The Border Children Crisis and Manifest Destiny’s Return

Protestors in California want refugee kids sent back ti Latin America. Because human beings are just mail packages that you can send back within thirty days.

Protesters in California want refugee kids sent back to Latin America. Because human beings are just like brown mail packages that you can return within thirty days.

Ah, Latin America. It’s a vast, culturally diffuse part of the world with a rich, complicated history that has involved hundreds of ethnic-groups from an incredibly diverse swath of ancestries and experiences. Moreover, Latin America’s political history shares many similarities with that of the United States, as our neighbors to the south also shook off the shackles of European colonialism during the great Age of Revolution.

But most Americans — especially that know-nothing contingent of reactionary Bubbas that we affectionately call “Wingnuts” — don’t know much of anything about Latin America’s rich history. What they DO know is that Latin America is that place where people play soccer and Fidel Castro plots against freedom. It’s also the place where American college kids and mid-life-crisis wracked adults go to get sh*tfaced off of Sammy Hagar tequila while holding wet t-shirt contests on a beach. But, most importantly, Latin America is where all of those illegal, Spanish-speaking, drug-muling, job-taking brown people come from. That’s right: when many Americans talk “immigration” these days, what they’re focusing on is how to keep the Messicans’ and other Hispanics from crossing America’s sacred, freedom-filled borders. Indeed, in the eyes of the Tea Party, the only good kind of “run for the border” is a late-night Taco Bell binge.

Despite it’s obvious history as a “nation of immigrants,” white Americans have never been particularly thrilled about the idea of Spanish-speaking folks seeking refuge among America’s amber waves of grain. This fact is on full display in the current Border Children crisis in California, Arizona, and Texas.

As Salon’s Joan Walsh reports, self-appointed wingnut border patrols have gathered in places like Murrieta, California and Oracle, Arizona to stop busloads of unaccompanied children from Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala from seeking asylum in America. For wingnuts, the crisis of 52,000 Central American kids fleeing to the United States is yet another chapter in the long struggle to prevent brown Hispanics from polluting white American soil with their illegal Hispanic-ness. Geriatric wingnut leader Robert Skiba said as much when he told right-wing internet cesspool Breitbart.com that, “we’ve got to wake people in America up…This is our country. We’re just average people. [But] we’re not going to let them shove this down our throats.”

Of course, the “this” that Skiba doesn’t want shoved down his throat are, in fact, human beings — specifically children fleeing murder, rape, and horrendous gang violence in Central America. In two harrowing reports for the New York Times, reporters Frances Robles and Sonia Nazario have detailed the horrific humanitarian crisis in Latin America that is sending unaccompanied kids to the U.S. border. Gang violence in countries like Honduras has resulted in the torture, rape, and murder of dozens of children — some as young as 7 — and thousands are now fleeing or being sent to the U.S. by their parents to avoid the terrors in the home countries. Gangs are roaming Central America with increasing impunity, and they are giving children a choice between recruitment or death.

The clothes of a 7-year old boy murdered by gangs in Honduras. Photo by Meridith Kohut, New York Times

The clothes of a 7-year old boy murdered by gangs in Honduras. Photo by Meridith Kohut, New York Times.

The violence in Latin American countries has, in large part, been an offshoot of the brutal drug wars that are fueled by America’s inexhaustible appetite for illegal narcotics. You, dear readers, owe it to yourselves to read both Robles’ and Nazario’s Times reports in full to better understand why so many kids are seeking refugee status in the U.S. But for the rest of this post, I want to focus on the cultural force that is driving American right-wing opposition to the border children: the return of the nineteenth century concept of Manifest Destiny.

I discussed Manifest Destiny in an earlier post in terms of how it helped create America’s absurd gun culture, but let’s reiterate a bit. “Manifest Destiny” was a term coined in 1845 by journalist John O’Sullivan that described America’s inherent, God-given right to conquer all territories and cultures from sea to shining sea. But the idea of “Manifest Destiny” existed long before O’Sullivan coined the phrase— it was the ideological centerpiece of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, for example — and it has never entirely gone away from American discourse over what constitutes American citizenship. In effect, “Manifest Destiny” was the nineteenth century version of “American Exceptionalism.”

Manifest Destiny contains a distinct racial component that has always cast the U.S. as a nation dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In the decades following the Civil War, other, previously excluded white Americans like Irish Catholics were gradually granted admittance into exclusive club of white cultural dominance. But other groups, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, have traditionally been denied the right to participate in the Manifest Destiny that has deemed the United States to be a white man’s country. It is this idea — that America has been, and should continue to be, a country for whites to control — that animates current right-wing opposition to the border children.

Historian Reginald Horsman outlined this concept in his classic 1981 study, Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. By the mid-nineteenth century, Horsman writes, the U.S. cultural emphasis was on “the American Anglo-Saxons as a separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and to the world.”* Thus, white Americans were “destined” to “manifest” their superiority everywhere they roamed. The phrase “Anglo-Saxon” is a now largely outdated term that was popularly used in nineteenth and early twentieth-century America “to describe the white people of the United States in contrast to blacks, Indians, Mexicans, Spaniards, or Asiatics.”*

JOhn Gast's famous 1872 painintg despicting "Manifest Destiny." Here' Lady Liberty can be seen trouncing mercilessly over Indians, Blacks, and Hispanics.

John Gast’s famous 1872 painting depicting American Progress via “Manifest Destiny.” Here, Lady Liberty can be seen trouncing mercilessly over Indians, Blacks, and Hispanics.

But while we might not use the phrase “Anglo-Saxon” much anymore, the idea that it supported — that white Americans alone were destined to be the only true U.S. citizens — still shapes white, conservative American opposition to Latin American “illegals.” As legal scholar Bill Ong Hing observes in his book Defining America Through Immigration Policy, “immigration policies are not simply reflections of whom we regard as potential Americans, they are vehicles for keeping out those who do not fit the image and welcoming those who do.”*

American conservatism, especially the Tea Party, anti-Latin American immigrant strain of conservatism that is trying to bar the Central American refugee children from entering the U.S., is a manifestation of what Ong Hing calls the reactionary “other America.” This America has remained “largely mired in a Eurocentric (originally western Eurocentric) vision of America that idealized the true American as white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking, and Christian.”* It is this part of conservative America that still revels in their perceived “Manifest Destiny” to keep America white and free of the brown, Spanish-speaking menace that is constantly threatening to cross the U.S. border.

Make no mistake, folks: Manifest Destiny is alive and well in twenty-first century America. These days, we’re more prone to calling it “American Exceptionalism,” but the core feeling is still the same. It’s an ugly mix of provincial ignorance, cultural myopia, discredited racial theories, and an astounding lack of self-awareness that precludes so many people from recognizing that, unless they’re actual indigenous Native Americans, they too are immigrants. And unfortunately, thousands of children are paying the price for this old-time American ignorance, because if they’re sent back to Central America, they’ll likely end up in body bags. But hey, it’s a small price to pay for freedom, right?

* See Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 2, 5.

* See Bill Ong Hing, Defining America Through Immigration Policy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 2, 5.

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4 Comments

  1. What the hell is it with these teabaggers and their obsession about having things shoved down their throats? It seems to be their favorite metaphor.

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