Too ‘wretched’ for a visa?: a brief history of immigration policy in the US

In 1883, Emma Lazarus published a sonnet called The New Colossus. Influenced by a renewed interest in her own Jewish ancestry, and spurred on by the influx of thousands of Jews fleeing Russia after the anti-semitic crackdowns of 1881, Lazarus articulated a vision of an America that was a safe haven, a place of welcome where those who had been oppressed could find freedom. Twenty years later, the words of Lazarus’ poem were affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty, a statue that became the symbol of immigration, the welcoming symbol for immigrants on ships heading to the Ellis Island processing centre that opened in 1892.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In 2010 President Barack Obama quoted Lazarus’ sonnet at the end of a key speech on immigration reform, but leaving out the line about the ‘wretched refuse’. Commentators at the time wondered whether this was a deliberate omission, or simply a blunder in recitation. Either way, it should make us think about the ways in which US immigration policy struggles to square the mythology of ‘give me your huddled masses’ with the reality that many of those seeking entry are perceived by the political class, and by the wider population, to be ‘wretched refuse.’ That mythology exploded this week when President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning entry to the US by nationals (including dual nationals not holding a US passport) from a list of ‘wretched’ countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia.

Signed on Holocaust memorial day, Trump’s executive order seems to fly in the face of what America means for those who seek refuge from persecution in their own countries, as well as for those who see the US as a place to create new economic futures for themselves and their families. But none of this is new. In fact, this is just the latest effort by a US administration to decide who is ‘deserving’, and who is ‘wretched refuse’. Just over fifty years after Lazarus penned her poem, the US turned away thousands of Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis. In 1882, the year before the poem was published, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, putting a 10-year moratorium on immigration of Chinese labourers. This was a racist measure justified by a perceived economic imperative. For Chinese people already living in the US, travelling outside the country was fraught with uncertainty, in case they would not be able to re-enter. Sound familiar?

In truth, while Americans tell themselves that the nation was built by hardworking immigrants who brought prosperity and modernity, the reality of immigration law is quite different. Since the inception of the state, governments have tried to figure out who is ‘deserving’ and who is too ‘wretched’ to be a desirable immigrant. In defining nationhood, and belonging, American administrations targeted what Stanley Cohen called ‘folk devils’ by fashioning moral panics around the perceived threat of immigration. The folk devils these days are Muslims, or as the Trump administration says, people from specific Muslim-majority countries which are deemed suspect (notably not Turkey, or Saudi Arabia though). Certain kinds of Muslims are just too ‘wretched.’

But however the US wishes to cast itself as a haven for the poor and tired masses, its history is as much one of exclusion as inclusion. In the early republic, moral panics were initially visible through the rules negotiated around naturalization. Before 1790, a mere two years of residency were required for naturalization. By 1795, after the peace had been concluded with Britain, this increased to five years. In 1797, politicians seeking to ensure that only the wealthy could be naturalized proposed a $20 tax on naturalization certificates. This proposal failed, but in the following year Congress passed the Naturalization Act and the Alien and Sedition Act, which established a 14-year residency requirement for naturalization, and made it easier to criminalize and deport any immigrants who criticized the government. Alexander Hamilton, himself an immigrant, declared in support of the Acts that

“…[F]oreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners… The influx of foreigners [will serve to]…change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities.”

Forty years later, during the administration of Andrew Jackson, a prominent anti-slavery advocate warned against the dangers of Catholic immigration. Writing about the promise of Westward Expansion, Lyman Beecher (father of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe) appealed to his fellow Americans not to allow the republican spirit of the West to be tainted by the corruption of Catholic immigrants. As Irish and Italian immigrants sought entry for economic opportunity, Beecher deemed them too ‘wretched’ to be part of the American nation. Incidentally, it is interesting that President Trump has chosen a portrait of Andrew Jackson to hang above his desk in the Oval Office: Jackson was a populist who pursued a sustained policy of Indian removal, helping to ensure that America defined itself primarily as a whiteman’s nation.

Thomas Nast’s anti-Irish cartoons captured this anti-CaNast.jpgtholic immigration sentiment, as it continued to rise mid-century. The National Party, or the Know Nothings, reflected this in the political arena. Their nativist policies would be at home on Breitbart; they were essentially the Tea Party of the 1840s. Their America was a Protestant one. In the words of their leader Thomas Whitney:

“Religion, patriotism, and morality have been the foundation stones of our success as a nation, and our happiness and prosperity as a people. These foundation stones were laid upon the rock of a stern Protestant faith, and their fruits have been all that our institutions promised: civil and religious liberty… But the foundation is being removed, and the rock upon which it was laid is in danger of being undermined. Imported infidelity is supplanting the religion of our fathers.”

Replace ‘Muslim’ with Catholic in the spirit of the Know-Nothings, and you have the key to today’s moral panic and folk devils. Things escalated during the Mexican war, with prominent opponents of the war framing their opposition in racist terms. America should not seek to annex parts of Mexico, they said, because (in the words of Rev. Theodore Parker), Mexicans were “a wretched people; wretched in their origin, history, and character.” President Trump may have stolen his election slogan from Ronald Reagan, but he stole his position on Mexico from Theodore Parker.

The aftermath of the Civil War opened up more questions about who constituted the citizenry of the nation; eventually the 14th amendment recognized that all people (including former slaves) born on US soil are citizens. But simultaneously, new colour lines were drawn. Even Frederick Douglass, prominent abolitionist, saw immigrants as the enemy of free Blacks who were vulnerable to being enslaved. Writing in 1855, he complained that

“Every hour sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room perhaps for some newly arrived immigrants, whose hunger and color are thought to give them a title to special favor.”

At any rate, only immigrants deemed to be ‘white’ were allowed to become naturalized citizens. Propaganda about the “Yellow Peril” targeted Chinese immigrants who had mostly settled on the west coast, and the Exclusion Act of 1882 and the so-called Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 clearly indicated that Asiatic people were not part of the American ‘nation.’ State and territorial legislation restricted Chinese and Japanese rights to own property, and a landmark Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) reaffirmed that people from India were not eligible to become naturalized citizens (even though, ironically, the court acknowledged that they were ‘Caucasian’). this decision would hold until 1946.

The assassination of President McKinley provided an excuse for emergency crackdown on suspected anarchists. The passage of new legislation through Congress was facilitated by the rise of eugenics. In 1911, prominent biologist, statistician and eugenicist Charles Davenport bemoaned the impact of immigration from south and eastern Europe:

“The population of the United States will… rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape and sex immorality. And the ratio of insanity in the population will rapidly increase.”

Sound familiar?

Laws in 1901 were followed up in 1917 with the Immigration Act of 1917, which was a resoundingly nativist piece of legislation. In particular, it targeted Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe who were tarred with the label of communism. A waiver to the law exempted Mexicans, perhaps ironically given today’s political climate; businesses in the Southwestern states relied heavily on immigrant labour, especially in a war economy.

After the war, immigration quotas were introduced, which disproportionately favoured western European applicants and disadvantaged people from Asia and Latin America. Much has been written about the isolationism of the ‘America First‘ movement, spearheaded by noted anti-semites like Charles Lindburgh. We know a lot about Japanese internment during World War II, after generations of silence. japanese internment.jpgMarking Holocaust memorial day, somebody has been tweeting the names of Jewish refugees who were turned away from the border in 1939, and died in work and death camps. They were too ‘wretched’ to be accommodated in a US which would only two years later organize its war effort around Roosevelt’s ideas of Four Freedoms.

The next major developments in immigration policy came in 1952, when the Immigration and Nationality Act abolished racially-based restrictions, although it kept quotas based on national origins which, it was hoped, would control the immigration of ‘undesirables’ who would taint American democracy. Critics of the bill claimed (rightly) that it would give prefernce to immigrants from northern and western Europe. The co-sponsor of the bill, Senator Pat McCarran (D-NV) was eager to maintain the national origins controls, arguing that

“..this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.”

Although the 1952 Act opened the door to increased Asian immigration, the numbers remained low. Seeking to veto the bill, President Harry S. Truman said

“We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries–on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again.”

The key piece of legislation that people are talking about in the context of current developments is the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. This was a major departure from previous policy, and radically overhauled the ways that immigration quotas were decided. For the first time, national origin and race were eliminated from immigration decisions; labour became the defining issue. In fact, the 1965 Act specifically made it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of race, echoing the terms of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Fifty years after the 1965 Act, it is clear that the legislation did not have the consequences that were intended. But this piece of legislation established a principle of non-discrimination in the issuance of immigrant visas, and it is likely that Trump’s Executive Order is in contravention of this law.

The reality is that the US has a troubled history with squaring up the mythology of itself as an immigrant nation, a beacon upon a hill, a refuge for the tired, poor and huddled masses, yearning for freedom, and the reality of a white, protectionist, political system that has used immigration as a wedge issues since the establishment of the early Republic. Donald Trump’s actions must be seen in historical context, in an arc of history that has rarely bent towards justice. This does not mean it shouldn’t, and can’t, be resisted. It will be interesting to see which way the courts go. The US should protect itself from illegal immigration and terror, but this kneejerk, arbitrary and misguided reaction only reminds us of the the mid 19th century, and the Know-Nothings. It’s certainly not by accident that Trump has chosen Jackson as his office-mate.



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