The First Time America Tried Mass Deportation It Was a Disaster

Roundup
tags: election 2016, immigration, Trump



Claudio Saunt is the Russell Professor of American History at the University of Georgia.


Donald Trump says that he would deport all undocumented immigrants in the United States, an estimated 11 million people. American cities and counties in the Southwest and Midwest tried to expel Mexican-Americans once before in the 1930s, with traumatic results for the families affected. But perhaps an even more illuminating comparison is with the mass deportation that the United States sponsored a hundred years earlier, in the 1830s. 

In that decade, the federal government uprooted some 80,000 Native Americans from their homes and forced them west of the Mississippi, into what is now Oklahoma. It was a humanitarian disaster and remains one of the most shameful episodes in the country’s history. Though few if any Americans are proud of the Trail of Tears, as the Cherokees call their harrowing expulsion from the Southeast and deadly journey westward, politicians are now seriously proposing a similar policy toward undocumented immigrants. “I think it’s worth discussing,” stated Ben Carson, Trump’s closest rival for the Republican presidential nomination.

There are some obvious differences between undocumented immigrants today and native peoples in the early 1830s. For one, American Indians had been living in what is now the United States since “time immemorial,” as many people observed in the era, whereas undocumented immigrants are recent arrivals. 

But there are many similarities too. Just as Indians were a reviled minority, so too undocumented immigrants are victims of vicious racism. Just as Indians occupied a legal netherworld—neither fully sovereign nor accorded the rights of U.S. citizens—so too undocumented immigrants find themselves living in similarly nebulous conditions, subject to unchecked administrative rulings and often left in jail without judicial recourse. Just as state governments passed laws to drive Indians off their lands, so have they done with undocumented immigrants. (Alas, my home state of Georgia led the way in both the 1820s and the 2010s.) 

The similarities and differences could be debated at length, but undocumented immigrants undeniably face the same threat as Indians in the early 19th century: state-administered deportation. In the 1830s, the United States oversaw the forced emigration of about 0.6 percent of the population within its borders. As a proportion of the current U.S. population, Donald Trump proposes to deport six times as many individuals. ...








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