This racial configuration matters, because race often serves as the ground upon which questions of belonging and claims to citizenship are decided in this country. Eliminating a program whose beneficiaries are overwhelmingly people of color demonstrates the continued potency of political appeals to white racial resentment. But it also illuminates the politics of forgiveness, setting the vulnerability of DACA recipients in sharp contrast to the American tradition of unconditional white amnesty. In short, the history of amnesty in the United States is necessarily a history of race itself.
Unconditional white amnesty, as I argued in Black Perspectives, can most clearly be seen in the aftermath of the Civil War. In 1868 President Andrew Johnson — a politician with whom Donald Trump is often compared — enacted the most ubiquitous amnesty policy in American history as a way of “re-assimilating treasonous white confederates who had taken up arms against the United States during the Civil War.”
That blanket amnesty built on smaller piecemeal pardons issued in preceding years. From December 1863 to July 1868, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Johnson issued five proclamations “offering amnesty and pardon to persons who had been or were concerned in the late rebellion against the lawful authority of the Government of the United States.” Though the first five presidential pardons excluded amnesty for a number of high-ranking Confederate officers, Johnson’s Proclamation 179 on Christmas Day of 1868 granted “general amnesty” and unambiguous pardons to everyone who had fought for the Confederacy. By early 1869, over one million white Confederate soldiers were granted full amnesty, a figure that represents nearly 20 percent of the Confederacy’s nonenslaved population.
Race determined civic identity after the Civil War, with whiteness trumping loyalty to country. Johnson’s desire to assimilate people into society did not extend to black Americans. In fact, he labored to exclude them from postwar restitution and civic participation. Just three years prior to Proclamation 179, Johnson overturned Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 — an idea conceived by formerly enslaved black ministers in Georgia — to offer 40 acres of land to recently emancipated black persons.
In 1872, Congress passed the Amnesty Act, which extended Johnson’s pardon and returned the right to hold public office to most secessionists who had committed treason during the war. With the exception of leaders like Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Amnesty Act of 1872 pardoned nearly everyone who supported the Confederacy. Importantly, the act also returned to Confederate supporters their property and homes, some of which had been seized through the Confiscation Act of 1861, which authorized Union appropriation of Confederate property.
The legacy of Confederate pardons is still with us today. Just 40 years ago U.S. lawmakers penned resolutions to restore full citizenship rights to Lee and Davis. In early 1975, Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. of Virginia — a vociferous advocate of segregation — introduced Senate Joint Resolution 23, a bill to restore Lee’s citizenship. The resolution easily passed Congress and was signed by President Gerald Ford. At Lee’s citizenship ceremony Ford commented that Lee “stood as the symbol of valor and of duty” and “appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and to build a stronger nation.”
Three years later, in 1978, Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon introduced Senate Joint Resolution 16, posthumously restoring citizenship to Davis. President Jimmy Carter unhesitatingly signed the resolution into law a few months later. Carter opined that the restoration of Davis’s citizenship “completes the long process of reconciliation that has reunited our people following the tragic conflict between the States” and requires the nation “to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past.”
Trump may not know this history, but he understands the racial politics of amnesty well. For years, Trump has expressed his intention to curb migration for both documented and undocumented individuals by “restor[ing] law and order” to the United States, promising “no amnesty” in a country that has, in fact, long granted amnesty to white people.
Though the Trump administration has argued that DACA’s elimination reflects fidelity to “preserving and strengthening the impartial rule of law,” such a decision actually appears to be based on the assumption that undocumented migrants of color do not have legitimate claims to U.S. national belonging, despite the fact that qualifying thresholds for the program are high and decidedly conditional. The administration’s announcement, therefore, puts whiteness back at the center of U.S. citizenship and claims to authentic national belonging.
Trump’s resistance to DACA is not simply predicated on an ahistorical defense of “law and order.” Though Trump casts DACA as incompatible with “being a country of rules,” his recent decision to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio proves otherwise. Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court after refusing to obey an order to stop practices that the court deemed acts of racial profiling. The combination of the pardoning of someone of Arpaio’s ilk — recall that Arpaio has looked favorably upon support from the Ku Klux Klan — and the promise to end DACA, Trump joins a list of U.S. presidents who have strategically used amnesty to consolidate and legitimize the boundaries of white civic belonging.
Current debates over the future of DACA, placed in this historical context, should compel us to take seriously the ways in which the amnesty policies have been used to consolidate the notion of white national belonging through inclusion and exclusion. Amnesty is not — nor has it ever been — a colorblind social policy. Its very legitimacy is squarely premised on the race of its beneficiaries. Putting race at the center of any analysis of DACA will force us confront the race-based nature of amnesty in this country and to challenge alternative explanations that reflexively explain Trump’s decision as a colorblind function of “law and order.”