On June 16, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tweeted, “During #PrideMonth, we recognize our #LGBTQ+ employees, reflect on the trials that their community has endured and rejoice with them in the triumphs of those who have bravely fought — and continue to fight — for full equality.” This tweet was a vapid example of “rainbow capitalism” — the commercialization and commodification of LGBTQ social movements.
But ICE’s message, that immigration enforcement and LGBTQ equality can be compatible, is uniquely dangerous because it conceals a violent history of immigration enforcement that has targeted and harmed LGBTQ people in the name of policing borders.
Citizenship and immigration laws have historically been exclusionary. With the Naturalization Act of 1790, only “free white” people of good moral character could become citizens. One of the first federal immigration laws, the Page Act of 1875, prohibited the entry of Chinese people deemed “undesirable,” mainly unfree laborers and prostitutes.
But while policies aimed to prevent the entry and inclusion of those deemed racially undesirable, they also policed ideas about gender and sexuality. When Congress passed a federal immigration law in 1917, it excluded “persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” which the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) defined as “persons with abnormal sexual instincts.” This was in keeping with the ideas of the then-popular field of eugenics, which saw people outside of sex and gender norms — as well as non-White people — as a source of genetic threat.
The United States also detained Chinese women at the Angel Island Immigration Station, operational between 1910 and 1940, and interrogated them about their sex lives, in an effort to exclude them from the country.
Throughout the 1950s, a time of Cold War-induced extreme social anxiety, policymakers framed LGBTQ people and other sexual minorities as a threat to the nation. In 1952, homosexuality was officially designated a sociopathic personality disorder, which it would remain until the 1970s.
This thinking continued to shape immigration policy. That same year, Congress passed a new immigration law, the McCarran-Walter Act, which prolonged the exclusion of people afflicted with “psychopathic personality,” or sexual deviation, and further policed crimes of “moral turpitude,” often code for suspected LGBTQ sexuality or related activities. Migrants who attempted to enter the United States and were suspected of sexual deviance were examined by psychiatrists, who then issued certifications to Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, which helped determine whether they’d be admitted. In this way, immigration law managed ideas of acceptable sexual and gender expression and promoted heteronormative citizenship and belonging.