (1917 – 1952), a ban on Chinese nationality (1882 – 1943), and bans on the “idiot”, the “imbecile”, the “feeble-minded” and the “pervert” (19th – 20th century).  And, of course, this country’s horrific proto-immigration laws – the colonisation and genocide of Native people and exterminationist policies of “Indian removal” (1492 – present); and the enslavement and forced migration of African people and their descendants into lifelong chattel slavery (15th – 19th century).

The Immigration Act of 1882 prohibited entry to any 'lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.'


Underpinning many of these immigration and proto-immigration laws has been a formulation by which value and therefore worth are ascribed to people based solely on their ability to accelerate economic growth for the state. But let’s take that one step further. The notion that some people produce more (or less) for the economy and are, therefore, more (or less) valuable – is ableism.

Disability justice activist and educator Lydia X Z Brown defines ableism as “oppression, prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against disabled people on the basis of actual or presumed disability”. Furthermore, Brown argues, ableism is “the belief that people are superior or inferior, have better quality of life, or have lives more valuable or worth living on the basis of actual or perceived disability.”  


Unsurprisingly, undergirding many US immigration laws, for instance, are theories of “scientific” racism and eugenics – namely, on ideas of racial superiority/inferiority, gendered, sexual and psychopathic deviancy, and prevailing notions of “common sense” racism. Such arguments construct a knowledge system that ties the worth of people to their productivity and proximity to normative constructions of whiteness.

White supremacy and immigration

To be sure, then, ableism is part and parcel of white supremacy. According to critical race theorist Frances Lee Ansley, white supremacy is “a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources.” Furthermore, according to Robin DiAngelo, a scholar of Whiteness Studies, white supremacy defines white people “as the norm or standard for human, and people of colour as an inherent deviation from that norm.” 

Prior to the rescission of DACA by the Trump administration in September 2017, some proponents of the policy argued against its repeal by framing the issue as one of economics. Myriad studies were cited to demonstrate that DACA recipients benefit the economy (or, conversely, that deportation would be costly). 

Others argued that this framing is dehumanising. For instance, in a New York Times op-ed , Masha Gessen discussed how the DACA programme and even the Muslim bans were qualified through a cost/benefit analysis to the economy: “ When the president threw his support behind a reform plan that would drastically reduce immigration to this country, editorial writers argued against it by pointing out that immigrants benefit the economy.”


Gessen makes an important point. And yet, some may wonder: What’s so wrong with keeping out immigrants who won’t benefit the economy? Let’s again return to Gessen: “If immigration is debated only in terms of whether it benefits the economy,” she argues, “politicians begin to divide people into two categories: ‘valuable’ and ‘illegal.'” Furthermore, as DACA recipient Joel Sati explained in a Washington Post op-ed, immigration policies that illegalise human beings require immigrants to “grovel for a humanity that ought to be presupposed.”

In other words, immigration policy that links admissibility to worth and productivity, and inadmissibility to illegality and threat, is an inherently dehumanising (and ableist) process that prioritises economic profitability over human dignity.

In addition to the Muslim bans and the rescission of DACA, Republican Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue in February 2017 proposed legislation, the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act , to drastically cut immigration and refugee resettlement. In remarks in support of the proposed legislation, President Trump declared that the RAISE Act “will favour applications who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families, and demonstrate skills that will contribute to our economy.”

Like discussions around DACA, the RAISE Act ties immigration to the economy and regulates it with ableist discourse. The proposed legislation does so by purporting to maximise economic profitability by drastically restricting immigration. Should this legislation be enacted, the RAISE Act would join a long history of immigration law that has, to various degrees, “regulated” immigration by weighing its costs or contributions against the financial well being of the economy-state. For immigrants deemed unproductive, undesirable and/or dangerous, admission was denied.

A long history of ableist exclusion

From 1882 to 1917, various legislation codified into law numerous categories of perceived deviancy and divergence. These ableist classifications, along with bans by nationality and geographic origin, have shaped the legal basis for US immigration exclusion.

For instance:  The Immigration Act of 1882 prohibited entry to any “lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” The Alien Immigration Act (1903) addedfor exclusion “insane persons, epileptics, and persons who have been insane within five years previous; persons who have had two or more attacks of insanity at any time previously,” among other categories.

Immigration officials medically examine Chinese boys detained at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay [FoundSF/National Archive] 
Immigration officials medically examine Chinese boys detained at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay [FoundSF/National Archive] 


The Immigration Act of 1907 added “imbeciles” and “feeble-minded persons,” people suffering from tuberculosis, and people “certified” by an immigration official “as being mentally or physically defective,” among other categories. The Immigration Act of 1917 added people who experienced just one “attack” of insanity (down from two in 1903), and people with “chronic alcoholism” and “constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” such as “moral imbeciles, pathological liars, many of the vagrants and cranks, and persons with abnormal sex instincts”.

Also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act or the Literacy Test Act, this legislation barred immigration from much of the continent of Asia (excluding Japan, eastern China and the Philippines), and islands off the coasts of the continent. It also implemented a literacy test for the first time.


This long history of excluding immigrants on the basis of perceived or real disabilities set the stage for another form of immigration exclusion: immigration quotas on the basis of national origin. Enacted for the first time in the Immigration Act of 1924, these quotas had the effect of severely limiting immigration from southern and Eastern Europe. Notably, southern and Eastern Europeans did not fit the US racial formation of whiteness at the time.

Moreover, ethnic groups from the region, such as Italians (“dwarfish”), Jews (“very poor in physique … the polar opposite of our pioneer breed”), Portuguese, Greeks and Syrians (“undersized”), and Slavs (“slow-witted”), were barred entry on the basis of their supposed pathologies and their characterisation as “defective races”.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990, which established Temporary Protection Status and the Diversity Visa programmes, also finally lifted the ban on “sexual deviants”, which targeted LGBTQIA+ people. In 2009, the ban on US immigration for HIV+ individuals was finally lifted, after being in place for 22 years.

This discriminatory law disproportionately targeted LGBTQIA+ immigrants and stifled research into HIV and AIDS treatment. Let us here recall President Trump’s comments that Haitians “all have AIDS”, which, incidentally, was reported on just a few weeks after the administration’s decision to terminate TPS protections for Haitians.

Ableism policies

Numerous immigration laws to this day continue to target and violate the rights of disabled persons by subjecting them to invasive mental and physical examinations. Whether assessed as likely to become a public charge (therefore tying their value to their ability to produce), or a threat to persons and property (potentially a burden of the state through carceral institutions), disabled people who apply for immigration to the US face numerous obstacles to admission.  

Furthermore, these discriminatory policies do not simply end at the border. Undocumented immigrants in the US who are mentally disabled make up about 15 percent  of those in immigration detention. Abuse is rampant and unjust deportations occur often, as the immigration system does not guarantee an individual’s right to due process protections that are afforded to criminal defendants. 

The history of immigration to the US has ensured the fundamental quality of the country as a white supremacist-capitalist state, “protected” from an influx of disabled and “deviant” people designated as either threats or burdens.

The state’s economic power rests on the perpetual existence of a large labour force that can produce at low costs. This is a process that renders disabled individuals, and particularly black, native, brown, Asian, Muslim, queer and other multiply marginalised disabled individuals, as inherently disposable. It is a system that justifies, even celebrates, the banning of people deemed unable to “produce”, “add value” or who might threaten the economy-state as a result of perceived inferiorities, deficits and deviancies.

So, the next time arguments surrounding immigration policy are couched within a cost/benefit economic analysis, remember that these are ableist arguments made in order to determine who can produce and therefore whose lives are worthwhile.

Furthermore, bear in mind that analyses of immigration history that address policies solely through a framework of racism are incomplete. Indeed, ableism is a foundational framework, along with white supremacy, that has shaped, and continues to inform, US immigration policy.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.