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Brokenness and Leadership

Jenifer Wolf-Williams, Ed.D., LPC-S

Facing the Underbelly -- Racism and Immigration

Soldiers in camouflage, each with a machine gun, surrounded our two-door Plymouth, but I was more tired than afraid.  In her carseat behind us, our baby began to stir, and I hoped the soldiers wouldn’t order us to unpack the car as their counterparts had at the last checkpoint.  That order was no small task, since my husband Peter and I had filled every inch with food and dishes, clothes and bedding.  It was hard to make it fit again. 

But this time, mercifully, the soldiers merely looked us up and down, inspected our documents, studied our goods through the glass, and directed us to the next checkpoint.  Decades would pass before we understood that we had entered—and safely exited—Guatemala’s indigenous genocide. 

We were naïve twenty-somethings, en route from Texas to Honduras, barely aware of our danger or our privilege.  A family of three White faces carrying three blue U.S. passports, we were not typical Pan American Highway travelers.  We had crossed two borders already, would cross another soon, and at any point could have turned and crossed back the other way.  But for too many people around us, the soldiers with machine guns were a deadly presence, and escape across a border was impossible.

Guatemala was in a “Silent Holocaust” Peter and I knew nothing about, despite our efforts to discern the potential safety of our trip.  The slaughter of Central American indigenous had somehow escaped our attention in Texas—an invisibility that would seem impossible had the targets been White. 

Only decades later, through my dissertation research, did I understand what we had seen.  And only then did I recognize we might have owed our lives to White privilege.  In those dangerous years, the United States denied asylum to 98% of Guatemalans who requested it. 


More recently, a friend explained her thoughts about racism by noting that all of us are minorities sometime.  “You’ve been a minority,” she pointed out. 

“It’s not the same,” I objected.  “When I’m the only White person around, people assume I have more money, more education, or more connections.  And they’re usually right.  People assume the opposite about someone with browner skin.”

It’s also true—and this is important—that the U.S. citizenship that helped my family cross those borders would not have happened had my ancestors been browner. 

Before the Civil Rights era, President Trump’s openly racist utterances might have been less shocking.  Immigration and Naturalization laws were overtly racist for most of our history, and Adolf Hitler himself pointed to U.S. immigration policies as a model he liked.  He wrote in Mein Kampf:

It is not, however, in our model German Republic, but in the U.S.A. that efforts are made to conform at least partly to the counsels of common sense…(B)y excluding certain races from the right to become naturalized citizens, they have begun to introduce principles similar to those on which we wish to ground the People’s State (p. 342).

I did not have Hitler on my mind when we made our wartime border crossings.  In fact, I don’t remember thinking about migration or racial justice at all.  I didn’t have to.  I just assumed we had the right to cross, and it was years before I understood the privilege in that assumption.

It’s easy to miss, as I did, the White supremacy in U.S. immigration law because we’ve lived it from the start.  The Three Fifths Compromise of 1787 and the U.S. Naturalization Law of 1790 reserved citizenship for Whites only.  These were our foundations.  Whiteness was a determining factor for inclusion as “American.” 

In high school history, I dismissed these laws as products of my unenlightened ancestors, not as the roots of my own entitlement.  I saw them as ugly artifacts of their times, but didn’t wonder why my neighbors mostly looked like me.

Today, our fears center on Middle Eastern, Latino, and African newcomers, but our ancestors were more worried about Asia.  Every few years, Congress added another set of prohibitions against Asian entry, and they weren’t afraid to declare their purpose “to preserve…the racial status quo.”

Angel Island was another response to the fear of non-White arrivals.  Our European ancestors had a decent chance of entry through Ellis, but West Coast (mostly Asian) arrivals to Angel Island were greeted with detention and inhumanity.  I understand why we don’t talk about it much. 

But maybe our silence is the reason so little has changed.  The response to a 1921 rise in refugee numbers was an emergency bill “to immediately slow immigration to allow time to develop a more carefully considered immigration law.”  Or in today’s language, “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” 


From the Civil Rights era until President Trump, leaders proclaimed—at least on the surface—a need for immigration laws that aligned with egalitarian values. When President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removing national origin quotas he described quotas as “un-American in the highest sense.”

Unfortunately, like other Civil Rights changes, the new system wore a cloak of egalitarianism without fixing the problem.  In fact, many “diversity” visas went to White European countries, while the changes had a devastating effect on our nearest (non-White) neighbors. 

Before 1965, the people whose homeland my family and I traversed in our Plymouth Champ might have stood a chance in securing a U.S. visa.  Today, the odds are miniscule.  Civil Rights Era changes made entry harder for Latinos by quietly imposing a new hemispheric ceiling.  Visa availability for neighbor countries plummeted, and most legal immigration options reached an end.   

The truth is, we offer zero legal means of entry to most Latin Americans.  Our neighbors cross our southern border without documents because there is no “legal” option—even when the reasons are life or death.

A friend in Honduras messaged me in fear because de facto community leaders entered her family’s home, attacked her brother, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave the country.  But everyone he turned to assured him the United States would never grant asylum.  Having seen too many turned away, I could not disagree.  I had nothing to offer. 

Such atrocities happen every day.  I cannot forget the small, frightened girl who cried in my office and could not meet my eyes.  Her mother explained that attackers had entered her daughter’s classroom and threatened to kill the children.  They held the girl’s brother at gunpoint.  So the parents did what anyone would.  They fled.  But that day in my office, the child before me had a new trauma.  Her father was gone—in ICE custody somewhere—and the family did not know where.

The U.S. response is worse now.  Now Customs and Border Patrol turns away families like theirs on arrival, denying their right to petition for legal asylum.  Such impossible restrictions—even in life or death moments—force unthinkable choices.  It isn’t safe to enter at checkpoints, so families who flee join other migrants in death-defying walks through the deserts.  

No one has an official count of border deaths, but Humane Borders documented 3,087 body recovery sites in Arizona alone.  The borderland deserts are our Mediterranean Sea, the coyotes our rubber raft traffickers.  Here too, people die crossing because they have no other choice.  


Now that President Trump has again revealed the racism of our immigration policies, we can regain clarity.  We can see the truth, and we can change the unjust system we inherited. We can focus on preventing death in transit, abuse in detention, and exploitation on arrival.  And if we do, our children will look back on us with pride. 

As individuals, we’ve already gained the courage to confront ourselves.  I’m not the younger me who accepted my border-crossing privilege as “natural.”  And I’m not the only older, White American ready to work. 

A few weeks ago, I participated in a rally for a Muslim immigrant who lost a promised job because of her hijab.  We stood outside a mall to share our message, and an older White gentleman left his Christmas shopping, walked over, and asked what was going on.  Like me, he had probably never faced bigotry in his life.  But he responded, “Any kind of discrimination is wrong.”  And within two minutes, he was holding a sign.  He gives me hope. 

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