Why is Xenophobic Behavior As a Result of COVID-19 Unsurprising?

Origins of Xenophobia in the United States

America prides itself on being a “nation of immigrants,” yet throughout history, American laws have vacillated between welcoming and restricting various ethnic groups based on the sentiment of the time. It began to manifest itself in federal laws and policies after the waves of “new immigration” began in the 1880s. The term new immigration refers to an influx of foreigners from Asia, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe that came to the United States to escape turmoil or seek economic opportunity unattainable in their native countries (Kennedy et al.). Despite their contributions to the American economy through their labor in farms, mines, and building projects like the Transcontinental Railroad (Kennedy et al.). However, as the economy hit a post civil war decline, white worker’s discontent over wages increased; they blamed the Chinese immigrants for their troubles (Ngai). In 1882, the federal government implemented the Chinese Exclusion act, which “outlawed all Chinese immigration, [and] also denied citizenship to those already settled in the country”(Zhang). It was the “first law…  to prevent a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating”(Zhang). Therefore, as Chinese American Saum Song Bo described in a letter of protest, “this country [was] the land of liberty for men of all nations except the Chinese”(Bo).

One of the first instances of Mexican discrimination was during the Great Depression, when the American government deported masses of Mexicans in what is now known as the Mexican Repatriation. Although there was no formal law to initiate their forced removal, it was supported by President Herbert Hoover’s administration, which vowed to provide “American jobs for real Americans”(Block and Dunn). This statement in itself exudes a nativist viewpoint: it implies that foreigners, in this case Mexicans, are not true Americans. Almost one million people were deported by local/state governments by 1936; Disturbingly, 60 percent of them were U.S citizens of Mexican descent (Block and Dunn). Because this program did not “distinguish between longtime residents, undocumented immigrants, and American citizens of Mexican decent, this was not just a xenophobic campaign to get rid of foreigners,” but a of “race-based expulsion of Mexicans” (Lee 148). In other words, the Hoover administration and local authorities did not perceive Mexican American citizens as “real Americans,” and took action against them.


A political cartoon that critiques the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s

Shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which instructed that people of Japanese ancestry be relocated into internment camps as a wartime measure to keep Americans safe (Kennedy et al.). However, prior to the Japanese bombing, Curtis B. Munson submitted a confidential report backed with evidence from secret surveillance which “certified that Japanese Americans possessed an extraordinary degree of loyalty to the United States, and immigrant Japanese were of no danger” (“The Japanese American Experience”). Yet the federal government still mistrusted the Japanese over any other races that the US was at war with. Over 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them American citizens, were forced into the detention centers, while the Italians and Germans remained free. Remorseless, John Dewitt, a commanding wartime general, asserted that “[i]t makes no difference whether the Japanese is theoretically a citizen. . . . A Jap is a Jap”(Dewitt as cited in Fukumara). Over the four years that the camps operated, “no charge of espionage, sabotage, or any other crime was ever filed against those arrested”(Fukumara). Though they posed no threat to the safety of other American citizens, Japanese Americans were imprisoned and dispossessed of their homes and belongings merely because their race was enough to deem them suspicious.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson overhauled some previous xenophobic policies by amending past immigration quotas. In fact, one main goal of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was to “purge immigration law of its racist legacy by replacing the old quotas with a new system that allocated residence visas according to a neutral preference system based on family reunification and labor force needs.” (Massey and Pren). This change in policy was effective: a surge of Asian and Latin American immigrants entered America, a feat that had not been possible in the preceding years (Massey and Pren). Although a few xenophobic policies were remedied through legal action, nativist attitudes remained deeply established in American society.

These are just a few examples of xenophobia in the United States, view my full historical essay to learn about more instances:

Japanese Internment Camp
(Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)

Where Can We See Xenophobia in the United States Today?

Because the United States’ leadership displays xenophobia in laws, policies, speeches and more, this anti-foreign mindset permeates into even deeper widespread social acceptance. In the language of his speeches, President Trump displays his personal prejudice against immigrants, including Mexican immigrants. He blatantly declared his xenophobic view of Mexicans in a campaign speech: “[Mexican immigrants are] bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” (Trump qtd. Reilly). In America for Americans, Erika Lee emphasizes that “Trump’s repeated claim that immigrants were lawbreakers committing serious crimes was… not supported by any facts. Empirical studies routinely found that immigrants did not increase local crime rates and were in fact less likely to cause crime than people born in the United States” (Lee 286). Nevertheless, he managed to win the election of 2016, which reveals a lot about the mindset of the general American public: they can still accept a leader that discriminates against a group of immigrants. Once in office, he further dehumanized Mexican immigrants, insisting: “These aren’t people. These are animals” (Trump qtd. Korte and Gomez). Under this perception of Mexican immigrants, he can justify laws that directly target and harm a singular ethnic group. 

Unlike Obama’s deportation policies that “prioritized deporting people convicted of serious crimes and recent arrivals,” the Trump administration “instead [attempts] to deport as many people as possible.” His policy states that all undocumented adults that cross the border must be prosecuted as a criminal (“Separation of Families”), and as then attorney general Jeff Sessions stated: “If you are smuggling a child… then [the government] will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law”(Sessions qtd. “Trump’s DHS”). These policies in combination tore families apart and placed them in detention centers with appalling living conditions. Asylum seekers are shackled and treated as prisoners despite never committing a crime (Young), and both women and children face sexual harassment or abuse at these centers (ACLU). Disturbingly, rather than remedying this injustice, the government seems to encourage it through financial means: ICE pays private prison companies based on the day and number of detainees (Kassie). Because the prisons have a monetary incentive to keep the migrants for as long as possible, migrants can be detained anywhere from a few days to a few years (Kassie). Perhaps even more appalling was the Trump administration’s 2019 plan to use Fort Sill for the detention of migrant children  (“The Legacy of Japanese Internment”), a location that had been previously used as a Japanese Internment camp during World War II (“The Legacy of Japanese Internment”). The parallels can be easily drawn: at this site, both groups endured terrible living conditions as a result of government decisions based in racial paranoia, and both groups were often separated from their family (“Japanese American Citizens League”). That being said, after “facing enormous political pressure… [Trump] signed an executive order meant to end the separation of families at the border by detaining parents and children together for an indefinite period”(Shear et. al.).

Office of Inspector General/Department of Homeland Security | Getty Images

The global pandemic of COVID-19 has recently unleashed a wave of xenophobia that stems from the general population’s new concerns with staying healthy and virus-free. As the infections spread throughout the world, people began to avoid Asian restaurants and their local Chinatowns due to the origin location of the virus in Wuhan, China (Escobar). The World Health Organization (WHO) did their best to discourage this type of behavior by choosing an impartial name for the virus (COVID-19) so as not to implicate a certain location, animal, or group of people (Little). However, President Trump has not appeared to share this effort. In fact, he has continually referred to COVID-19 as the Chinese Virus, which reestablishes a more xenophobic terminology and thereby undermines the efforts of the WHO to leave race out of the picture (Little). Furthermore, in Trump’s March 19 speech at the White House, one photograph shows that Trump crossed out the word ‘corona’ and handwrote ‘Chinese’ above it, demonstrating that his choice of words was intentional and not just a slip of the tongue (Little). Following the lead of the president, xenophobic language toward those of Asian descent has increased even more, as has hate crimes (Little).

View my full essay to get details on some of the ways that the US government may be perpetuating xenophobic behavior

Trump’s notes show the word Corona crossed out with Chinese written instead while speaking to the coronavirus task force in response on March 19, 2020 (Little)

What You Can Do

That being said, xenophobia doesn’t lend itself to one finite solution. Because it is a fear, it is most important to address the root of the problem: racial bias. If the people change their perspective, the government will reflect this change. Thus, it is crucial to first tackle the micro-solutions that can help change the minds of individuals. One step that anyone could take is to call out xenophobia in daily life. Whether one sees it on TV or hears it in an insensitive joke from a friend, it is important to acknowledge it whenever it happens. Taking action is the next step: call out the stereotypes that they are perpetuating, and make an effort to begin a dialogue with the people in your community to correct previous misconceptions. Social media also provides an incredible platform for connection with others, and is a great way to expand our perspectives. Another way to get involved in the fight against immigrant discrimination is to support organizations like the ACLU that are working on making legal changes.  The ACLU tackles the legal aspects of the issues, filing court cases to provoke change. For example, Pandilla v. ICE, currently in process, challenges the Trump administration’s policy that “categorically denies bond hearings to asylum seekers”(ACLU). In effect, this policy causes asylum seekers to be jailed indefinitely without even having a court hearing (ACLU). Although this case has not been closed yet, the ACLU has been at the center of dozens of other memorable court cases in American history. They were one of the few groups to denounce Japanese Internment during World War II and also won two court battles opposing the Muslim Ban in 2017, two events that are widely known to have xenophobic roots (ACLU). Their website suggests ways that people can help, from signing petitions to attending protests. Even during our COVID-19 quarantine, you can volunteer to join the ACLU call-and-text teams that spread word about the organization. But most importantly, we must elect government officials on a local, state and federal level, that do not hold nativist ideals and instead support immigrant rights. One way that city officials are working to protect immigrants is through the establishment of sanctuary cities, which comply with federal law by “shar[ing] and maintain[ing] information that has been gathered on an individual’s citizenship or immigration status.” Yet, these cities do not actively report undocumented immigrants within city bounds nor provide aid to federal immigration agents (Tsu.) Furthermore, the right leadership makes a difference: when those in power are unafraid, the citizens will follow. With the combination of an anti-nativist government body and a like-minded population, we can challenge xenophobia. Although it cannot be fixed solely through a new law or system, each can only hope that our society will move in the right direction to become more accepting to immigrants in the future. 

Learn more about what you can do (second half of this full essay):  

TED Talk by Lee Scheffe on Xenophobia has great additional information

Works Cited

View my full works cited page 

Thank you for reading! Discrimination is a sensitive topic, but I would love to hear your constructive feedback, something that you learned, and the ways that you personally plan to combat xenophobia!

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  1. April 24, 2020 by Helena

    You did a really great job explaining this timely issue and your graphics and sources really helped me understand your point of view. i especially loved the addition of the ted talk i think it really evokes and emotional response from the audience.

  2. April 24, 2020 by Annabelle Johnson

    I really enjoyed interacting with your project. I think that you did a really nice job in your set up video giving the audience a relevant foundation. I think that this topic is important now and through out America’s entire history. I am interested to know what other current event/events that you also might have put in this presentation if Covid-19 didn’t invoke such a response? I liked the format of your site because although is was super informational, you had two nice videos that I think really tied your writing together!

  3. April 24, 2020 by Annabelle Johnson

    I really enjoyed interacting with your project. I think that you did a really nice job in your set up video giving the audience a relevant foundation. I think that this topic is important now and through out America’s entire history. I am interested to know what other current event/events that you also might have put in this presentation if Covid-19 didn’t invoke such a response? I liked the format of your site because although is was super informational, you had two nice videos that I think really tied your writing together!

  4. April 25, 2020 by Menna

    I try to support my local Asian and Chinese restaurants as much as possible during this time; yesterday I ordered so much sushi! I feel as though because the virus apparently began in China, the US didn’t take it seriously nor did it implement precautionary procedures or show support for the dying Chinese population. I believe if the virus began somewhere in Europe (like Italy), the US would show a great amount of concern and started taking the Corona virus more seriously. Anyways, Covid-19 basically “justified” and strengthened pre-existing animosity and deep rooted non acceptance towards Asians, and it’s sad.

  5. April 25, 2020 by Ona

    This is such a great presentation! You made it in a way that was really easy to understand and I learned so much. I liked how clear you made the connection between the past and the present. In my life, I’m going to be looking out for more xenophobic behavior around me and call people out on it more. Really good job!

  6. April 25, 2020 by Elana

    You did an amazing job with this presentation and it was created in such a way where it was easy to. read but the sheer amount of text really showcases how much effort and detail you put. into it. I like how the connections that you made between historical events and modern-day events really shows how far we have come as a society. Excellent effort!

  7. April 25, 2020 by Amber

    I really loved this presentation! I think this topic is incredibly relevant now, and brings attention to a problem that has been around for a long time in America. I think your points on how we can take action are great, and I think the idea of electing officials who support immigrant rights is particularly important; when we start to create systemic change, hopefully the culture of America changes, and xenophobic rhetoric won’t be as prevalent.

  8. April 25, 2020 by Alicia

    Chelsea, this was such an outstanding presentation. I genuinely learnt so much, and it’s such a topical issue at the moment. Really, this needs to be shared to more people. Your ideas about taking and calling to action are all super logical and effective. I’m definitely going to do my best to spread some of the information and history to my community; the more awareness, the better. Thank you for such an important, sensitive and informative web page.

  9. April 25, 2020 by Elizabeth Yun

    Hi Chelsea, I think that this is a very important topic to be discussing right now, and I love how you presented your information. As someone who is Korean-American, I can say that before all the shelter in place orders, xenophobia was a fairly present issue. I live in the Bay Area where Asians make up 1/5 of the population, and the San Francisco area is generally considered to be a fairly open-minded and progressive area. However, I could still easily find examples of people displaying xenophobic behaviors, such as people moving seats when someone who looked East Asian sat next to them. When you mentioned xenophobia towards Japanese people after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I think it is important to mention how it affected so many more than just the Japanese. Plenty of Koreans and Chinese people were also called by similar racial slurs just for looking like Japanese people. Many Koreans who immigrated to the United States to escape the Japanese were then greeted by people calling them Japanese and telling them to get out. It’s so frustrating that people use opportunities such as Covid-19 to justify their racist behavior.

  10. April 26, 2020 by Michelle

    This is an amazing presentation, and it highlights a topic that often isn’t spoken about. Your inclusion of striking photos and videos helps to further teach the audience about the problem happening. Thank you for including a section about what we can do, because I feel like taking action is the important next step to combat this issue. Great work.

  11. April 26, 2020 by Charlotte

    Hi Chelsea! This is a great presentation! I love the micro steps of calling out xenophobia when you see and and being conscious of internal biases, as well as macro steps such as electing and supporting government officials without nativist ideals. Great job!

  12. April 27, 2020 by Kyong Pak

    Chelsea, your presentation is a testament to the incredible effort you spent researching and synthesizing your topic. You seamlessly connected past to present, and gave a persuasive call to action. Your concluding video was an inspiring choice. The rise in xenophobia in our current climate has been on my mind a lot, and your presentation provided excellent contextual history. Here’s an organization that has compiled some nice resources around the current problem:

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