Bans, Walls, Raids and Sanctuary: Understanding US Immigration for the Twenty-First Century, by A. Naomi Paik

Angelia R. Wilson applauds a wide-ranging survey of American racism but remains unconvinced by the solutions on offer

October 8, 2020
An agent of the US Border Patrol inspects the steel wall on the border between the United States and Mexico build on the Pacific coast of Tijuana
Source: iStock

What is the role of a public intellectual? More precisely, what is the role of a trained academic who, searching for “impact”, dares to comment on issues of politics or policy? The anti-intellectual American right took great pleasure in condemning Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Diseases, for his hesitancy in endorsing the opening up of the economy during a pandemic. Evidence-based analysis does not sit easy with neoliberal, racially motivated populism.

A. Naomi Paik, associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has research expertise in Second World War US prison camps. In Bans, Walls, Raids and Sanctuary, she presents evidence to combat “historical amnesia” about the treatment of non-citizens by the government. Trump’s racist attacks, the “Muslim Ban” and the border wall, she demonstrates, are nothing new.

Dismissing simplistic “melting pot” histories of immigration, Paik argues that settler societycolonialism and the proliferation of neoliberal globalisation have led to a “pock marked economic landscape” in which non-white citizens and non-citizens have been criminalised, displaced and demonised as sources of disorder. She looks back, for example, to how John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s key adviser on domestic policy, later acknowledged that the War on Drugs in the early 1970s was a strategic attack on African Americans as well as anti-war hippies.

Paik’s history focuses on bans (from Second World War Japanese-American internment camps to Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban); walls (persistent federal investment in border patrols, surveillance and data tracking to police the physical and imaginary “nation’s edges”); and raids (forced deportations of California’s Mexican immigrant labourers during the Great Depression, the Patriot Act and Trump’s immigration officers brutally tearing families apart). If her analysis ended there, she would have accomplished her aim of demonstrating that the targeting of immigrants, or different “others”, is a persistent theme in American history.

But Paik, like other public intellectuals, does not posit the facts without suggesting a way forward. She echoes Angela Davis’ call for abolition democracy” as a way to build new institutions which can offer care for communities in need through local activism and national policy reform. Pointing to the historical notion of religious sanctuary, which challenges the sovereignty of the state, she also advocates grassroots organisations to redraw the “lines of solidarity, sanctuary and contestation of US sovereignty”.

A close examination of American history undoubtedly demands that we challenge the actions of the state towards immigrants and non-white citizens. But any successful rallying cry questioning the sovereignty of the American government will require careful engagement with the concept of the state and an evaluation of its manifestations beyond the evidence presented here. Paik’s attack on “neoliberalism” takes a scattergun approach, conflating it with any versions of liberalism, including social justice, welfare or care-based models. Perhaps that is an understandable outcome of this American case study, but perhaps not. For example, I suspect this book would not have been written if Barack Obama were still in office or Hillary Clinton were president.

But they are not. Trump’s America is not recognisable as a “shining city upon a hill” or a beacon of reasonable democratic governance. Immigrants, and their children, are torn from each other’s arms and put in cages. Hopefully, Paik’s evidence-based call to action will make some impact, despite the populist racism of Trump and his anti-intellectual enablers. 

Angelia Wilson is professor of politics at the University of Manchester.


Bans, Walls, Raids and Sanctuary: Understanding US Immigration for the Twenty-First Century
By A. Naomi Paik
University of California Press, 192pp, £66.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9780520305113 and 9780520305120
Published 3 April 2020

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