A map of dangers as resources made by a young Mexican border crosser.

As cruel and barbaric as the Trump administration’s immigration policies were, they were not a historical aberration. Nor have they entirely ended. These Hot Spots essays assess the damage wrought by situating the Trump administration’s brutal treatment of migrants within centuries of racialized exclusions and violence. The period between 2016 and 2020 showed the world how policies of dehumanization and hate were readily available to be used by any administration. The Trump administration inherited an immigration system that is not “broken” as popularly claimed, but rather was working exactly how it was designed, as a de facto deportation regime.

This series is not simply a record of the human toll of President Trump’s racist policies, but rather it highlights migrants’ refusal and resistance to be disposable, dispossessed, or pathologized. Through migrants’ experiences during multiple administrations and the more recent COVID-19 era, we see strategies of care, solidarity, and organizing that expose and reject the United States’ long history of enforcing white supremacy through immigration policy. Drawing on ethnography, advocacy, and activism, the anthropologists and activists here foreground the injustices that migrants and their communities in the United States and across borders have identified and rebelled against. Migration scholarship cannot be relegated to the realm of the domestic or bound up with the false exceptionalisms of the Trump administration. Displacement around the world is structured by historical injustices centuries in the making that continue to determine whether people move, live, or die.

Many contributors in this series began a dialogue during two American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual meeting panels, one in 2015, the year before Trump was elected, and the other during the virtual conference in November 2020, as Trump was being voted out of office. Some of the authors have been directly impacted themselves by Trump’s Muslim ban, his rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, and his deportation spree. Others have been on the front lines fighting for migrant and racial justice: assisting families whose loved ones perished in the desert, organizing with deportees in Mexico, and teaching children recently reunified with their parents. As the Biden-Harris administration undoes Trump-era executive orders and policies that caused extreme harm, the scholars and activists gathered here know that a return to “before Trump” is a return to a profitable liberal deportation regime. A stroke of the presidential pen cannot reverse the myriad and monstrous state-sponsored forms of brutality that millions have endured. These essays attest to those harms and how they span administrations.

Since the dawn of the American settler-colonial project there have been restrictions on who can partake in the protections of the nation state. These heterogenous policies have always been about creating, recreating, and preserving whiteness. This too has been the historical goal of the country’s citizenship regimes. The eugenic logics underpinning the policies of Stephen Miller, Trump’s top immigration advisor, continue the violence of racist and genocidal policies such as the Fugitive Slave Act, the Indian Removal Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Bracero Program.

This series opens with essays that provide context and historical precedent by mapping the far-reaching harms of enforcement policies of the last several administrations. Writing about the pernicious practices of tactical infrastructure on the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the sanctuary movement, contributors shine a light on the deliberate injuries the U.S. government inflicts on border crossers along with activists’ efforts to protect migrants. In terms of specific Trump-era policies and their repercussions, authors reflect both ethnographically and personally on the long-term effects of policies like the Muslim ban and Title 42, which the Biden administration is still using to keep out asylum seekers. Several authors present case studies of the increasingly carceral immigration enforcement mechanisms, positing, for example, the application process for DACA and for trafficking visas as part of a surveillance regime. We also learn about local opposition in Maine to building an ICE facility so that the sight of shackled migrants does not “trigger” traumatized U.S. veterans next door, and about the deportations of Asian Americans in the middle of calls to “end Asian hate.” Challenging state violence, we meet deported and returned organizers in Mexico City who lead the Leave No One Behind movement. Finally, a number of contributors focus on the agentive power of storytelling and testimonials. These essays center children’s own narratives as they tell of their experiences of being separated (and reunited) with their parents, incarcerated, and deported.

Although we are heartened by multiple activisms, particularly by those directly impacted, capitalist and carceral logics that began long before the Trump or Biden administrations persist. As these essays attest, state-sponsored anti-migrant harms continue: the militarization and medicalization of the border, detentions, deportations, and the pain of family separation and reunification. Forms of relief such as DACA and trafficking protections only carve out temporary reprieves for an exceptional few while millions are left vulnerable to state violence. Hate crimes are endemic. And while low-wage migrants have been critical to keeping the United States running through the COVID-19 pandemic, they have suffered disproportionate health and economic effects. Current immigration policy is no different than in previous eras. As we write this, President Biden is deporting migrants to Haiti in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. As long as immigration policies nurture a colonial inheritance and its corresponding forms of violence, the damage will continue.