Immigration enforcement has become a top priority in the Trump administration since the president’s rather apocalyptic inauguration speech 18 months ago in framing the issue around the “American carnage” scenario of endemic urban violence and unsecured borders.
Within two weeks after taking the oath of office, President Donald Trump had signed an executive order sharply curtailing immigration from some Muslim-majority nations (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) and virtually halting illegal crossings at the southern border. To date, there have been extensive moves by the Trump Administration to eradicate constitutional protections, promote police powers in the face of abuses and, as an unforeseen byproduct, the encouragement of violence against minorities.
No Irish, Germans or Catholics
When non-citizens, including legal and undocumented (adults, families and children) are picked up, they are placed in confinement until the government can determine what to do with them whether that be a jail sentence, deportation or, in rare occasions, asylum. While these actions may be the first such directives in recent years, they are hardly new to American immigration policy.
The U.S. Constitution provides Congress with broad powers over immigration. For about the first 100 years of American history, Congress did not place any federal limits on immigration. During those years, Irish and German immigrants arrived in the United States in large numbers as did Chinese immigrants who, by the 1860s, had come to work as laborers on the continental railroad and stayed to rear generations of families.
Many Americans disapproved of the aforementioned groups. They rejected the Catholic religion practiced by the Germans and Irish, and had an unfavorable opinion of the Chinese who were often viewed as convicts, prostitutes and competition for American jobs.
Europe was in turmoil in the mid 19th Century. Democratic and nationalist uprisings swept through nations like France, Germany and Italy resulting in more than 3 million people immigrating to America. It was the largest increase in immigration in the nation’s history. Cities in the Northeast reacted with aggressive nativism that would encourage widespread anti-immigrant sentiment.
Chinese Exclusion Act
In 1882, Congress moved for the first time to limit the number of immigrants by enacting the Chinese Exclusion Act that effectively banned the majority of Chinese women and workers. President Chester A. Arthur signed the act into law which focused primarily on the West Coast entry points of San Francisco and Seattle to pacify native-born Americans who attributed rising unemployment and declining wages to Chinese workers whom they viewed as racially inferior. Later, through the Geary Act of 1892, the law was extended for another 10 years to prohibit Chinese persons from becoming citizens.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was eventually repealed by the Magnuson Act of 1943 during World War II, when China became an ally against Imperial Japan. Still, the repeal allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants per year and that did not change until the Immigration Act of 1965 which eliminated the previous national-origins policy. Large-scale Chinese immigration to America was allowed to continue after a hiatus of more than 80 years.
In the 1890s, African Americans found themselves facing increased government discrimination with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson which gave rise to the Jim Crow laws designed to further eradicate constitutional protections. These constitutional guarantees of the 14th Amendment were systematically flouted—particularly in the South—once federal troops left the region after Reconstruction.
African Americans during the Great Migration from the South to cities and towns across the nation were, essentially, “internal refugees” fleeing lawlessness and racist terrorism. When they reached their destinations in the North, Midwest and, after World War II, to the West Coast they faced deep hostility from existing residents who blamed them for an increase in crime and economic disadvantage.
Blacks as ‘internal refugees’
The Jim Crow policies were an amalgamation of official law and informal social behaviors meant to reinforce unequal race relations. Extreme examples of these policies were strict restrictions of where Black people could walk in cities, and regulations enacted to require deference to Whites at risk of being beaten, arrested or murdered. Historians of this period attest that these conventions included a racial etiquette that normalized racial deference rituals as White Americans wielded a spectrum of punishments ranging from beatings, pogroms, race riots and lynchings against Blacks who resisted either segregation de jure or segregation de facto, the latter being accepted routinely as national practice.
African Americans, as United States citizens, looked in dismay in the 1990s as thousands of Hatian refugees and other persons of color from the Caribbean were routinely redirected back to their island homes. African Americans complained loudly that White immigrants from Cuba were often allowed a pathway for citizenship with little objection from the federal government.
Less than a decade after Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States federal government had significantly increased its role in immigration by establishing Ellis Island in New York as the entry point for immigrants. The government oversaw a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants, especially from Italy and Jewish persons from Eastern Europe. Much like the support of the Chinese Exclusion Act, millions of Americans opposed the number and kind of immigrants entering the country. One passionate group, the Immigration Restriction League, petitioned Congress to require immigrants to prove they could read and write in English or else be denied entry.
National Origins Act
Over the objection of President Woodrow Wilson, Congress approved this requirement that all persons wishing to immigrate to the United States had to pass a literacy test.
Anti-immigrant fervor swept the United States in the 1920s, culminating in the National Origins Act of 1924. The measure sharply reduced immigration to America and especially targeted Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe. Between June 1920 and June 1921, southern and eastern Europeans comprised up to 65 percent of the more than 800,000 immigrants that entered the country.
These families from places like Italy, Hungary and Poland spoke foreign languages and brought with them customs that appeared strange to some Americans. Some Americans believed these persons would abandon their customs and native languages and rapidly assimilate into American culture. Many other Americans, however, believed that the Anglo-Saxon heritage of the United States was becoming diluted by the mass of European immigrants who left their homelands after the horror of World War I. As well, some Americans equated the new immigrants with radical political views such as anarchism and socialism.
The Immigration Act of 1921 had stipulated a minimum yearly immigration at 357,000, but the new policy from 1924 going forward reduced that number to 164,000 immigrants per year. The 1921 law set specific quotas for annual immigration from each European country (e.g. annual immigration from European nations limited to 3 percent of the number of American citizens). Kentucky representative John Robsion rhetorically asked from the House floor: “How long shall America continue to be the garbage can and the dumping ground of the world?” in a near century-old forerunner to President Trump’s January remark about allowing immigrants from ‘shithole” countries to enter the United States.
The National Origins Act would later include Japan and other Asian territories to a list completely banning immigration, as well as renewing the ban on Chinese immigration.
Who will take the Jews?
In the 1930s, Americans had to face a daunting immigration challenge when faced with Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. The question of whether to accept victims of Hitler’s anti-Semitism or reject them found a sizable 67 percent of Americans opposed to taking in 10,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany, according to the results of a 1939 Gallop poll.
America’s attitude toward immigration took a dramatic shift in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act which eliminated the quota system based on nationality and began to prioritize immigrants who already had family members in the United States. It also sought to offer protections to refugees from areas with violence and conflict—an argument made by today’s embattled immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
While the 1965 act kept some immigration limits in place, the origins of immigrants had changed dramatically. Instead of hailing from Europe, most immigrants were arriving from Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, the Caribbean, India and, after 1975, refugees fleeing war-torn Vietnam and Cambodia. In 1975, a Gallop Poll found that 62 percent of Americans said they feared Vietnamese refugees would take their jobs, and by 1979 a roughly equal amount of persons did not want to admit Vietnamese “boat people” who fled the country’s repressive communist regime.
‘Don’t slam the door’
During a November 2015 visit to Turkey to attend the G20 summit, former President Barack Obama pressed for compassion for the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing their embattled homeland. He told the press that the world should “remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves” and that “slamming the door in their faces” would be a betrayal of American values.
“Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both,” Obama said.
In response, presidential candidate Donald Trump offered remarks that were in stark contrast to predecessor: “Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our country. Who knows who they are? Some could be ISIS. Is our president insane?”
Those words resonated with the future presidents electoral base. A Pew Research poll heading into the 2016 presidential election found 52 percent of Americans believing that Syrian refugees—along with those from Mexico, Central America, Africa and the Caribbean—would make the nation much less safe and economically viable.