Good Immigrant, Bad Immigrant: Visa Regulation and Racialization

“It was rescinded. Does that make you feel more confident?”—a friend texted me when the recent executive order stripping visas from foreign students in the US was revoked. She knew I was distraught when the order was announced even though I am not an international student, or F-1 visa holder. “Maybe, I’m not sure. You know I never see these decisions in isolation,” I replied. A few months earlier, a suspension of new work visas—H-1B visas—had been announced, so a broader issue was still clearly there. Every time I hear news about the immigration system, I feel a pitch in the stomach; it has been that way for around five years, since I first realized that my life would become engulfed in a confusing set of procedures if I decided to stay in the US for the long term, which I did. In the debate about borders, much of the attention goes to the plights of migrants and undocumented immigrants. The ones “with papers” become neglected in the press and much of the conversation about borders; their struggles, challenges, and pain are overshadowed.    

I certainly do not want to claim some forgotten majority.[1] This is not the point, and this is not a pity contest. Comparing immigrant suffering—and, by extent, inevitably acknowledging the relative privilege enjoyed by documented immigrants—is to overlook the complex system of control called immigration regulation and enforcement. The dichotomy “good immigrant” vs. “bad immigrant” is pervasive, at times finding its way into discourse even when the speaker’s intention is to counter anti-immigrant backlash. Talking about immigration without accounting for the burden of moving and settling across borders legally is to miss the institution’s elitist, sexist, and, above all, racist marks. When the now-rescinded executive order stated in July 2020 that international students would be sent home if colleges and universities did not open for face-to-face instruction in the fall, some people seemed shocked, accusing the White House of going rogue. But moments of crisis just expose regular dynamics that may be overlooked at first glance. The system was working as it was supposed to—all immigrants are potentially disposable in the state-making procedures of US immigration policy.

Characterizing the US as a “nation of immigrants” is a common discursive strategy. References to several waves of arrivals from other parts of the world that helped “build” the country have been an element of US propaganda since the 1950s and are essential to the ideological construct known as the American Dream. The “nation of immigrants” epithet has been intensively mobilized in the past years to counter the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, nationalistic rhetoric, and authoritarianism worldwide. The intention is usually good—after all, the idea is to support the movement of people across borders and denote the potential fruitful outcomes of such movement at both individual and societal levels. Slowly, however, the immigrant becomes an amorphous, ahistorical category in these supportive discourses. But immigration is not an abstract phenomenon.

At odds with mythical depictions, immigration has a face in the US today. Only 13% of the foreign-born individuals now in the country are from Canada and Europe. The remaining 87% are regionally distributed as follows: the Middle East and North Africa account for 4%; sub-Saharan Africa, 5%; South America, 7%; Central America, 8%; the Caribbean, 10%; Asia, 28%. Mexico represents the top country of origin of all US immigrants, with a 25% share.[2] Immigration to the US is a movement of the Global South population.

Many credit the current portrayal of the US immigrant population to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1965, which canceled the quota system ruling immigration at the time. From the 1920s until the INA’s enactment, the admission of foreign nationals in the US had considered their country of origin as the primary criterion. Numerical quotas based on nationality had been established following the composition of the US population in the late nineteenth century. Consequently, admission of northern and western Europeans—who had settled in the US earlier—was favored, and populations from other areas had their influx limited. When the initial quotas were reviewed a few decades later, with the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, the pattern of European immigration was still preserved—the change was the expansion of immigration from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland alongside the “traditional” white immigrant populations, while keeping barriers against potential comers from other areas. While the Western Hemisphere was not subject the system, the absence of national quotas for the Americas did not mean a free pass. Instead, other regulations were set amid persistent shifts of Latin American migration flux toward and away from the US until the mid-twentieth century—including “repatriation” drives of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the 1930s. Indeed, these regulations were of concern to US employers seeking to fill a rising demand for labor in basic industries with nearby foreign workers, such as Dominicans and, most significantly, Mexicans, in several moments through the early-to-mid-twentieth century. So much so that the 1942 Bracero Agreement, which allowed Mexican nationals to work as temporary agricultural workers following the WWII labor shortage, was lobbied by US employers and was extended for several years after the US labor force recovered from conscription and war mobilization efforts.[3]

Strengthened by the civil rights movement’s momentum, criticisms of the formula for admission into the US became louder in the 1950s and 1960s, and immigration based on nationality was replaced with the criteria still in use today. Instead of origin, the INA set a preference system emphasizing family reunification and skillfulness—two priorities that, nowadays, sometimes clash within the discourse about immigration.[4] The INA’s emphasis on family reunification was crucial to ameliorating a long injustice against the Chinese immigrant population, whose families had been torn apart by numerous exclusion acts and naturalization bans throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Those policies had followed the large Chinese workers’ migration to work on the transcontinental railroad in the nineteenth century (under lower pay and in worse living conditions than their fellow white workers). The INA’s second priority, its emphasis on skills, established the “brain drain”—the influx of promising talented students and young professionals from other countries to study and work in the US with an eye on higher wages. 

The dramatic demographic shift in immigration to the US in the decades after 1965 is commonly attributed to the INA’s liberal character. While the new legislation opened the door for ethnic and racial diversity in the country, the flow of immigrants with non-European backgrounds cannot be explained solely by changes in US policies. The act of crossing boundaries is, obviously, far from a phenomenon concerning just one nation. The point of arrival is important; so is the point of departure. When turning into the top source country for immigration to the US over the 1980s, Mexico was going through a deep crisis after defaulting on its sovereign debt in 1982. The reshaping of national economies under rising neoliberalism played a relevant role in the diversification of people coming to the US, and consequently in the makeup of US society. For several countries in Latin America, the turn to finance capital in the 1980s meant a series of economic “adjustments” that resulted in worsening living conditions and, per consequence, a stronger inclination for those countries’ residents to try their chances elsewhere. The particular implementation of market-friendly policies in some Asian countries from the late 1960s onwards—notably Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan—created a segment of wealthy migrants who would orchestrate a transnational flow of their capital. Nowadays, the effects of both climate change and armed conflicts in certain areas of the world influence border-crossing patterns. These international dynamics confirm the importance of accounting for a set of factors when interpreting the face of immigration in the US—and everywhere.

Following the INA’s full enaction, the Sanctuary Movement was the first big challenger to the purported progressive character of “modern” US immigration policies. Under the Reagan administration, Central America became a focal point of US foreign policy interests, and billions of dollars were spent to support counterrevolutionary efforts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala in the 1980s. Refugees fled in response to right-wing violence and persecution but could not find asylum in the US. Those who would escort and shelter undocumented Central Americans—particularly Salvadoran nationals—in the country were threatened by US authorities; several Sanctuary activists in Texas and Arizona were arrested and indicted. The Sanctuary Movement involved complex logistics of food, shelter, and ongoing transportation across the Mexico side of the border and through multiple US cities until refugees got to a final destination. The movement’s bold efforts and resistance in contraposition to the government’s approach to the crisis in Central America inevitably brought to light the US government’s factual inconsistency with its liberal tone about immigration from the previous decades: “In the United States as a whole, only 2-3 percent of Salvadorans and Guatemalans who applied were granted asylum during the 1980s.”[5] Over the 1980s and 1990s, a few acts addressed—to some extent—the situation of individuals who were undocumented or needed some temporary protective status as a result of armed conflicts and/or natural disasters in their home country. But the Sanctuary Movement’s experience is elucidative of the fundamental rationale guiding immigration regulation: a division between the desirable and the undesirable, the wanted and the unwanted, and ultimately, the tolerable and the intolerable.

In the same way that immigration flow is not dissociated from a combination of elements, immigration legislation is not disconnected from the larger correlation of forces in which it is crafted. The climate of the civil rights movements undoubtably contributed to the end of the quota system; by challenging the narrow conception of refugee by the Reagan administration,[6] the Sanctuary Movement strengthened the view that the right to asylum is a fundamental right. But, above all, immigration laws encompass a nation’s ideals and translate state-building efforts. For almost a century, US immigration policies explicitly aimed to guarantee a country with a white population. With barriers of race and national origin down on paper, people of color, formally welcome, have still had to first demonstrate their worthiness to be admitted, either by some long-lasting family tie and/or their abilities and competences. The burden of proof lies with the immigrant, who now faces tightened border control and selective immigration legislation enforcement—this is in no way comparable to the mythical immigrant of US imagination, who moves to the US in search of opportunity with much less or virtually no regulation upon entry.

While much is said about the INA’s contribution to solidifying the professed Geist of the country, little is said about another side of the decision to abolish national quotas. Woven into liberal discourse are targeted efforts to bolster US power on the world stage. The act of extending the possibility of migration to the US to residents of some countries—especially from Eastern Europe and Asia—was also conceived as a strategy to counter the Soviet Union’s influence. The INA was not isolated from the efforts to make the US the world’s hegemonic country, indeed. When it was convenient, large refugee programs—targeting Cuban nationals in 1962 and Nicaraguans fleeing the Sandinista regime—were put in place, but restrictions on asylum seekers were swiftly imposed when the presence of foreign nationals called attention to any controversial US actions abroad. Immigration regulation and enforcing are a picture of what the country is and what it wants to be.  

Conformity and control are key principles of state-building. Throughout history, countries established themselves by pursuing some homogeneity among their respective population and, for this reason, foundation myths have been created and a chosen language has been enforced through a range of institutions and artifacts.[7] Such manufactured conformity would justify the creation of certain borders, which, in turn, need to be secured to validate the national project enterprise. Mobility monitoring—both within and across borders—is, therefore, a fundamental aspect of the modern-state era. Several mechanisms oversee a nation’s population transit, even if indirectly—tax collection, a formal education system, the military draft, and others. But between the uneven development of capitalism worldwide, on the one hand, and centralized national governments, on the other, the movement across countries has become more and more scrutinized over time. This is done mainly through the issuance of specific identification documents—notably the passport—and travel authorizations—commonly known as visas.

Although visas—conditional authorizations granted by a certain territory to a foreigner—primarily regulate travelers’ entry, their role goes far beyond that. In practical terms, visa regimes work as an instrument of migration control. Overall, visas should be issued at the place of departure as well as checked upon boarding planes or trains; in general, this prevents the indiscriminate flow of foreign nationals at points of entry. Getting a visa in the country of departure, however, means that the traveler is subject to the destination’s rules without any guarantee of a favorable outcome. Stepping into a consulate or embassy for a visa appointment is like entering a little bubble in which, for that moment, one is neither fully acknowledged by the “other” national government nor covered by the local national authorities—from which, in some cases, the visa applicant may be running away in the first place. This move provides great leverage for the country issuing the travel authorizations in sorting out those to be accepted and those to be denied entry.[8] More significantly, the visa determines the way immigrants will be allowed entrance and permanence, for there are several types of authorization. While the basic information provided by such a document is the period in which an “alien” is “welcome,” the visa also determines one’s status in the country of destination and, as such, frames one’s experience abroad—especially in cases of long-term stays, when one settles outside one’s homeland.

The US directory of visa categories[9] attests to the existence of different types of authorizations—in this case, according to “purposes of temporary travel” and “purposes for immigrating to the United States.” While the US immigration law formally differentiates between the two purposes, the lines dividing them are blurry in real life. A short vacation or a course, for example, may turn into a desire to stay permanently—and, consequently, navigating statuses becomes imperative. A stated temporary period may be planned as a “trial” for a long-term move—in which case, a strategy to adjust the original status may be more or less urgent. A “student” may be someone who comes to spend several years in the country and, thus, develop relationships and make a home. Also, many “nonimmigrant” visa holders are, in fact, individuals who legally come to the country for employment and to build a life in the US; given that this is where they earn their living, these individuals are immigrants de facto—not just “travelers”—despite the (formal) characterization on paper. With its multiple subdivisions, hidden layers, and semantic tricks, the current US visa categories well illustrate how paramount visa regimes have become in the globalized era, when traveling and other transnational exchanges are fast and intense. Nowadays, visa overstays—even minimal ones—are the main grounds for removal and, consequently, are carefully watched. Given the visa’s centrality, that people face obstacles to earn one is not surprising.

When I arrived in the US, I knew little about what to expect in terms of immigration bureaucracy. Getting the first visa was relatively easy; I was just another young mind seeking further credentials and international experience. But I quickly hit a wall when I decided to further explore a new life path here. Luckily, my educational background gave me an edge that is not available to all of those who (more or less desperately) are fighting against the expiration-date clock. A friend referred me to a consultation with an immigration office that catered to professionals trying to figure out their possibilities in the country while complying with immigration legislation—a crash course on rolling with the immigration punches. Knowledge is power indeed, and after that I was excited to envision a path previously unknown to me—and, I am sure, unknown to many others with the same immigration status I once had. But there was more ahead. While one may be expected to gather two or three references for any standard, ordinary selection process, I had to file with the government twelve letters of recommendation on my behalf, simply to have the chance to fully accept a job offer I had already landed. Aside from my knowledge and connections, I could only “make it” because I could pay for it.[10] Over the past four years, I have spent more than $10,000 in legal fees, filing fees, and other required fees to guarantee legal permanence in US territory and the ability to travel abroad when needed—or when I am able to afford the luxury.[11] And once my applications were submitted, I was left just with the hope that all would be processed fairly while my plans, dreams, relationships, etc. rested in someone else’s hands and could be derailed overnight.

Obviously, not all visa holders have the same experience with the application process. Many immigrants, for example, have had their employers pay all the required fees and have not had to deal with the process first hand. Some application requirements change according to the visa category at stake. However, the crucial question is: who gets to have the chance to go through such a process at all? Based on the core tenets of the current US immigration system, family reunification and skillfulness, the immigrant is expected to “add” to the country—through their connections and/or abilities. The visa application process, therefore, reflects the system’s exclusionary logic. Only those who know someone, who have post-secondary degrees or grasp the layers of the system, who can cover the high costs associated with a visa or work for companies that can or are willing to do so, have a shot at it. This is certainly not the case for many who migrate to the US. Not only is such a logic contradictory to the “self-made man” image or other “American Dream” romantic ideals about immigration, but it is also emblematic of the limitations of the current regulation—so much praised for its alleged inclusivity.

The burden of branding yourself worthy of residence hardly means the surpassing of all barriers. While having a valid visa is certainly less trouble than not having one, your immigration status dictates, above all, what is prohibited to you. The activities you cannot engage with, the type of work you cannot perform, the payments you cannot receive. Personal and professional moves you may have to delay—or be forced to expedite—to preserve your current status or land a “better” one. The borders are reenacted once you have crossed them and, for those who want to put down roots, the struggle to push those borders away is continuous until the famous green card or naturalization.

That is why visas are also mobilized at the symbolic level. With different types of travel authorizations, there is a salient hierarchy within the immigrant communities—for example, those who have permanent residence status in comparison to those on a tourist visa. The system’s seemingly meritocratic character—that, in some way or another, professes its desire for the “bright” and the “doers”—can lead to a division between who “made it” and who “got behind.” Consequently, immigrants are ranked not only through a legal, bureaucratic perspective—and in the eyes of so many US-born citizens. Communities are also broken from within by the belief that some individuals are more entitled to residence, are better than others, for their capacity to do “good” for the country, play by the “rules,” and assimilate. Individuals on an “inferior” visa status resent the restrictions to which they are subject. If only it were clear that the “good” ones are not so special or so distinct from the “bad” ones.  

From a historical point of view, the main contribution of twentieth-century social sciences—sociology and anthropology, in particular—has been to discount the contribution of religious and biological factors in the explanation of social phenomena and replace them with an analysis of the social forces and institutional arrangements shaping society. It is from such a standpoint that, in the 1980s, Michael Omi and Howard Winant developed their theories about racialization.

With this in mind, let us propose a definition: race is a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies. Although the concept of race invokes biologically based human characteristics (so-called “phenotypes”), selection of these particular human features for purposes of racial signification is always and necessarily a social and historical process.[12]

Omi and Winant’s proposal’s immediate consequence is to see race as race-making—a crucial insight to assess the existence of different groups within any given society and the divisions crossing them. Social, economic, and political forces shape social categories and infuse them with certain meanings. Over time, groups may be racialized and given a lower status within society through a combination of socioeconomic and political structures, everyday practices, and ideological constructs—all of which are geographically and historically situated. 

A look at the decades following the full enaction of the Immigration and Nationality Act shows the immigration enforcement system turning into a major race-making institution in the US. Even before 9/11, the country had seen an unprecedented militarization of the US-Mexico border, a massive expansion of the immigration detention system, and a return to mass deportations for the first time since the 1930s.[13] Throughout history, general xenophobia is intensified in moments of uncertainty or turmoil—a steep trend that was reinforced in the US by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002 and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2003, along with those agencies’ massive available budgets. The formalization of federal agencies specifically designed to watch a segment of the country’s population is fundamental to the composition of a racial project—“in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized.”[14] At this point, the intersection between the long-lasting racialization of non-white people and the face of recent immigration to the US just streamlines such a composition—or maybe blends both racial projects.

While repression and violence against the “other” are essential elements of any racialization process, the paths to building an underclass are always multiple. For example, nowadays, more than 75% of “nonimmigrant,” “temporary” skilled workers on the H-1B visa come from the Global South—notably India—and pay much more in taxes that go to support US federal benefits than they receive of those benefits. Indeed, the H-1B visa program has become a major source of recruitment for a qualified workforce, as the Economic Policy Institute reports.

Among the top 30 H-1B employers are major US firms including Amazon, Microsoft, Walmart, Google, Apple, and Facebook. All of them take advantage of program rules in order to legally pay many of their H-1B workers below the local median wage for the jobs they fill.[15]

Once on an H-1B or other work visa, an employee is dependent on their employer to keep their immigration status, and potentially their family members’ statuses. The employee is also dependent on the employer to perhaps file a petition for status modification (e.g., permanent residence), and this leverage on the employer’s side leads the employee on a visa to a cycle of precarity—filled with material and emotional vulnerability. Almost kicked out of the country, international students—also predominantly coming from countries like India and China—have been a source of revenue for universities by paying higher tuition than domestic students—and consequently “subsidizing” the college seats of many US citizens.

The Immigration and Nationality Act sedimented the idea that the immigrant is framed by their expected contributions, implicitly or explicitly considered within a cost vs. benefit rationale. The “good immigrant” rhetoric conceals the fact that our presence is only accepted when it is “of value.” But what is “of value,” after all? Most work visa holders are men whose wives are granted H-4 visas. But the majority of H-4 visa holders are not ever granted authorization to work in the country, a decision that exposes a highly gendered process and puts in perspective the US’s idea of “contribution.” The “good immigrant” rationale minimizes the structural inequality promoted by the immigration legislation and enforcement system—and the effects of such inequality are unlikely to change even with an immigrant’s naturalization, for the condition of being “other” is not easily erasable. Given the way immigrants are framed, our fragile condition is unsurprising. As long as the terms for immigrants’ stay are under a cost-benefit template, the agreements that govern our lives will remain easily susceptible to change with the stroke of a pen.   

Racialization itself is subject to sometimes rapid change, since the meaning of race and racial categories are continuously agreed to and argued over. Although “good immigrant” and “bad immigrant” allegories are prevalent, challenges to the mainstream narrative have been seen through the years. In the 1960s, El Movimiento, the Chicano civil rights movement, mobilized for issues relevant to Mexican Americans, such as land restoration grants, education, labor and political rights, and rejection of assimilation (assimilation being a process that is inherently violent to not only first-generation immigrants but also their descendants). In 2004, a new immigrant rights movement came on the scene to call attention to the oppression of the undocumented and “protect these immigrants from discrimination.”[16] The idea of rights can be easily attenuated or reduced to formalities. But both the Chicano civil rights movement and the new immigrant rights movement, tents of “smaller” movements and initiatives, strive to reaffirm immigrants’ existence and highlight the connections between their non-citizen status and their living conditions. All in all, these movements criticize immigration systemically and disclose a path further into the acknowledgment of human worth despite “achievements” or “deservedness.” Why should someone be accepted based on what has to “offer?” Why should human worth be measured? Only by recuperating a more radical idea of rights will we be able to question the inequalities engendered by the immigration system and the conditions of immigrants in the country—all of them.

The F-1 visa order was rescinded a few months ago, but issuance of new student visas have not yet resumed and new guidelines are on the way, requiring students to demonstrate “compelling” academic reasons to extend proposed standard, fixed terms for stay.[17] Headlines may catch attention, but few are alert to the broader issue at stake. While it is crucial for me to understand the forces shaping my path in another country, awareness of the system’s raison d’être does not ease its emotional strain, often sparked in me by news of conditions in immigrant detention centers. Indeed, permanent tension is a state to which I, as an immigrant, have become accustomed. In 2018, when watching the news about the Central American migrant caravans and the government response, I commented to a friend that I was concerned. He said I was exaggerating. “You are educated.” Two years later, there I was, struggling to prove, once again, that I was worth it. And although I was nowhere near the experience of what was happening at the US-Mexico border, I could not help but think that the same system regulated my life and theirs. What reasons would I have not to fear?   



[1] Undocumented immigrants make up around a quarter of the US foreign-born population, according to the Pew Research Center.

[2] The US’s foreign-born inhabitants make up 13.7% of the entire population or around 44.8 million. This data, the most recent set, is from 2018—according to the Pew Research Center.

[3] The Bracero Agreement was also relevant in increasing the circulation of unauthorized workers who could not secure an official contract. Once again, US employers benefit the most—this time, with even lower wage costs and fewer labor-importation red tape expenses.       

[4] For example, immigrants deserve to be together but should also be deserving of staying in the country.

[5] Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, Nora Hamilton, and James Loucky. “The Sanctuary Movement and Central American Activism in Los Angeles.” Latin American Perspectives 36, no. 6 (2009): 101-26,

[6] To the Reagan administration, asylum was to be provided to individuals who were specific targets of persecution, not to people broadly endangered by civil war.

[7] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso Books), 2006 [1983].

[8] Visas also work as foreign policy instruments and, thus, the waiver of travel authorizations as the result of bilateral/multilateral agreements do not change this potential leverage and the logic outlined here. 

[9] A chart of the US visa categories is found here:

[10] Thank you, once again, to every single person who made it happen a few years ago:  

[11] I say so because every time I consider an international trip, I have to eventually factor in the money to pay for some travel fees and the time to have it processed. For someone whose life connections are split between two countries, this usually becomes a(nother) source of distress.    

[12] Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. Second Edition (New York: Routledge), 1994, 55.    

[13] Douglas S. Massey and Magaly Sánchez R., Brokered Boundaries: Creating Immigrant Identity in Anti-Immigrant Times (New York: Russell Sage Foundation), 2010.  

[14] Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. Second Edition (New York: Routledge), 1994, 56.

[15] Daniel Costa and Ron Hira, “H-1B visas and prevailing wage levels.” Economic Policy Institute, May 4, 2020,  

[16] Paul Engler. “The US Immigrant Rights Movement (2004-ongoing).” International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, April 2009,

[17] Elizabeth Redden. “Major Changes to Student Visa Rules Proposed,” Inside Higher Ed, September 25, 2020,